The promises of the dryer sheet are modest but appealing: They are supposed to reduce static and soften fabrics and also promise to give your clothes a nice fresh smell. The laundry-room staples are sold by companies with cute names like Bounce, Downy, and Snuggle.
However, some are sounding the alarm on dryer sheets. The Environmental Working Group published a piece in August that encouraged users to skip dryer sheets, noting “heat-activated dryer sheets can pack a powerful combination of chemicals that can harm your health, damage the environment and pollute the air, inside and outside your home.” An Apartment Therapy article from October 2022 discusses how a chemical commonly found in dryer sheets, quaternary ammonium compounds, “has been shown to cause or worsen asthma and irritate sensitive skin.” Other blogs and forums on CNET, PureLivingSpace.com and Draxe.com promote a similarly negative message.
While I have no plans to start using dryer sheets (for the completely innocuous reason that they’re just not part of my routine), for the sake of my dryer-sheet-pilled friends and colleagues, I wanted to understand the science behind why these seemingly innocuous household products could be dangerous. Or if that was even really the case!
One of the papers that keeps coming up in discussions of dryer sheets was published in the journal Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health in 2011. In the study, researchers found a laundry list — pun intended — of chemicals present in dryer vents after the use of products involved in the washing and drying process, including dryer sheets. They discovered 25 different volatile organic compounds, seven classified as hazardous air pollutants and two as carcinogenic HAPs (acetaldehyde and benzene). But the paper did not look at the actual impact on human health — and suggested future research to determine those outcomes.
The primary author of the paper — an environmental engineer specializing in consumer product emissions — is retired and no longer taking interviews. Luckily, Joseph Zagorski, a toxicologist for the Center of Research on Ingredient Safety at Michigan State University, was happy to break down the science for me. He’d even blogged about the question of dryer sheet safety himself.
Zagorski sees the rebellion over dryer sheets as a classic misunderstanding of hazard and risk. As he explained, literally everything you encounter has hazards associated with it. But as a common toxicology mantra goes, “The dose makes the poison.” Any chemical has the ability to be both safe and toxic in the right amounts.
“A lot of the time, the public focuses on what a hazard could be and loses sight that you might need to be exposed to obscene amounts of whatever chemical it is for that hazard to be actualized,” he told me. “Yes, there’s a hazard with these chemicals that they may not be good for lung health, but your exposure from the dryer vent is still so much lower compared to your normal exposure to the million other things we deal with and accept the risks every day.”
And while individuals exposed to ammonia compounds (which can be present in dryer sheets) do display higher instances of sensitivity reactions such as asthma or dermatitis (skin irritation), the literature seems to suggest it’s more of an occupational risk. That is, it’s more of a problem for people working with the compounds on a daily basis and with poor ventilation.
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“The last I checked, the majority of people don’t work in industries where they’re going to be chronically exposed to these compounds,” he said.
Another factor: For the 2011 paper, researchers were looking at the chemicals found in one particular spot. “They looked inside dryer vents, where obviously it’s going to be more concentrated because all the exhaust from the dryer comes out that one spot,” Zagorski explained. “That’s more exposure than a person would usually be exposed to.”
Also, dryer sheets and other laundry products are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, and neither has signalled that the chemicals involved aren’t safe.
But there’s a different problem with dryer sheets. A HuffPost article from February points out that dryer sheets might not actually be doing what you think they’re doing. Dryer sheets don’t magically make clothes inherently softer; they make them feel softer by coating them with a softening agent, like stearic acid. “It’s the equivalent of putting a thick layer of lotion on your hand,” Patric Richardson of the Laundry Evangelist told Kelsey Borresen at HuffPost. That softening agent can build up on fabrics, and even make towels less absorbent.
If you’re still concerned, there are alternatives. Wool dryer balls and homemade options can also help your clothes from getting staticky. But if you want to stick to your dryer sheets, you’re also probably fine. Just, as Zagorski put it, “Don’t go sticking your nose into a dryer vent and start huffing.”