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Why You Should Stop Using Fabric Softeners

EU Ecolabelled, green washing powders, liquid detergents, dishwashing detergents and even toilet cleaners are available on the market. However, you won’t find a single ecolabelled fabric softener in the stores. We’ll tell you why. The fabric softener, contrary to its name, does not always soften garments, but it does contain a number of – potentially carcinogenic, allergen – substances that are dangerous to health and the environment. Why, how is it harmful, why should you NOT use it?

Can a fabric softener be eco-friendly?

Within each product category, the European Union regulates the conditions under which each product may be entitled to use the EU Ecolabel. Fabric softeners had not been regulated for a long time, so in 2015 the European Commission’s research center, the Joint Research Centre (JRC) proposed that fabric softeners should be awarded the EU Ecolabel – provided they meet the relevant requirements.

However, two European NGOs, the European Consumers’ Organization (BEUC) and the European Environment Bureau (EEB) expressed concerns about the draft and rejected the plan of ecolabelling fabric softeners. Environmental and consumer organizations say fabric softeners should not be ecolabelled because

  1. they do not have cleaning properties, they do not improve the washing process.
  2. Fabric softeners have a significant environmental impact, an unacceptably high critical dilution volume (EQS / CDV), which means that they are toxic to aquatic organisms and difficult to biodegrade.
  3. In addition to the negative environmental impact, consumers are exposed to fragrances that remain in textiles and can cause allergies when getting in contact with the skin.

As the Ecolabel is a label for environmental sustainability, allowing fabric softeners to receive the EU Ecolabel would run counter to the general philosophy of the EU Ecolabel and undermine the credibility of the certification. The above resolution was adopted in 2015 and, since its arguments have not been refuted since,

to date, this product group is not allowed to apply for the EU Ecolabel and there are no plans to revise this regulation.


Why do we have fabric softeners? What do we use them for?

Although fabric softeners are very popular, there are slight differences only in the environmental and health effects, as the composition of most products is very similar.

Contrary to popular belief, the materials of the fabric softeners do not play a role in removing the detergent residue from clothes. They do not have such a function. But they do form a coating on the textile fibers, which makes the material feel softer, prevents the electrostatic charging of synthetic garments, can help ironing and even speeds up the drying of the garment. One or the other of these effects could be useful, but not necessarily relevant to everyone.

However, the use of fabric softeners can have unpleasant and even harmful side effects, whether related to our health, the environment or the use of clothing.


  1. Cationic surfactants

The main ingredients of fabric softeners are found on the packaging as cationic surfactants. These chemical compounds are called quaternary ammonium, abbreviated as quaternary compounds. Typically, a mixture of these is used in fabric softeners, such as diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride (DEEDMAC, Cas No .: 67846-68-8), TEAQ (triethanolamine ester quat), HEQ (Hamburg ester quat, CAS No: 220609-41-6). These quasi-compounds bind to the textile fibers and ensure their softness. As they are poorly soluble in water, for better solubility, additional excipients (quaternary ammonium and amine derivatives) are required for their use in fabric softeners.

Why are they problematic?

  1. It has been proved that they may contribute to the development of asthma,
  2. and they may damage the reproductive system.
  3. These compounds have a waxy effect, helping to remove water from the fabric during drying, but the waxy coating can interfere with moisture-wicking and absorption properties. Our skin constantly releases sweat, and normally the sweat evaporates from the skin. If you cover the fabric in a waxy coating it’ll block the ability to move moisture – this is unfavorable for the skin flora and the cooling of our body. Non-ventilated clothing items or parts of items can turn to be smelly and can lead to the development of fungal skin diseases.
  4. The coating also builds up over time, making it harder for water and detergent to permeate the fabric, so odours and stains are more difficult to get out and become sealed in. It will be more difficult to remove the smell with the next wash.
  5. Towels washed with fabric softener absorb less water droplets.
  6. Quaternary compounds are harmful to aquatic organisms and are slowly degraded when released into the environment.
  7. Quat compounds can also impair the usability of special fabrics. Do not use fabric softener when washing waterproof clothing, such as Gore-Tex, as this will impair water resistance, as the manufacturers themselves warn customers.
  8. Fabric softeners form a more flammable coating on the garment, which is removed later when washed without fabric softeners, but in the meantime makes the materials more flammable .
  9. Fragrances

Another function of fabric softeners is perfuming. For most people, some scents are related to cleanliness, so it is no coincidence that manufacturers and traders also focus on the scent of fabric softeners in advertising. Many use fabric softeners precisely because of fragrances.

Why are they problematic?

Fragrances in fabric softeners pose an unnecessary risk to your body. By adverse effects we mean a feeling of discomfort but serious problems too. 

  1. As already mentioned, the active ingredients of fabric softeners differ little, but there are bigger differences in the field of fragrances: manufacturers use hundreds of untested compounds that are unknown to consumers.
  2. These may include hormonal substances (phthalates, artificial fragrances).
  3. In an American study, an average of 18 to 20 different fragrances were identified in each product, including a potential human carcinogen, acetaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane; metilmethyl ethyl ketone and chloromethane, which may be associated with developmental disorders, and the allergen linalool.
  4. The artificially produced fragrance, galaxolide, is bioaccumulative, that is, it accumulates in the body.
  5. Globally, fragrances are included in the top five allergens. Respiratory problems and asthmatic effects are the major health problems, but scented products can also cause headaches.
  6. In sensitive people, clothing treated with a fabric softener can cause allergies.
  7. In addition, it is not a solution for those concerned not to use such a product. According to an American survey

nearly half of asthmatics have a problem with clothes coming back from the laundry and dry cleaning, or having a person who uses scented products too close to them.

  1. Preservatives, colorants

In addition to the substances mentioned above, the product contains preservatives, colorants and other excipients that pose a risk to health and the environment. Just like in other household chemicals, in fabric softeners too, benzisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone, are most commonly used as preservatives.

Why are they problematic?

  1. Benzisothiazolinone can cause skin irritation and contact dermatitis, plus it has a negative effect on the immune system.
  2. Methylisothiazolinone was widely used in the cosmetics industry in creams and lotions. Due to its serious allergenic effect, it has been banned since 2017 in products that remain on the body, ie in creams and lotions. Studies carried out in the same year showed that methylisothiazolinone-induced contact allergy had been widespread in the European population as a whole.

Knowing the composition of the fabric softeners, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends customers to avoid using these detergents.

Plastic pollution

Just like almost every other product, consumers purchase fabric softeners together with the packaging. Empty plastic bottles load our environment as plastic waste must be disposed of. Unfortunately, a significant portion of plastic waste still ends up in an incinerator or landfill, or in the worst case, in the environment.

So if I do the laundry, do I need a fabric softener?

The widespread use of fabric softeners is an example of effective marketing. A significant proportion of people see the use of fabric softeners as an integral part of washing and would feel it is inappropriate to skip it. In a consumerist society where the consumption of individuals plays an important role in the esteem of individuals, it is a matter of prestige for customers to use the “proper” fabric softener. It is likely that in a few decades, the consumerist society itself, more precisely its environmental effects, will be our concerns, rather than the flower scent of our fluffy clothing.


Green&Safe LIFE-styles project is supported by the LIFE programme of the European Union and co-financed by the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture. Project number: ENV GIE HU000622

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