Monday, March 25, 2013

Dangers lurking in your fabric softeners...and other fragrance-filled items?

Ain't nobody got time for that!

Sometimes, when we hear "this {everyday, common, household} item is toxic," we roll our eyes and think, "yeah, yeah, so is everything else!" or we may rebuff and minimize or choose not to believe it.  A common reply is, "I've used this product my whole life, and I'm fine."  Maybe that is true, but I know of a real account, that took place to a friend of mine, who was not fine.  And it involved a common household item.  Please read on...

They're marketed to us everyday in ads, commercials, in store flyers.  Buy these fabric softeners so your clothes will be soft and smell fresh.  Of course we want soft, clean-smelling clothes. Who doesn't? It's one of the comforts of fresh laundry and smells can evoke memories, pleasant thoughts, and lift mood.  According to, "the olfactory bulb is part of the brain's limbic system, an area so closely associated with memory and feeling it's sometimes called the "emotional brain," [and] smell can call up memories and powerful responses almost instantaneously" (source).  That's why the scent of dryer sheets, or the smell of a laundry detergent our parents used growing up can remind us of pleasant childhood memories.  

But what lies behind those fragrances is not always so pleasant.

My friend, "E.," who has a young daughter in elementary school, became a little alarmed when she noticed signs of early puberty and development in her 8 year old.  She noticed she was already showing signs of developing breasts and was experiencing some vaginal discharge.  This was not normal for her family history to begin puberty so early, nor had it begun happening yet to her other daughter, who was only a year older.  My friend was asked by her sister, "What are you using in your laundry?  You need to look at your fabric softener."  Initially, the idea seemed so unusual to her. "No, no, it could not be my laundry!" 
But, mortified by what she was noticing in her daughter, she continued to look into what was causing this sudden development.  
Someone else told her it might be the fragrances in her detergent and fabric softener, and she still was unmoved to believe it.
It took a third person mentioning it, and a visit with a chiropractor who does muscle-testing, to confirm what her friends knew was probably true.  It was indeed the fragrance in her fabric softener leading to the signs of early development in her young daughter.
[As a sidenote:  already ate a clean diet of grass-fed, hormone-free meats and dairy products, so she knew the source was not from additional hormones or antibiotics in her meat and dairy products.]

Relieved, shocked, and disgusted, she began on a mission to let everyone know to avoid these.  As soon as she took out the fabric softener, over the course of 4 weeks, her daughter's signs of puberty began to dissipate. Now she is looking to remove all signs of fake fragrance from her home.

Why fabric softeners contain a nasty ingredient and you don't know about it
As I googled "fabric softeners" and let my browser auto-populate for me, the first suggestion was "fabric softeners toxic."  I found that fabric softeners contain many toxic ingredients which can enter the body through our skin or through inhalation (source).  
One of the ingredients is phthlates, which are "used in scented products to help the scent last longer, phthlates have been linked to breast cancer and reproductive system problems" (source), emphasis mine.

There are at least 9 more toxic ingredients in fabric softeners, according to

  • Alpha Terpineol: can cause central nervous damage and respiratory problems
  • Camphor: causes central nervous disorders, is easily absorbed through skin
  • Chloroform: a carcinogenic neurotoxin preferred by Ted Bundy
  • Benzyl Acetate: linked to pancreatic cancer
  • Benyl Alcohol: respiratory tract irritant
  • Ethanol: on the EPA’s “hazardous waste” list, can cause central nervous system disorders
  • Ethyl Acetate: a narcotic on the EPA’s “hazardous waste” list
  • Limonene: a known carcinogen that irritates eyes and skin
  • Linalool: causes central nervous system disorders and depresses heart activity (source) says instead of using a chemical-based toxic fabric softener, "buy a $5 set of dryer balls, switch to a soy-based softener, or add a quarter-cup of baking soda or vinegar to your wash cycle."

There are alternatives to fabric softeners are simple, but did you know that these "phthlates" lurk in other items we may use in our homes?  It's used in "perfume, hair spray, deodorant, almost anything fragranced (from shampoo to air fresheners to laundry detergent), nail polish, insect repellent, carpeting, vinyl flooring, the coating on wires and cables, shower curtains, raincoats, plastic toys," just to name a few (source).

Seems I'm not the only one concerned.  In January 2013, Maia James, blogger at, wrote about phtalates on  She wrote:  

"Phthalates are thought to mimic and displace hormones and interrupt their production. This can have a range of unpleasant effects.
Some examples:
• In 2009, a small Taiwanese study on humans showed that phthalates passed from mother to fetus through the placenta affect female babies, sometimes resulting in abnormal sexual development.
• Boys who are exposed to higher levels of certain types of phthalates in the womb may show less masculine behavior (measured by playing with trucks and play fighting) than boys who are exposed to lower levels.
• Pregnant women exposed to phthalates in the workplace were found to be two to three times more likely to deliver boys with the reproductive birth defect known as hypospadias.
• A 2009 study determined that phthalate exposure correlated with premature breast development in young Taiwanese girls.
• A 2007 study found that higher levels of phthalates detected in the urine of adult males was associatedwith increased waist circumference and insulin resistance" (source, emphasis mine).
James shared ways to avoid phthalates and shared since they're not likely to be labeled on products as such, but rather under the names "fragrances" or "parfum."  Avoid these like the plague and look for items that say "scented with essential oils" or "phthalate-free" or "no synthetic fragrances."  
I know those glade plug-ins and febreze air fresheners are ever so popular and it is lovely to walk into a home that smells good, but James cracks down on the synthetic air fresheners and offers some synthetic-free alternatives at  Check it out.  
For now, I'm going to be using baking soda & vinegar in cleaning, maybe testing out some essential oils, or letting some mulling spices (cinmamon, anyone?) simmer on the stove if I want my house to smell nice.  

This is Megan with your neighborly public service announcement.  ;)

What would you do? Have you ever known anyone to have such side effects from fragrances?  What are your plans to eliminate?


Dena said...

I had some irritation years ago and it took me a while to figure out what was causing it. After I eliminated the fabric softner - irritation gone!

Have you found anything on candles? Same story? I hope not; I love candles.

Jenny said...

Great post...I'll be sharing. I used to wonder why I would get headaches after visiting malls, and finally nailed down chemical fragrances as a culprit. They're everywhere! As for candles (such as the ever-popular YC brand I used to love), they have similar issues with their chemical perfumes. Granted, we're not rubbing them onto our skin, but we're still breathing the fragrances. In addition, I've discovered most candles have a paraffin base which we breathe into our lungs as the candle is burning. I saw effects of this firsthand when my son began coughing at a friend's house as he stood next to a burning candle. From what I've learned, the safest candle is made of beeswax. They are more expensive, but beautiful, and the smell of natural beeswax is very nice to me. I'm certainly not an authority, but this info makes sense to me and I'd rather err on the side of caution.