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Chemicals Found in Fabric Softeners

Chemicals in fabric softeners
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Fabric softener is used in washing machines to soften fabric and avoid static cling. It covers the surface of cloth with lubricating chemicals that reduce wrinkles, increase stain resistance, soften fabrics to make the cloth feel softer and prevent the accumulation of static electricity. Fabric softeners are available in liquid form as well as in sheet form.


Alpha-terpineol (molecular formula C10H18O) is a colorless, combustible liquid with a gentle lilac scent, providing fragrance to fabric softeners. According to the Environmental Health Network, alpha-terpineol causes central nervous system disorders, hypothermia, headaches, depression, ataxia (or the loss of muscular coordination) and irritates the mucous membranes.

Benzyl Acetate

Benzyl acetate (molecular formula C9H10O2) is used as a fragrance agent in fabric softeners. It is a colorless liquid with a gentle flowery odor (similar to that of jasmine). Benzyl acetate is the primary ingredient in gardenia oil and jasmine-scented fabric softeners. According to a study conducted by the University of Berkeley, benzyl acetate has been linked to pancreatic cancer. Its vapors irritate the eyes and respiratory passages.

Benzyl Alcohol

Benzyl alcohol (molecular formula C6H5CH2OH) is a colorless liquid with a pleasant aroma. It is produced by plants and is found in various essential oils, such as ylang-ylang, hyacinth and jasmine. Benzyl alcohol causes central nervous system disorders, irritates the upper respiratory tract and may lead to death in severe cases. Other symptoms of benzyl alcohol poisoning include vomiting, nausea and headaches.


Chloroform (molecular formula CHCl3) is a dense, colorless and sweet smelling liquid. It is used as a solvent and aromatic agent in fabric softeners. The “11th Report on Carcinogens,” published by the U.S. National Toxicology Program, lists chloroform as a carcinogen (a cancer-causing substance). Overexposure to chloroform causes drowsiness, dizziness, vomiting, nausea, headaches, liver and kidney damage, heart disorders, skin disorders and respiratory tract infections.

Ethyl Acetate

Ethyl acetate (molecular formula CH3COOCH2CH3) is a sweet-smelling colorless liquid. It is used as a solvent and an aromatic agent. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists ethyl acetate as a hazardous waste. Health risks associated with ethyl acetate include kidney and liver damage, respiratory tract infections and anemia.


Limonene (molecular formula C10H16) is a colorless liquid with a strong citrus smell. It is used in fabric softeners, shaving creams, bar soaps, disinfectant sprays and colognes. Limonene causes irritation of the eyes, skin, throat and nose. Laboratory studies on rats concluded that this fragrance ingredient is a suspected carcinogen, giving rise to bladder and renal tumors. The results of this study are published in Volume 16 of “Mutagenesis.”

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