Fabric softeners — liquid added to the final rinse in the washing machine or softening sheets that go with the clothes into the dryer — are designed to reduce the amount of static in synthetic fibers. Clothes and linens come out feeling soft and smelling great. So why would anyone opt to go through the time and trouble of making homemade softener when the commercial stuff works so well?
While I'm blessed to have a very healthy family, all of us are allergic to fabric softeners, which I've learned is very common. Commercial fabric softeners are composed of various chemicals, some of which can be major irritants to the skin.
If you or your kids develop a skin irritation such as a red rash, bumps, itching, pain, tenderness or a localized skin rash, prepare for the dermatologist's first question: Do you use fabric softener? The offending ingredients in fabric softeners may be imidazolidinyl urea and quaternium-15 (which is a common irritant, according to the Mayo Clinic). These are described as formaldehyde releasers. Both can cause skin irritation, a rash or hives (small swollen welts) to form on the skin.
The fragrance or fumes from fabric softeners can irritate some people, leading to tiredness, difficulty breathing, anxiety, dizziness, headaches, faintness and memory problems.
Commercial laundry softeners aren't cheap. Depending on the brand and your measuring methods, both liquid fabric softeners and dryer sheets can cost as much as 25 cents per dryer load. If you do as much laundry as I do, that adds up quickly.
But why pay for the stuff, if you have an option — three options, to be exact — to not spend your money that way? You can make your own fabric softeners for less than a penny a load and, as a bonus, know exactly what's in it.
These options are highly effective, cheap and easy to make.
The easiest homemade fabric softener is plain white vinegar. Add 1/2 to 1 cup (depending on load size) of white vinegar to the last rinse in the washer. Vinegar is cheap, nontoxic, effective and antimicrobial. It naturally softens because vinegar helps to remove every last bit of detergent from your clothes. Vinegar aids in static reduction during drying. If your washer has a liquid softener dispenser, you can fill it with white vinegar and you'll be good to go.
If a subtle, clean fragrance is what you want, this recipe is for you: Combine 6 parts water, 3 parts white vinegar and 2 parts hair conditioner in a container with a sealable lid. A cheap bottle of hair conditioner from the dollar store works great to soften and also fragrance your laundry. Use this in the final rinse or in the softener dispenser in your washer, as you would with any commercial liquid softener.
If you prefer dryer sheets, you can make those at home, too. Take an old T-shirt or cotton baby blanket and cut it into a few small squares. Place them in a sealable container such as a Mason jar or a plastic container with a tight-fitting lid. In a small bowl, mix 1/2 cup of white vinegar and 8 drops of your favorite essential oil, which can be purchased from your local health food or drug store or online. A bottle of oil may cost from $6 to $10, but it will last a long time. Pour enough of this liquid over the cloths in the container to saturate them. Close the container. To use, simply remove a sheet from the container, squeezing any excess liquid back into the jar, and toss into the dryer. When clothes are dry, simply place the sheet back in the jar for use later.
Mary Hunt is the founder of EverydayCheapskate.com and author of "Debt-Proof Living." Questions, comments and tips can be sent on her website.