Can Using Fabric Softener Hurt Your Washing Machine?

We asked the pros about the impact of using fabric softener on your washing machine.

There’s nothing quite like climbing into bed and wrapping yourself in extra soft sheets. This satisfying experience is why many people are loyal to using fabric softener, which is key to achieving said soft and fluffy results in your laundry. However, others are hesitant to try it because they’ve heard it’s bad for your washing machine. But is it actually? Here’s what the experts have to say.

  • Dr. Pete He is a co-founder and chief scientist at Dirty Labs, as well as a chemist who’s worked with home products for two decades.
  • Brian Jones is currently the vice president of marketing at ASKO Americas and has 30 years of experience working in home appliances.
Washer with clothes and water in it with blue photo treatment

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How Fabric Softeners Work

While every brand has a unique formulation, most fabric softeners essentially work the same way.

“Typical laundry fabric softeners contain fatty matter or cellulose that serve as lubricants to make fabrics feel soft and smooth,” says Dr. Pete He of Dirty Labs.

Here’s the problem: The ingredients in fabric softener may not be completely soluble in water.

“If too much fabric softener is used, or overdosed, some of the ingredients in fabric softeners may precipitate and leave a layer of residue in the drum and/or drainage tube after the rinse cycle,” Dr. He says.

So while occasionally adding fabric softener to a load of laundry shouldn’t cause an issue, if you use it regularly or use too much of it, the excess can accumulate and cause the drain to clog, Dr. He says.

“The washing machine may get clogged by softener residues, especially if one has been overdosing the softener repetitively over an extended period of usage,” he says.

If this is a major concern, it’s best to be selective about when you use fabric softener. For example, feel free to add some to a load of sheets every few cycles, but avoid using it when it's unnecessary, such as with a small load of activewear running on the delicate cycle. 

No matter when you use fabric softener, it’s crucial to read the directions on the bottle and measure the liquid carefully. If your washing machine has a fabric softener compartment, be sure not to exceed the limit outlined on the compartment.

The Consequences of Using Too Much Fabric Softener

While fabric softener build-up can cause problems with your washing machine, it can also potentially cause or exacerbate some sanitary conditions, according to Brian Jones of ASKO Americas.

“Where some may run into trouble with their washing machines is when they use too much fabric softener, which can cause buildup in your machine and result in mold,” he says.

Mold exposure can be very dangerous, especially for children or people with allergies or asthma. The other problem is that washing your laundry in a moldy machine means your laundry isn’t really getting clean. 

Do you suspect there may be mold in your washing machine? If you have a front loader, check the rubber ring and its underside. This component is particularly susceptible to buildup and mold. If you have a top loader, consider calling a repairperson.

It’s also a smart idea not to use anything in your washing machine that can cause buildup in the first place. Jones suggests using a detergent made free from colorants, parabens, and animal-derived ingredients, such as ASKO’s Liquid Fabric Care

Keep in mind, too, that using fabric softener isn’t the only way to make your laundry feel soft and fluffy. Dryer sheets and dryer balls can have a similar effect without the hassle or worry. 

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  1. "Basic facts about mold and dampness." U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

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