How Dryer Sheets Work (2022)

Have you ever thought you lost a sock in the dryer, only to discover it stubbornly clinging to the arm of your sweater? Or maybe you've picked up a freshly cleaned shirt, only to feel a stiff texture instead of the warm softness you expected? Just running a load of clothes through wash and dry cycles isn't always enough to make them pleasant to wear.

The reason these problems arise isn't necessarily because your clothing is cheap or because something is going wrong in the laundry. Instead, they're usually side effects of wet washing and the automated dry cycle. When clothes are tumbling together in the dryer, they can become stuck together through static electricity. But fabric softeners -- dryer sheets, in particular -- can help prevent this.

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Fabric softeners were invented in the mid-20th century to make clean clothes more pleasant to touch; and later, chemicals were added to help prevent static. But using softener wasn't convenient. They had to be added after the first wash cycle in an automatic washer, because softeners were cationic, with a positive electrical charge, and detergents were anionic, or negatively charged [source: Toedt et al]. Putting the two together caused them to counteract, reducing the effectiveness of both.

A scientist named Conrad J. Gaiser is believed to have come up with the second breakthrough in the 1960s, by figuring out how to treat small sheets of material with fabric softener. When the sheets were put in the dryer with laundry, the heat and moisture warmed up the softener and spread it across the clothing. Although washing machine manufacturers later added an automatic fabric softener dispenser, dryer sheets remain popular, and they're used not only for laundry, but for many off-label purposes such as cleaning and keeping insects and rodents away.

There are many brands of dryer sheets, but they all work to solve some of the same problems. In the next section, we explain what exactly happens inside the dryer to cause static cling.

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Contents

  1. Static and Fabric Softening
  2. What's In a Standard Dryer Sheet
  3. Natural Dryer Sheets and Other Alternatives
  4. Other Uses for Dryer Sheets

Static and Fabric Softening

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when they think of dryer sheets is static electricity. Dryer sheets are supposed to keep clothes from creating static electricity; if you don't use one, you might have to peel your clothes apart as if they were glued together. What's going on is similar to the shock you get after you shuffle your feet across a carpet on a dry winter day and then reach for a doorknob.

In both cases, a static charge has built up as the result of two very different materials rubbing against each other. The rubbing can knock loose electrons -- the outer, orbiting, negatively charged parts of an atom -- from some fabrics onto others. So your sweater, for example, might end up with too many electrons and a negative charge while your sock might have too few electrons a positive charge. Opposites attract in electricity, which is why the sock might seem to have suddenly attached itself to the sweater.

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Another problem is that once a material such as cotton or wool gets a static charge, it might take a while to wear off. So that shock you feel when your fingertip gets close to the doorknob comes from the very fast dispersal of the static charge your body has been holding onto. The doorknob is highly conductive, meaning it's able to move a lot of electrons very quickly. Your typical sweaters and socks aren't very conductive, so the static charges they pick up are slow to dissipate. This is also why a humid day or taking your clothes out while still damp can prevent static. Water is a great conductor, so it disperses a charge before it can build up [source: Krasicky].

If you'd rather wait until your clothes are completely dry, though, dryer sheets might be the way to go. Because static in the dryer is caused by too many loose electrons giving clothing atoms a negative charge, all dryer sheets have to do is balance the electrons with ions, particles with a positive charge. And as we learned in the previous section, fabric softeners are cationic, or positively charged, so they equalize the electrons to prevent static.

Dryer sheet makers solved the static problem early on, leaving them free to add other features such as long-lasting scents. Read on to learn what's in a typical dryer sheet, and whether the chemicals it uses could make you sick.

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(Video) Good Question: How Do Dryer Sheets Work?

What's In a Standard Dryer Sheet

On a visit to the store, you might be overwhelmed by all the types of dryer sheets offered. Is it possible that there could really be so many kinds of dryer sheet technology?

In many ways, the dryer sheets are the same. When buying a box of any standard dryer sheets, what you'll find inside will likely be squares of wispy, nonwoven polyester intended for a single use. There's little difference among most major brands in their ability to eliminate static cling and make your clothes a bit softer [source: Wang]. Also, unless you buy unscented sheets, they'll have a fragrance of some kind -- flowery scents such as lavender are popular.

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(Video) The Cons of using Dryer Sheets in your Dryer

Although you get the same basic effects from any dryer sheet, there are invisible differences in the chemicals that coat different brands of sheets. If you rub a dryer sheet between your fingers, you might notice a slightly tacky feeling. That's the surfactant, a compound that contains a positive charge and a fatty molecule such as a quaternary ammonium salt or a silicone oil [source: Kozen]. As the surfactant heats up during the drying cycle, the fatty substance coats your clothes, making them more pleasant to the touch, and the positive atoms prevent static.

But if you pick up a box of dryer sheets to find out which specific chemicals are in it, you might not see them. Cleaning product makers have to list only the ingredients that are active disinfectants or known to be hazardous [source: Gavigan].

Some safety advocates warn that this policy is a problem, because certain studies have shown that dryer sheet makers may use chemicals that are dangerous for people to ingest or inhale. One such study conducted by a University of Washington professor in 2007 showed that in a group of six scented laundry products and air fresheners, every one made use of chemicals typically considered toxic or hazardous but didn't include them on the label [source: Hickey]. Only one of those products was a dryer sheet, however, and the only two toxic chemicals it gave off were ethanol (also known as alcohol) and alpha-pinene, a fragrance known to be a moderate irritant [source: Steinemann].

The amounts of these kinds of chemicals used on dryer sheets are small, but many people still prefer not to use them on children's clothes, or at all. If you'd prefer to use an alternative to a standard dryer sheet, read to learn more about potentially healthier or cheaper options.

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Natural Dryer Sheets and Other Alternatives

You've decided to get rid of your standard dryer sheets and try something else. But again, there's a cornucopia of choices, including reusable sheets, fabric softeners, dryer balls and gentler detergents. Even a kitchen staple -- vinegar -- makes the list.

Before choosing which option is right for you, think first about what you're trying to accomplish. Remember, dryer sheets offer three main advantages: eliminating static, softening clothes and adding a fragrance. If you want the first two but not the last, several companies already make fragrance-free dryer sheets aimed at people with allergies or other skin conditions.

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If you want an eco-friendly option, some companies offer products labeled as "natural," but this could mean any variety of things. The government doesn't regulate these claims, so there is no guarantee that these products are any different from others. Even natural products won't satisfy everyone, though, and environmentally-conscious consumers might also object to disposable single-use dryer sheets and instead prefer a reusable option. Here are some popular choices:

The makers of dryer balls claim that these rubbery orbs not only soften clothes and stop static, but also reduce drying time. Balled-up aluminum foil and tennis balls have been suggested as frugal -- albeit less-effective -- alternatives.

Reusable sheets are often a piece of specially knitted polyester that has no or few chemicals or fragrances. Some stores also sell scented sachet bags, and you may find other reusable options.

You can create your own homemade sheets by soaking squares of cloth in fabric softener or even hair conditioner. However, these probably won't work as well as commercial sheets.

(Video) 10 GENIUS and Useful DRYER SHEET HACKS that Actually Work!!! | Andrea Jean

Some people prefer to pour a bit of white vinegar onto their clothes during the washing machine's rinse cycle. As with fabric softener, vinegar can soften clothes, and it has a mild anti-static effect. As a bonus, vinegar works well to get rid of mildew.

Whatever alternative you use to dryer sheets in the washer or dryer might work on your clothes, it likely won't have as many interesting off-label uses as standard dryer sheets do. We cover some of the best in the next section.

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Other Uses for Dryer Sheets

Do a search online for dryer sheets, and you'll find just how popular they are for off-label uses. People have found dozens of ways to re-purpose dryer sheets, from scrubbing counters to removing dust. Most of these off-label uses are related to the dryer sheets' main purposes: reducing static, chemically softening clothes and producing a pleasant scent. Here are some examples:

  • Static related -- Dryer sheets have become popular for rubbing against dust-prone surfaces such window blinds. The sheets impart a positive electrical charge, which pushes away dust particles, preventing them from landing. This applies anywhere dust is involved; a dryer sheet in a vacuum bag, for instance, can keep dust from clogging the tubes.
  • Cleaning and scrubbing -- Some of the fabric softening and fragrance chemicals on dryer sheets can assist in cleaning. Try scrubbing dead bugs off your car with a dryer sheet, or throw one in with any paintbrushes you're cleaning -- some dryer sheets may use acetone, which is also common in paint thinners.
  • Scent and fragrance -- Although you might think dryer sheets smell good, household pests have the opposite opinion. Ants, bees and mice have been reported to avoid dryer sheets. You can also leave dryer sheets in musty places, such as old shoes or closets, to improve their odor.

You'll find plenty of other off-label uses, and you might even think up your own. Just remember that dryer sheets aren't appropriate for every use -- such as removing loose fur from your pet cat or dog, for instance. It might make sense, since the same methodis sometimesused for removing lint, but doing this to your pet is bound to leave behind some chemicals, which it could easily get in its mouth and poison it.

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Learn even more about the science behind dryer sheets and softening fabric by following the links on the next page.

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Originally Published: Nov 30, 2009

(Video) How to Use Dryer Sheets

Dryer Sheet FAQs

What are dryer sheets?

Dryer sheets are squares of fibers that are coated with fatty acids, scents, and a slew of various chemicals. In the dryer, the acid melts from the heat and coats the clothes to make them soft and reduce static electricity.

Are dryer sheets necessary?

You don’t have to use dryer sheets, despite their obvious benefits. You can use alternatives like baking soda, wool dryer balls and foil balls.

Are dryer sheets harmful?

Some people claim that dryer sheets have chemicals that are dangerous to humans, like benzyl alcohol, benzyl acetate, and ethanol. But the chemicals in these sheets are generally recognized as safe by the Food and Drug Administration.

Can you burn used dryer sheets?

Dryer sheets are flammable objects and can start a fire. Some people use them to get a fire going in a pinch.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • How Dry Cleaning Works
  • How can you wash and dry your clothes with steam?
  • 10 Green Laundry Tips

More Great Links

  • American Conference of Governmental Hygienists. "Selected Chemicals Which Pose a Skin Absorption Hazard." North Carolina State University. 2005. (Accessed Oct. 27, 2009) http://www.ncsu.edu/ehs/www99/right/handsMan/lab/skin%20absorption.pdf
  • Beaty, William J. "What IS Static Electricity?" Science Hobbyist. 2005. (Accessed Oct. 20, 2009) http://amasci.com/static/what_is_static.html
  • Gavigan, Christopher. "5 Secrets Conventional Cleaning Product Manufacturers Don't Want You to Know." The Huffington Post. April 29, 2009. (Accessed Nov. 18, 2009)http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christopher-gavigan/5-secrets-conventional-cl_b_191845.html
  • Hickey, Hannah. "Toxic chemicals found in common scented laundry products, air fresheners." University of Washington News. 7/23/2008. (Accessed Oct. 20, 2009)http://uwnews.org/article.asp?articleID=42872
  • Kendall, Julie. "Health Risks from Perfume: The Most Common Chemicals Found in Thirty-One Fragrance Products by a 1991 EPA Study." Immune Web. 1995. (Accessed Oct. 20, 2009) http://www.immuneweb.org/articles/perfume.html
  • Kozen, Frances. "Liquid surfactant on dryer sheets coats fabric, eliminating cling." Cornell University -- Ask a Scientist. Feb. 8, 2006. (Accessed Nov. 18, 2009)http://www.ccmr.cornell.edu/education/ask/index.html?quid=1078
  • Krasicky, John. "Dry air makes static electricity more noticeable in the winter." Cornell University -- Ask a Scientist. Jan. 22, 2004. (Accessed Nov. 17, 2009)http://www.ccmr.cornell.edu/education/ask/index.html?quid=464
  • Main, Emily. "Virtuous Cycles: Laundry Detergents." National Geographic Green Guide. 4/30/2007. (Accessed Oct. 20, 2009)http://www.thegreenguide.com/home-garden/cleaning/laundry-detergents
  • Steinemann, Anne C. "Fragranced consumer products and undisclosed ingredients." Environmental Impact Assessment Review. July 23, 2008. (Accessed Nov. 18, 2009)http://www.national-toxic-encephalopathy-foundation.org/undisclosed.pdf
  • Toedt, John; Darrell Koza; and Kathleen Van Cleef-Toedt. "Chemical composition of everyday products." Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn.: 2005. (Accessed Nov. 18, 2009)http://books.google.com/books?id=UnjD4aBm9ZcC&pg=PA22&dq=fabric+softener+ionic#v=onepage&q=&f=fale
  • Wang, Linda. "Dryer Sheets." Chemical & Engineering News. 4/14/2008. (Accessed Oct. 20, 2009)http://pubs.acs.org/cen/whatstuff/86/8615sci2.html
(Video) 7 DRYER SHEET HACKS TESTED!

FAQs

How Dryer Sheets Work? ›

Dryer sheets are woven sheets of fibers coated with stearic acid or fatty acids, scents and a cocktail of various chemicals. In the dryer, the stearic acid melts from the heat, coating the clothes to make them soft and reduce static. Unfortunately, the film from the dryer sheet also coats your entire dryer.

What do dryer sheets actually do? ›

Dryer sheets work by reducing static, depositing scents and helping make laundry feel softer to the touch. One of the key benefits of dryer sheets is that the ingredients in them help to combat, neutralize and fight the effects of built-up static in most fabrics.

Do dryer sheets actually work? ›

Aside from leaving fabrics smelling fresh and feeling soft, dryer sheets provide an important safety service. They help eliminate static on clothing. Static can cause dryer fires if a spark ignites debris in the lint trap. (An important reason to keep the lint trap clean.)

Why you shouldn't use dryer sheets? ›

They've been linked to respiratory illnesses, including asthma, and cancer. According to the Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health study, VOCs emitted from dryer vents after using popular brands of laundry detergent and scented dryer sheets included chemicals like acetaldehyde and benzene, which are considered carcinogenic.

How does a dryer sheet work scientifically? ›

Dryer sheets reduce static electricity that forms in the dryer due to too many loose electrons giving clothing atoms a negative charge. The fabric softeners coating the dryer sheet fabric are cationic, or positively charged ions and equalize the electrons and ions to prevent static.

Can you reuse dryer sheets? ›

Reuse it: the first thing you should do with a used dryer sheet is use it again in the dryer! You can reuse dryer sheets quite a few times before they lose their effectiveness or scent. 3. Deodorizing shoes: stick used dryer sheets in shoes overnight to deodorize them.

Do dryer sheets get rid of lint? ›

Use a dryer sheet

Of course, incorporating a dryer sheet into your laundry routine will help reduce lint and soften up clothes. But did you know that dryer sheets are great lint magnets even outside of the dryer? Grab a laundry sheet and rub your lint-laden clothes with it, as you would a lint roller.

Does dryer sheets help dry faster? ›

Like liquid softeners, dryer sheets can help soften fabrics, reduce static, hasten drying times and even add a pleasant fragrance to your laundry. Most fabric softening sheets can be tossed on top of your wet laundry at the start of the drying cycle. The sheet then goes to work while the clothes dry.

What is better fabric softener or dryer sheets? ›

In summary, fabric softener and dryer sheets both soften clothes, reduce static and wrinkles, while adding fragrance.
...
Fabric Softener vs Dryer Sheets.
FunctionFabric SoftenerDryer Sheets
Softens fabricYesYes
Fights staticYesYes
Reduces wrinklesYesSometimes
6 more rows
Apr 29, 2022

How many dryer sheets are you supposed to use? ›

Most dryer sheet manufacturers recommend adding one sheet for small to average-sized loads and two sheets for average to large loads. If you have a large capacity washer and dryer or using a large capacity dryer at a laundromat, you may wish to add three dryer sheets.

What can I use instead of dryer sheets? ›

Here are some of the best dryer sheet replacements.
  1. Vinegar. When it comes to natural household cleaning, the answer is always vinegar. ...
  2. Baking soda. ...
  3. Wool dryer balls. ...
  4. Dryer balls with essential oils. ...
  5. Reusable dryer sheets. ...
  6. Foil balls. ...
  7. DIY dryer sheets. ...
  8. Scent-free dryer sheets.
Aug 4, 2020

Do dryer sheets repel mice? ›

Research has shown that Bounce dryer sheets are the best ones to use that have an effect on mice. It is true, they hate the smell of them. However, dryer sheets will lose their scent, thereby, needing to be replaced at least every week or so to keep a strong enough aroma in your RV to repel a mouse.

What happens if you dry clothes without a dryer sheet? ›

Can You Dry Clothes Without A Dryer Sheet? In a nutshell, yes! You absolutely don't need to use dryer sheets when you dry your clothes. Fortunately, if you decide to forgo dryer sheets, that doesn't mean you have to live with static cling and stiff clothes.

Why do dryer sheets smell so good? ›

Typically made out of non-woven synthetic fabrics or natural fibers with a coating on top, dryer sheets balance out the negatively-charged atoms bouncing around your appliance. Plus, in some cases, they can give your clothes a lovely smell thanks to an added fragrance.

How do dryer sheets remove static? ›

Dryer sheets stop static cling by absorbing static electricity formed by different fabrics during your dryer cycle. The fabric softeners that coat dryer sheets are positively charged ions to balance the electrons and ions that cause static cling, leaving you with soft clothes without the static.

What happens if you put dryer sheets in the washer? ›

However, specific brands, with specific ingredients, of dryer sheets will work if put in the washer and transferred, along with the clothes, to the dryer. These sheets act as both detergent and dryer sheet by both washing clothes and preventing static cling and softening fabric.

How do you make your house smell good with dryer sheets? ›

Freshen a room: If you have an air conditioner, you can place a dryer sheet on top of the filter. It will stay put even without any tape and will make your entire room smell amazing. You can do the same thing by taping a dryer sheet to any heating or air conditioning vent in the home, too.

Why are dryer sheets put in the mailbox? ›

Your Mail Carrier Left That Dryer Sheet

It might sound crazy. But the reason they left a dryer sheet in your mailbox is pretty simple: to deter wasps and yellow jackets!

Do dryer sheets absorb odor? ›

Freshen Shoes

A lot of people ask: “Do dryer sheets absorb odors?” The answer is YES, they do! They can absorb moisture as well. The reason this is so useful is that you can get rid of nasty shoe odor (and other odors) by placing a dryer sheet in the sole of the shoe and letting it sit overnight.

What happens if you use too many dryer sheets? ›

If you use too many dryer sheets that waxy coating can also end up on the sensor bars on your dryer or the grain sheets can get stuck to the sensor bars. And if those sensor bars are covered, your dryer might think that your clothes are dry before they're actually dry.

Why are my clothes so dusty after washing? ›

Excessive lint on clothes after washing may also indicate that the water pump filter is clogged. When that happens, the wash and rinse water with all that suspended lint drains too slowly and leaves deposits on wet clothes. To clean the pump filter, open the outer housing of your washer.

Should I use dryer sheets with towels? ›

Like fabric softener, dryer sheets contain oils that can coat towel fibers and destroy their absorbency. So, don't use them when drying your towels.

Are dryer balls better than sheets? ›

Pros of Dryer Balls

Dryer balls effectively reduce the time it takes for clothes to dry, which can save you hundreds in gas and electricity over time. Dryer sheets have no impact on drying time. Dryer balls, unlike dryer sheets, are reusable, which not only helps the environment but also saves you money.

How do you dry clothes instantly? ›

How to Dry Clothes FAST (Quick Method That Actually Works)

How do you dry a shirt in 5 minutes? ›

Lay the towel out on a clean surface and cover it with white tissue paper. Put the item you want to dry down flat and then cover it with more tissue paper. Now roll the towel tightly and leave for five minutes: the super-absorbent tissue paper should supercharge the drying time.

Can dryer sheets cause a fire? ›

Some of this information is undoubtedly true, while some is simply false. It's been said that the use of fabric softener sheets can cause the heating element in your dryer to fail and potentially cause a fire. There is no evidence that suggests fabric softener sheets can cause your dryer's heating element to fail.

Do you need to use both fabric softener and dryer sheets? ›

Fabric softener and dryer sheets do a specific job but do you need them? Probably not. There are alternative options that are better for your clothes but still keep them soft and static-free.

Should you use dryer sheets on blankets? ›

When you toss a dryer sheet in along with your clothes, "you're essentially coating your textiles in conditioners, which is fine for a favorite T-shirt or worn-in blanket you want to soften," but isn't ideal for more sensitive items.

Can you use 3 dryer sheets? ›

How many dryer sheets you'll need depends on the size of the load. Toss in two Bounce® dryer sheets for your average loads to iron less, fight more static, repel more lint & pet hair, and add more softness & freshness. For small & medium loads toss in one Bounce® dryer sheet, and for extra-large loads toss in three!

Why do my clothes not smell fresh after drying? ›

Mold & Mildew Odor: Why Your Laundry Smells Bad After Drying

You may have excess moisture build-up if you wait too long to transfer your clothes from the washing machine to the dryer. Or, extra moisture can build up and lead to mold growth if you forget to turn the dryer on and leave damp clothing in it for too long.

How do you soften clothes without dryer sheets? ›

  1. Use Soap Nuts. The chemicals in store-bought laundry detergent leave behind a residue on your clothes that make them feel stiff. ...
  2. Use a Homemade Laundry Detergent. ...
  3. Shake it Out. ...
  4. Use Wool Dryer Balls. ...
  5. Use Reusable Dryer Sheets. ...
  6. Use Aluminum Foil. ...
  7. Add Vinegar to the Rinse Cycle.
May 6, 2022

How do you make homemade dryer sheets? ›

How To Make Dryer Sheets - DIY Network - YouTube

Do dryer sheets repel roaches? ›

Most dryer sheets contain the ingredient linalool, which can be found in plants like lavender, basil, and coriander, all of which naturally repel common garden pests. Similar studies found that this ingredient is also useful for repelling bugs like mites, weevils, beetles, and German cockroaches.

Does Irish Spring soap keep mice out? ›

The bottom line is the perfumes in this soap tell mice, rats, chipmunks, and other critters to stay clear. Irish Spring comes in different scents and varieties, and I have found that as long as it is Irish Spring in general it will work just fine. Directions: 1.

Do dryer sheets repel bed bugs? ›

The theory is that the scent from the dryer sheets will drive away the bed bugs and ultimately get rid of your problem. Unfortunately, this myth and isn't backed by any scientific findings: There's no proof that dryer sheets will kill or repel bed bugs.

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