We like our clothes to feel soft and supple when they come out of the dryer and we would rather not find a sock hiding inside the sleeve of a sweater, aided and abetted by static cling. That’s why we reach for fabric softeners and dryer sheets. As is so often the case, when chemicals are introduced for convenience, there is an upside and a downside.
Historically, fabric softeners first appeared in the early 20th century, introduced because the dyes used back then left cotton fabrics with a harsh feel. These early formulations were made from corn, olive or tallow oil mixed with water. The idea was to leave a thin layer of fatty material on the fabric to smoothen the surface fibres and provide a softer feel. Because oil and water do not mix, soap was added as an emulsifier, preventing the oily and aqueous layers from separating.