The Best Fabric Softeners Keep Laundry Wrinkle-Free—Even When Left Overnight
Our top pick is plant based.
Published Sep 30, 2022 3:00 PM
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Reading up on Domino’s shopping guides is like having your own personal product concierge. We do the tedious part—deep-dive research, hands-on testing, and tapping experts for advice—so all you have to do is hit “add to cart.” That’s why we call them Simply the Best.
According to our research—aka a lot of washing and drying—what sets the best fabric softeners apart from the worst isn’t necessarily an ability to produce great-smelling laundry (although that’s always a plus). The winning formulas are effective at keeping materials at peak levels of freshness, increasing softness, and banishing unwanted static or wrinkles. Bonus points are also awarded to fabric softener brands that factor in sustainability. After settling on a selection of options that utilize either recyclable and compostable packaging or natural and plant-based ingredients, we put our top picks for the best fabric softeners to work.
Discover which fabric softener formula came out on top when pitted against wrinkle-and-static–prone denim, cotton bed linens, T-shirts, and socks.
Ever since Public Goods launched its minimalist product line, we’ve been on board with is offerings. Its clean package designs catering to those who live in small spaces quickly won over the hearts of many other shoppers, too. Despite being a self-professed scent lover who hardly ever passes up an aromatic product, our tester took an immediate liking to Public Goods’s fragrance-free sheets. The static stoppers are made from 100 percent fully recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable plant-based rayon—and the 80 perforated sheets are packaged in a box also made from recycled paper. They feel rough to the touch compared to traditional ones, which led our tester to wonder: Could a thick, crispy sheet make good on its promise to effectively soften and smooth fabrics?
After putting them to the test, these hypoallergenic sheets outperformed several other brands and did so with high-performing, all-natural ingredients (no gluten or phosphates, by the way). A half sheet is recommended for smaller loads, while a full one easily handles more wrinkle-prone fabrics (like cotton) in larger quantities. After drying multiple loads in a standard machine—everything from cotton tees and jeans to bed linens, towels, and workout attire—we took note of how the sheets easily de-wrinkled and removed static. They separate themselves from the load and slightly crumple after use, but leave no trace of static or slippery residue. Our towels were fluffy and absorbent after the fact; clothing and sheets remained soft and relatively smooth, even after spending a night (or two) in the dryer.
Though fragrance-free, both our tester and reviewers attest to the sheets leaving their laundry smelling fresh and clean. “I was skeptical at first because of the sheets’ texture,” one reviewer notes, “but they truly make my clothes soft and static-free without the heavy chemicals.” To note: They’re suitable for use in high-efficiency (HE) and standard dryers.
We Also Like
- Dropps Fabric Softener Pods: We’d be remiss to exclude this Domino favorite from the list. Like the brand’s other products, these water-soluble pods are boxed in compostable packaging, and the actual softener is encased in a water-soluble polyvinyl alcohol casing (PVOH).
We tested (and liked) its Orange Blossom and Lavender Eucalyptus scents (both contain boosters for added fragrance), but the pods are also available in Clean and Crisp, Ocean, Crisp Fall Air, Home for the Holidays, and Unscented.
A 64-count box is $19 with a subscription; a onetime purchase costs $25.
- Tangent GC: This Sweden-manufactured softener is a bit on the pricey side: A 16.9 fluid-ounce container costs $25, which amounts to 25 to 50 washes.
However, the formula is vegan, organic, and cruelty- and fossil-free; its subtle scent comes from kiyomi perfume, so those with skin sensitivities should take heed. Finally, we appreciate the sugarcane plastic container, which isn’t biodegradable but is 100 percent recyclable.
According to the instructions, the organic softener isn’t recommended for all fabric types, so follow the garment-care instructions for the best results.
- Method Liquid Fabric Softener: Among the 5-star reviewers, one describes the liquid as having a “thin but NOT thick” consistency that they’ve happily used for the past 10 years.
We like the Beach Sage scent (it’s also available in Ginger Mango and Free + Clear), but the formula does contain synthetic fragrances.
- Grove Co. Caldrea Blue Sage: This sweet-scented liquid softener efficiently freshened up a large load of garments after a single use with the help of natural essential oils and plant-derived conditioners.
A lingering aroma wasn’t too overpowering, although it might be a bit much for those with keen noses. This formula needs to be added during the rinse cycle, which may pose a challenge if you’re laundering on the go.
Try a 32-ounce bottle for $22, or sign up for monthly shipments and the cost drops to $14.
How We Chose These Products
To narrow down the best fabric softener options, we zeroed in on brand reputation (Dropps and Method are Domino favorites) and then examined past purchaser reviews for glowing recommendations. Next, we moved on to sustainable elements in the formulas and the packaging (emphasis on biodegradable containers and sheets and plant-based solutions).
After ensuring that our picks were free of harsh chemicals, we included sheets, pods, and liquids so we could compare them against one another. Finally, we took into account price, scent variation, and the softener’s ability to knock out wrinkles and soften fabrics—and we tapped laundry expert Cheryl Nelson for tips on identifying the best option.
Our Shopping Checklist
Type and Scent
Fabric softeners come in pods (like our Dropps selection), sheets, and liquids (see our Method and Organics picks). As seen on our list, softeners and conditioners are available in various scents and unscented variations. Typically eco-friendly options that don’t contain harsh chemicals offer either fragrance-free choices or use essential oils to make them aromatic.
Not all fabric softeners are created equal, so before making a purchase, review the product label to verify whether it’s HE compatible, works with standard dryers, or both.
Like all of the applicable products we tested, the labels clearly highlighted this sensitivity detail with an explicit hypoallergenic label or a “dermatologist recommended” note. Read the ingredients list if you’re unsure about the presence of skin irritants.
Q: What’s the difference between fabric softeners and fabric conditioners?
According to Nelson, the terms fabric conditioner and fabric softener can be used interchangeably. “While one brand may claim that its ‘fabric conditioner’ not only freshens and softens fabric but also helps prevent the fabric from piling, stretching, and color fading, another company claims that its ‘fabric softener’ does the same,” she explains. Essentially, both products coat fabric in a thin, lubricating film to help reduce friction and negative static charge.
Q: Is there any time I shouldn’t use a fabric softener?
While we tested our picks on all types of fabrics, Nelson says it’s best to avoid using softeners on delicates like lingerie and formalwear (it may cause the material to break down), as well as gym clothes and swimwear, because buildup might cause materials like Lycra, spandex, or elastane to become less absorbent over time. Additionally, she says microfiber cloths are susceptible to a waxy film buildup. Overall, we recommend strictly following product- and garment-care instructions.
The Last Word
The selections are plentiful, so settling on the best fabric softener isn’t the easiest task. But as long as you steer clear of softeners that don’t agree with your machine or fabrics (residue is a no-go in all cases) and stick to those that are hypoallergenic, free of skin-irritating ingredients, and suitable for use in all types of machines, you’ll be sure to land on a formula that keeps your clothing fluffy, fresh smelling, and free of static.