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Can you use fabric softener with jeans?

The commercials for fabric softeners often show people running happily through fields, falling onto soft bedding, living in spaces with beautiful flowers all around them. And fabric softener definitely works well with all kinds of clothing and laundry items. Sheets, towels, T-shirts, socks…fabric softener is an amazing invention. But can you use fabric softener with jeans?

Seriously, What is Fabric Softener?

You might know fabric softener as the stuff that comes in thin little sheets that you place inside the dryer. Maybe it’s a liquid that you add to the washing machine. It can even be a powder. So what the heck is this stuff? Why does it take so many forms and why can it be added to two different machines? Do you need it and where does it come from?

Downy Infusions Laundry Fabric Softener Liquid, Calm Scent, Lavender & Vanilla Bean, 166 Total Loads (Pack of 2)

…When you think about it, there’s a lot that you probably don’t know about fabric softener. Could everything you don’t know be hurting your jeans?

Fabric softener’s purpose is actually to make laundry items softer and less wrinkled. It reduces friction between fibers, which is why fabric softener prevents static electricity. It also smells nice, which is never a bad thing when it comes to clothes, towels and bedding. And for some fabrics, the softener does make them feel softer. But for other materials, the results are a little less successful. Though it’s pretty common to toss a dryer sheet in with every load of laundry, there are actually some fabrics that you should not wash or dry with any fabric softener at all.

A Quick History of Fabric Softeners

The first fabric softeners, then known as cotton softeners, date to the early 1900s. The dyes used on cotton clothing in those days often left the fabric feeling scratchy. Fabric softeners made clothing more wearable. Cotton softeners were made with water, soap and oil made from olives, corn or tallow. The softener made cotton clothing feel smoother and softer on the skin. It quickly became a common household product.

Sitting in front of washing machine wearing jeans

As chemical science advanced, so did cotton softener formulas. Eventually, they became fabric softeners instead. By the 1960s, Procter and Gamble was selling its own liquid fabric softener designed for use at home. Dryer sheets came onto the market in the 1970s. For many people, fabric softener is a regular and usual part of the laundry routine. It’s an old habit in most households. Fabric softener very quickly caught on and became indispensable. Many people are so used to using it every time they do laundry, they don’t even think twice about it.

Well, start thinking twice. What you don’t know about fabric softener could be hurting all your clothing.

What Should You Use?

So, of the different types of fabric softener available, which one should you be using? Liquid fabric softener is very effective but it’s also the most expensive option. Dryer sheets are far more affordable and easier to use. However, they can also break apart and leave a residue behind that lingers on clothing. You’ve probably seen this happen at least once. Dryer balls, a newer option in the laundry game, don’t necessarily work as well as the other options when it comes to making clothes feel soft. However, they do reduce static electricity.

Wool Dryer Balls Organic XL 6-Pack by Ecoigy, Reusable Natural Fabric Softener for Laundry, Dryer Sheets Alternative, New Zealand Wool, Speed Up Dry Time, Cut Energy Costs

Fabric softener works well for many different types of fabrics and clothing. However, it shouldn’t be used with all types of clothing. Microfiber, for example, doesn’t work well with fabric softener. Washing and drying microfiber with fabric softener can cause the material to lose its drying properties and it will change the feel of the fabric itself. If you have microfiber towels or clothes that have been negatively affected by fabric softener, wash them in a load of laundry and add a cup of distilled white vinegar to the load.

You also shouldn’t use fabric softener on athletic clothing, which is made to be moisture-wicking. Water-repellent fabrics also don’t wash and dry well with fabric softener added. Flame-resistant garments likewise should not be washed with fabric softener. But when it comes to jeans…well, jeans are a little different from everything else, right?

Washing and Drying Jeans

Denim definitely does its own thing. This material isn’t quite like any other material. Denim is made with ordinary cotton fibers, the same type that are used to make T-shirts, underwear, sheets and lots of other stuff. But denim doesn’t feel or act quite the same as your standard cotton T. So what gives?

Levi's Men's 569 Loose Straight Fit Jean Rugged 34W x 34L

Denim is made in a special weave, a diagonal weave pattern that gives denim its unique strength and feel. This pattern makes denim strong without compromising the natural softness of the cotton fibers. The result is a somewhat thick, abrasion-resistant, tough material that is capable of stretching over time. When worn often enough, denim will start to conform and mold to your body and beautifully fit your shape. This is why jeans are so flattering and comfortable. And you definitely want to keep them that way. So when it comes to washing and drying jeans, things get complicated…whether you add fabric softener to the mix or not.

How to Wash Your Jeans

There are a lot of myths out there about jeans. Some say that jeans shouldn’t ever be washed. If they start to smell bad, stick them in the freezer. But let’s think that through. Have you ever been able to keep anything from smelling bad simply by freezing it? Once it unthaws and melts, it probably smells even worse than it did before!

Lee Men's Regular Fit Straight Leg Jean, Pepperstone, 34W x 30L

Of course, you need to wash your jeans. It’s just that you don’t have to wash jeans as often as your other clothing items. Also, washing jeans can cause them to lose shape. It can even cause them to shrink if you don’t do it the right way. When it comes to washing jeans, there are a lot of instructions and a lot of rules to follow. And even then your jeans are going to feel quite right and may not fit quite right for a few days after you wash them. You’ll have to break the denim material in again to get them feeling and looking just right.

When you do wash your jeans, consult with the care label first. Most of the time, you’ll want to wash jeans in cold water turned inside-out on a gentle cycle. This tender treatment will help keep jeans from losing their shape. Meanwhile, the cold temperature will prevent shrinking. Cotton fibers shrink in the presence of heat. This is why everyone says you shouldn’t wash cotton items in cold water. You shouldn’t dry them in hot heat, either, but we’ll get there soon enough.

You should only wash your jeans after every fourth or fifth time you wear them, unless they get dirty or they do start to smell bad. If your jeans are very dark in color and you want to preserve that, add a teaspoon of salt to the washing machine while it’s filling up with water. This will help to prevent the color from fading.

Drying Blue Jeans

Most denim aficionados will tell you that denim should not be dried in a dryer, anyway. After you wash your jeans, they should be hung up so they can line-dry. If this isn’t an option, let them out flat so they can dry this way. But, many will tell you, don’t ever put them in the dryer.

Close up of jeans with belt

This isn’t always practical for everyone, however. You may not have the luxury of line-drying your clothing. So when you put jeans in the dryer, use a low heat setting. Heat will make cotton shrink and since denim is made with cotton, you can do the math there. The only time you should use heat on your jeans is when you want them to shrink. When you’re intentionally shrinking jeans, results can be mixed. Jeans may shrink too much or not enough, or certain parts of the jeans might shrink while others do not.

So now you know how and when to wash your jeans and how to dry them properly (and improperly, when you decide to do it in a dryer). But the real question still remains. Can you use fabric softener with jeans?

The Controversy

Opinions are split on whether or not you can use fabric softener on your jeans, actually. Though it’s commonly considered to be just fine for cotton — after all, the first fabric softeners were very specifically made to be used on cotton — jeans are not quite the same as ordinary cotton.

Folded stacks of jeans

On one side, fabric softener does work quite well on cotton and natural fibers in general. Proponents of using fabric softener on jeans say that the trick is all in getting the temperature just right. Dryer sheets are ideal for clothing washed at cooler temperatures and dried in minimal heat, while the liquid is more effective at hotter temperatures. Fabric softener actually forms chemical bonds that coat fabric fibers. This is why it’s able to soften up clothing and prevent friction.

According to some, this is exactly why you want to avoid using fabric softener on your jeans. In time, after repeated uses of fabric softener, a waxy residue can build up on your jeans. This can make them more water-repellent, which makes them more difficult to wash and clean.

Do you wear skinny jeans? Because the rules are a little bit different with skinny jeans, as they aren’t made with 100 percent cotton. Skinny jeans usually have some cotton but also have synthetic materials, such as nylon and spandex. Fabric softener doesn’t work as well with synthetic materials as it does with natural materials and many experts advise against using it at all. So when it comes to your skinny jeans, you can safely skip the fabric softener.

Jeans and Fabric Softener

Fabric softener isn’t specifically made for jeans and it will have an effect on jeans, both positive and negative. So whether or not you should use fabric softener on your jeans is entirely up to you a. After all, they’re your jeans. So now that you know exactly what fabric softener will do to denim, you can decide whether or not you’re going to use fabric softener the next time you’re oing your laundry.


Apartment Therapy – 5 Things You Shouldn’t Do with Fabric Softener

Bustle – Here’s How To Keep Denim Looking Brand New

Downy – Four Myths About Washing Your Jeans

Esquire – Yes, You Should Wash Your Jeans. Here’s the Right Way to Do It.

MadeHow – Fabric Softener

Martha Stewart – What Does Fabric Softener Do, and Do You Really Need to Use It in Every Load of Laundry?

Reader’s Digest – How to Use Fabric Softener for the Coziest Clothes and Linens

The Sun – How the care for black jeans

Whirlpool – What is fabric softener and what does it do?