The Best Fabric Softener for Laundry Day

Keep your laundry looking and smelling great with the right fabric softener. These products will soften clothes with each wash.

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Best Fabric Softener Options

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Fabric softeners make clothes feel and smell great but that’s not all they do. They also protect the fibers in the clothing and keep clothes static-free and mostly wrinkle-free right out of the dryer. Fabric softeners come in many scents and forms, and they all perform similar functions.

No matter what kind of fabric softener you like to use, from the traditional liquid type to eco-friendly dryer balls, the best fabric softener will leave your clothes feeling soft and smelling wonderful.

  1. BEST OVERALL: Bounce Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets
  2. BEST VALUE: Heinz White Vinegar
  3. BEST LIQUID: Downy Ultra Cool Cotton Liquid Fabric Conditioner
  4. BEST DRYER SHEETS: Gain Dryer Sheets, Original
  5. BEST DRYER BALLS: Smart Sheep Wool Dryer Balls 
  6. SCENTED PICK: Downy Infusions Liquid Fabric Conditioner
  7. SENSITIVE SKIN PICK: Downy Nature Blends Fabric Conditioner
  8. ECO-FRIENDLY PICK: Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Liquid Fabric Softener
Best Fabric Softener Options

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Types of Fabric Softeners

Fabric softeners are available in three forms: liquid, sheets, and balls. Each form has its pros and cons, and each type has some nuances. Also, some work better at softening or freshening sheets and towels while others work best for clothing. So, it can be helpful to have all three forms on hand for weekly laundry needs. It helps to consider the pros and cons of each type before selecting the best fabric softener for regular laundering chores.

Liquid Fabric Softener

Liquid softeners can be poured in by hand or into a special dispenser on the machine that is designed to hold the liquid. Typically the machine adds the fabric softener while clothes are in the final rinse cycle. The softeners permeate into fabric fibers, making clothes feel softer. Softeners also help keep clothes from stretching while reducing static, fading, and accumulating fuzz.

Liquid options cost the most per load. However, liquid is more effective at eliminating tough odors and softening clothes than dryer sheets or balls. Fabric softener is created from a silicone oil. The oils make fabrics softer, but the oils can stain clothing if a user pours softener directly onto the fabric without diluting the product in water first. Also, liquid softeners are not recommended for towels. The oils can coat towel fibers and destroy their absorbency.

Liquid fabric softeners come with a cup to measure out the correct amount of softener to use with each load. If the machine does not have a dedicated fabric softener dispenser, it requires the launderer to add liquid softener during the final rinse when the tub is full of water. This ensures equal fabric penetration and minimizes any staining on clothes. Liquid fabric softeners are a good pick for clothing because they will reduce the amount of ironing needed and prolong the life of clothes.

Dryer Sheets

Dryer sheets are more economical per load and are less messy. The woven sheets of fibers are coated with stearic acid, scents, and other various chemicals. Dryer sheets eliminate static cling better than dryer balls. They do not soften fibers as well as liquid softeners but they are more portable and versatile.

Dryer sheets are less likely to stain clothes, but over time the film from the dryer sheet also coats the inside of the dryer and the lint filter. The residue build-up on the filter can block its holes and make it harder to remove the lint. This eventually leads to more lint build-up in the dryer over time.

Unlike liquid fabric softeners, dryer sheets can help freshen up other areas of a home. Use them in drawers and closets, or insert them into shoes to help eliminate odors. Used dryer sheets make excellent dust rags too. Dryer sheets are the best option for those who need to use laundromats because of their portability. The sheets work well for general use, too, but are not recommended for use on towels. Like fabric softener, dryer sheets contain oils that can coat towel fibers and affect absorbency.

Dryer Balls

Dryer balls are an economical and environmentally-friendly way to soften laundry. They come in several materials and sizes, but the most popular types are made from wool. Wool dryer balls are quieter in the dryer than other types.

One of the biggest benefits of dryer balls is that they speed up the drying process. The balls continually agitate against the fibers in clothes and linens, cutting drying time by nearly 60 percent. However, dryer balls add noise but don’t add fragrance to clothing. Anyone wanting some fragrance can easily add essential oils to the balls to infuse a fresh scent into clothes and linens.

Dryer balls do not soften clothes as well as dryer sheets or liquid softeners, but they are reusable, making them by far the most economical choice. Dryer balls are an excellent choice to use with towels and sheets because they will speed up drying time.

Our Top Picks

The fabric softeners that make this list were chosen for their key features and the pros and cons of each type in mind. All of these choices should soften your laundry and help preserve the fabric’s fibers. Whatever your personal preferences, there’s a fabric softener below to fit your needs.

Best Fabric Softener Options: Bounce Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets

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1. BEST OVERALL: Bounce Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets

Bounce Fabric Softener and Dryer Sheets stand out as one of the top-selling and highest-rated fabric softeners. The sheets are affordable, fight static, reduce wrinkles, repel lint, and deliver a fresh scent. They’re also compatible with high-efficiency (HE) dryers.

Each box contains 240 sheets making them an economical way to keep clothes soft and smelling great. The manufacturer suggests using two dryer sheets for an average load—which still works out to less than 6 cents per load on average. Bounce is a top pick because it’s portable, easy to use, and inexpensive. Moreover, it softens laundry and gives clothes a pleasant but not overwhelming scent.

Best Fabric Softener Options: Heinz White Vinegar

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2. BEST VALUE: Heinz White Vinegar

White vinegar is a “jack of all trades” when it comes to household cleaning. It’s also a natural fabric softener. Vinegar contains acetic acid that brightens, softens, and kills odors in the laundry. No need to worry about clothes smelling like vinegar, though. The heat from the dryer will dissipate the lingering vinegar odor.

Vinegar is inexpensive and versatile, averaging a cost of about 5 cents per ¼ cup. Since vinegar is used for other household cleaning and in cooking, adding fabric softening to its usefulness eliminates the need to purchase extra products. For laundry, it’s important to use distilled white vinegar. Similar liquids, such as cider vinegar, contain tannins (natural plant dyes) that can stain clothes.

Distilled vinegar is safe on both white and colored clothes. It’s also the best way to soften towels without affecting absorbency. Distilled vinegar can keep dark clothes dark and whiten light colors. It eliminates mildew odor, softens clothes, and will not lead to product build-up in a machine. The only con to using vinegar is a lack of fragrance, but infusing wool dryer balls with essential oils in the drying step can add scent.

Best Fabric Softener Options: Downy Ultra Cool Cotton Liquid Fabric Conditioner

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3. BEST LIQUID: Downy Ultra Cool Cotton Liquid Fabric Conditioner

There’s no doubt the liquid fabric softeners reign supreme when it comes to fresh-smelling laundry and soft clothes. However, some fabric softener scents are too strong. Downy’s Ultra Cool Cotton balances the right amount of scent and fabric-softening properties.

The “cool cotton” scent is crisp and clean and not too heavy or overwhelming. The product effectively reduces static cling as well as stretching and fading. Liquid softeners typically cost more per load than dryer sheets. However, Downy’s Ultra Cool Cotton fabric conditioner is sold in convenient two-pack bottles of 51 fluid ounces at a decent price point. Each bottle will handle 60 loads of laundry—for an average of about 11 cents per load. The softener is also compatible with HE washing machines.

Best Fabric Softener Options: Gain Dryer Sheets

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4. BEST DRYER SHEETS: Gain Dryer Sheets, Original

What sets Gain dryer sheets apart from others is the unique scent. The scent is not overwhelming but the sheets infuse a fresh, clean fragrance into the laundry. Gain Original has a citrus and amber scent. The subtle fragrance should last on clothes for weeks out of the dryer. Gain is so confident that users will love its original scent, they boldly promote its pleasant and lasting nature right on their packaging.

Like other dryer sheets, Gain Original reduces static cling and helps reduce wrinkles. The sheets cost slightly more than Bounce, but will still add up to less money per load than liquid softeners. In addition to freshening laundry, many Gain scent fans use the dryer sheets to freshen up their homes, cars, work boots, furniture, and more.

Best Fabric Softener Options: Wool Dryer Balls

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5. BEST DRYER BALLS: Smart Sheep Wool Dryer Balls 

Buyers looking for an environmentally friendly way to soften their laundry can look into Smart Sheep dryer balls, which are a soft and fuzzy way to freshen up a laundry routine. Made from 100 percent New Zealand wool, this set of six dryer balls contains no chemicals or synthetics.

Each dryer ball measures slightly larger around than a tennis ball. They eliminate static and wrinkles by lifting and separating clothes. This also helps to reduce drying time. Although tennis balls can help separate clothes in the dryer, wool balls are quieter and gentler on laundry. Wool dryer balls are unscented, which makes them a good hypoallergenic choice. Adding a few drops of essential oil onto the wool balls before tossing them into the dryer adds scent for those who want it.

Best Fabric Softener Options: Downy Infusions Liquid Fabric Conditioner

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6. SCENTED PICK: Downy Infusions Calm Liquid Fabric Conditioner

Those who love fresh-smelling clothes likely will love Downy’s Infusions line. The Infusion line offers four theme scents: refresh, calm, bliss, and romantic. Of these, the calm scent seems the most popular. Calm is a blend of lavender and vanilla bean. Lavender is known for its calming effects and vanilla is said to put people at ease and even help them sleep. Together, these fragrances create a relaxing scent for snuggling up.

Downy Infusions protects fabrics from fuzz, fading, wrinkles, and stretching, and it’s compatible with HE washing machines. Like other liquid fabric softeners, it can stain if applied directly to clothing, so users should add it only during a final rinse or via a dispenser.

Best Fabric Softener Options: Downy Nature Blends Fabric Conditioner

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7. SENSITIVE SKIN PICK: Downy Nature Blends Fabric Conditioner

For those with sensitive skin or allergies, scented fabric softeners traditionally have been on the “no” list. However, it looks like there’s a way to have great-smelling laundry without breaking out in hives with Downy’s Nature Blends fabric softener.

Nature Blends is 70 percent plant-based and is free of dyes and parabens, which can be too tough on sensitive skin. The formula uses coconut oil to soften and fluff laundry. It’s also cruelty-free and an excellent pick for environmentally-conscious consumers. The honey lavender scent is subtle and works well for those who prefer a lightly scented fabric softener. Downy’s Nature Blends is HE machine compatible.

Best Fabric Softener Options: Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Liquid Fabric Softener

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8. ECO-FRIENDLY PICK: Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day Liquid Fabric Softener

The eco-friendly Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day fabric softener gets its scent from cotton extract and other plant sources, plus essential oils. It’s a great alternative to other common scents normally offered with laundry products such as cotton or the generic, synthetically-derived “clean” scent. This group of products offers a full lineup of garden-fresh scents such as honeysuckle, basil, lemon verbena, geranium, and lavender. It’s made without parabens, phthalates, or animal-derived ingredients. The product should be good for those with sensitive skin or allergies.

One bottle is enough for 32 loads. Compared to other liquid softeners, this pick costs more. The liquid is thicker than other fabric softeners and some find that it doesn’t dispense as easily. It might need diluting to ensure it dispenses properly. It’s HE machine compatible and an eco-friendly way to freshen clothes.

FAQs About Your New Fabric Softener

Q. When do you put fabric softener in the washer?

Add liquid fabric softener to your washing machine as it’s filling with water during the final rinse cycle.

Q. What should you not use fabric softener on?

Liquid fabric softener is not recommended for use on microfiber, towels, and synthetics such as water-resistant and flame-resistant clothing.

Q. How do you clean a fabric softener dispenser?

Clean the fabric softener dispenser by pouring a mixture of hot water and liquid laundry detergent into the dispenser. Then, run the washer through the rinse cycle two or three times.