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Wash with care

Environmental assessment of laundry detergents

Fabric softeners

General infoormation

The purpose of adding ‘fabric softeners’ at the end of the washing process is to neutralise the very small amounts of detergents left in the textiles and thus prevent static electricity.

During the rinsing cycle of laundering, the detergents are diluted between 1000 and 10000 times, so the concentration of detergents in the water of the last rinse is around 0.1% - 0.01% of the concentration in the initial washing lot.

The simplest way to inactivate any  detergents left in the fabric is to neutralise the pH to between 6.5 and 7.5 through addition of a small amount of acetic acid. Through this method, the activity of the alkali and surfactants is eliminated.

For fabrics with a high content of synthetic fibres it may be necessary to add small amounts of cationic surfactants that can neutralise the charges of anionic surfactants and thus prevent static electricity. Using non-ionic or amphoteric surfactants normally makes such additions unnecessary.

Sometimes the fabric softeners also include small amounts of perfume to provide a pleasant scent. Please refer to the section on ‘other substances’ for further info.

Acetic acid

Acetic acid is not a fabric softener in principle but is often used for this purpose in professional laundries.

Acetic acid is a weak organic acid - the key ingredient in vinegar. It is readily degradable and has no adverse effects in the environment except for the use of oxygen for degradation. It is also readily degradable under anaerobic conditions.

Acetic acid has to be stored and handled with care.

Di alkyl di-methyl ammonium chlorides, DADMAC

This group of cationic surfactants was once widely used for softening or antistatics. E.g. the substance DSDMAC was the main constituent of textile fabric softeners. Also DADMAC was widely used.

These substances are not readily degradable and are very toxic to aquatic organisms.


This group of substances contains the main active ingredients of today’s fabric softeners.

Esterquats are readily degradable and have low toxicity to aquatic organisms.

Further information can be found at the Australian Government website:


Function: Neutralise any surfactants left in the textiles and prevent static electricity.

Examples: Esterquats, DADMAC

Synonyms: Softeners, Rinse additives

Environmental impacts: Differs greatly between the different chemicals groups used. See below.

Phased out!

DADMAC and DSDMAC has been phased out of most detergents for professional use several years back due to its potential negative environmental effects.

Soft with vinegar...

In professional laundries the use of complex softeners is often substituted with addition of a small amount of acetic acid to the rinse. In combination with the use of softened water this is sufficient to provide a soft touch.