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Ride Horses? Chances are Your Laundry Does. GROSS Fabric Softening Facts!

Updated on October 24, 2012

Few can argue about the beauty of horse. Whether you like the racing Thoroughbreds of the Kentucky Derby, the graceful beauty of the intelligent Arabian or the gentle giants of the horse world like the Clydesdales. Horses are simply gorgeous with those manes and tales flowing in the air as the gallop away! Some people enjoy riding horses. I’ve done it a handful or times. FYI - I am absolutely terrible at it and the poor horses have known it. They like to go wherever they please. Still, it was rather fun. So, when I began the process of making my home greener, I found one easy step to take was to switch what I was using for fabric softener. I thought, that seems simple, I can do that! And I am not sure what prompted me, but I decided to find out what regular fabric softener had in it. What I found out was in a word – GROSS!!! I am not a vegetarian OR animal rights type person (although I do love animals, I just don’t go picketing anything for them). So, if you were wondering what is making your clothing feel so nice and soft it is the FAT from HORSES, SHEEP and COWS! I know – ewwwwwwwwwwwww. Cause really, it doesn’t matter where the fat comes from I don’t want it on my clothing!!

Slurry of fat - this is base ingredient for making your clothing soft - a cozy layer of fat - yum!
Slurry of fat - this is base ingredient for making your clothing soft - a cozy layer of fat - yum! | Source

Did you know that animal fat formed the base ingredient to fabric softener?

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The Problem

Well, they can’t go listing that on their ingrediants list. Actually, if you pick up your favorite brand of fabric softener 9 times out of 10 you are going to find utterly lacking in the list of ingredient department. Usually it lists something along the lines of “biodegradable fabric softening agents (cationic)”. Well, the last time I checked, fat was definitely biodegradable. Bacteria love it in fact! Although bacteria eating fat kinda makes a horrifying smell… hmmm (more on that later). Okay, so since it isn’t listed as “fat” or as anything really, what is it? It is dihydrogenated tallow dimethyl ammonium chloride. That’s right, dihyro-tallow-say-what? Ok, so if you speak science, tallow is rendered fat from the horses, cows and sheep. Then ammonium is added to it and after some nifty lab stuff happens, out comes something called a quaternary ammonium compound or quat. This hydophobic [hydo(water) + phobic(fearing)] compound essentially coats the suface of the fabric with a layer of lipids rendering them softer and also less absorbent. This is why they are not recommended for things like cloth diapers and towels or other items that need to absorb water.

But there are other “fun” things in that fatty slurry we call fabric softener. And most of them are there because it IS a slurry of fat. Here are just a few of what you might find. Individual chemicals vary by brand, but any that uses Quats generally has an ingredient from one f these categories also added to it.

Calcium Chloride aka Road De-Icer
Calcium Chloride aka Road De-Icer | Source
Formic Acid naturally occurs in bee venom
Formic Acid naturally occurs in bee venom | Source
An application of ATMP would have prevented a lot of this corrosion!
An application of ATMP would have prevented a lot of this corrosion! | Source
Vodka doesn’t freeze because it is alcohol, so adding ethanol or isopropanol works like antifreeze to the fluid.
Vodka doesn’t freeze because it is alcohol, so adding ethanol or isopropanol works like antifreeze to the fluid. | Source
Water a significant component of the mix. Your are paying for something free, hmm.
Water a significant component of the mix. Your are paying for something free, hmm. | Source
Commercial grade fragrance is what sells the product & keeps it from smelling like decay!
Commercial grade fragrance is what sells the product & keeps it from smelling like decay! | Source

Calcium Chloride– also known as ROAD DE-ICER. It works marvelous at that, one common brand is Safe Step which you can buy to de-ice your driveway. This compound is a type of salt which is why they add it to the softener. Since quats tend to clump into fatty, goopy clots, adding calcium chloride helps to draw the water out of the molecules & keep everything a nice smooth fluid.

Formic Acid– also known as methanoic acid and a naturally occurring substance in the venom of bee and ant stings. At room temperature it is clear but has a rather distinctive, stinky odor. Why would they use something that smells? Good question. As I mentioned above all that highly biodegradeable fat needs to made to not biodegrade before its intended purpose. Since it attracts bacteria so well, you need to add a good old fashioned preservative and antibacterial agent like Formic Acid to your mix. Otherwise, if you opened that bottle, you wouldn’t need that Formic Acid to make a stink from rotting fat!

Amino Trimethyl Phosphonic Acid– also known as ATMP is used as a water conditioner to reduce scale, and on metal as a corrosion inhibitor. In fabric softener, it works to keep the product stable, meaning, keep all nice and together and not separating like oil and vinegar.

Lactic Acid– also known as milk acid. It is a naturally occurring byproduct of metabolism and exercise (too much and your muscles ache) and naturally occurs in your mouth (too much and you develop cavities). In the magical chemical concoction of fabric softener, if you add lactic acid, it works as an emulsifier and reduces the pH of the liquid while also keeping the liquid evenly mixed and it thickens it to the density we are used to seeing. The lower pH helps reduce the likelihood of bacterial munching on the fatty lipid components and the thickness gives the consumer a false perception of getting more value for their money. Afterall, it came out watery-thin, you would think you were being tricked into buying an inferior product!

Ethanol or Isopropanol – also known as grain alcohol and rubbing alcohol respectively. These can be added, depending on the market, to keep those fats from freezing. Enjoy a cocktail or even just watch movies? Ever seen a bottle of vodka come out of a freezer? It is very cold but it doesn’t freeze! By adding this your chemical goo keeps flowing, even in the winter in Anchorage, Alaska. At least I think so, I haven’t actually tested theory because I have never been to Anchorage and even if I did go… I wouldn’t be using fabric softener!

Water – also known as, well, water of course. Water makes up a lot of what you are buying. And it is the ONE thing that is completely safe so you need not worry about this one. It is neither toxic or gross. Sadly, you are already adding it to you wash cycle, which by its very nature contains water. Therefore, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize there is no added benefit.

Fragrance – also known as perfume, scent, “mountain fresh”, “springtime”, “lavender fields”, “newborn baby”, “fluffy bunnies”, etc… This is what SELLS you on the product right?!?!? You WANT that scent, you CRAVE how good your clothing smells. Well, honestly, it is ESSENTIAL because without it your fabric softener would smell like a, ummmmmm…. horse’s rear end! And nobody would buy that! Which brings to mind, why buy fabric softener at all?

The Solution

The easiest and most cost effective swap is to ditch the fabric softener and buy yourself a big gallon jug of white distilled vinegar. That’s right, I said vinegar! Among the many uses I find for vinegar around my house it is a staple in the laundry room. Simple fill your fabric softener dispenser with the same amount you would use of fabric softener and you are good to go. This has an added benefit if you have a front-loading washer. They are great at saving water but especially if you have been using commercial fabric softener you may have noticed an odor building up. This is from bacteria in your machine chowing down on those fats. Run about 2-3 cups vinegar with hot water only through to help clean your machine of the nasties, do this about once a month. But as for anyone else, if you have no dispenser, no worries. Grab a Downy ball from the grocery store, fill to the line & toss it in. Voila! For pennies a load your clothing will be soft, your towels more absorbent and they will come out smelling like whatever laundry detergent you use.

For extra softness and to reduce drying time, use about 4-6 dryer balls in your dryer. I recommend wool balls over the plastic ones as there is no emission of fumes. Just do an internet search on them and you find some cool wool balls to buy online. Or, if you are clever, you can make them yourself. Here is good DIY link that explains the process.


Lastly, if you really don’t want to do either of those because you don’t need to save money and/or don’t like balls jumping around in your dryer, never fear I have one more option for you! You can STILL buy your fabric softener at the store in many lovely scents, just make sure it is vegetable based. Here are some suggested brands to check out: Method, Mrs. Myers Clean Day, Ecover, and Seventh Generation. There are some other mom and pop brands too, so just do a little research. They tend to use naturally derived ingrediants and less toxic chemicals too so it is a win-win with them.

Happy Laundering - the horses, cows, and sheep thank you! Neigh - Moo - Baa!


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    • My2GreenBeans profile image

      My2GreenBeans 5 years ago from Tennessee

      First of all... Ghandi is truly and inspiration! Glad you found this hub useful! Once I found out what was in fabric softener & how easy it was to swap it with all natural vinegar, it was a no brainer. I have many vegetarian friends who of course were sickened by the ingredients but I think the majority of consumers would be too if they only knew it was animal fat on their clothing that they are rubbing their noses in and saying....mmmmm smells so nice!

    • Faceless39 profile image

      Faceless39 5 years ago from The North Woods, USA

      This is packed full of useful information and the image of the fat slurry is alarming to say the least. I'm a moderate vegetarian who likes to keep quiet about my views (for the most part) and just be the change I want to see in the world. That said, this is disgusting, and though I'd like to feel surprised, I'm not.

      Thanks for the thorough investigation and insight. Voted up, useful, and interesting. You also just gained a new follower. Great work