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Most homeowners who rely on septic systems are diligent about what they flush into their systems, making sure to only flush items on the approved list. They follow the “no FOG” rule of keeping your drains free of fats, oils and grease. They are careful about what their family flushes down the toilets, and they avoid doing multiple loads of laundry in a row, so as not to overwhelm their septic tank.

However, if you are using fabric softener for each load of laundry because it leaves your laundry cuddly soft, smelling fresh, and static-free, you may be unknowingly disrupting the balance of bacteria in your tank. These everyday products can have a devastating impact on your septic system (not to mention you and your loved ones. Fabric softeners coat clothes with slimy chemicals.  The chemicals in softeners cause the fabric in clothes to become electrically charged, and the threads stand up to form the surface, which causes the fabric to feel softer.

Here is the truth about how fabric softener is affecting your septic system and safe alternatives you can use instead.


What are Fabric Softeners?

Fabric softeners are just as they sound, they intend to keep your clothes and other laundry soft. Fabric softeners come in two forms – liquid that is added during the rinse cycle and dryer sheets. First developed in the early 1900s to soften fabrics after they had been dyed, liquid fabric softeners initially contained soap and oils such as tallow.

Today, fabric softeners are a petroleum-based cocktail containing a wide variety of harsh chemicals, emulsifiers, fragrances and artificial colors. Many contain silicon, acids, and quaternary ammonium compounds (commonly referred to as QUATS). Added during the rinse cycle, the softener coats the fabric in a small layer of chemicals that are electrically charged, making them soft.

Dryer sheets, which were introduced in the 1970s, are woven sheets of fibers coated with heat-activated fabric softener that transfers to your laundry when tumbled in the dryer. Recent studies have shown that liquid fabric softeners or dryer sheets has been linked to many significant health risks, including dermatitis, asthma, reproductive problems and even cancer.

Fabric softeners also endanger your family by coating your laundry in flammable accelerants. Fabric softener builds up on the fibers of your clothes, so the longer you use fabric softener, the more flammable your laundry will be.

Some chemicals that are included in fabric softeners include petroleum products, silicone-based agents, fragrances, and hormone disruptors such as:

  • Benzyl acetate
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Ethanol
  • Limonene
  • Chloroform
  • And more.

These chemical names may mean nothing, but the harmful effects they have on your health and septic system can be dangerous.


The Effects of Fabric Softener on Your Septic System

Fabric softeners, just like other household cleaners and chemicals, can have devastating effects on your septic system. The impact on your septic system is two-fold – the chemicals within fabric softener attack your system’s ecosystem as well as interfere with the tank’s physical functioning. Most of the leading fabric softeners contain two problematic ingredients: petroleum products and quaternary ammonium compounds.

Petroleum products are made up of oil and make clothes feel especially soft because they leave behind a thin layer of a waxy-like substance. But it is for this reason that they should never be rinsed down the drain—they can solidify in lower temperatures and clog the pipes. They also do not break down in water. Instead, they typically form a layer of scum at the top of the septic tank, and the only way to get rid of it is through pumping.

Quats, on the other hand, are cationic surfactants with disinfectant properties. While you might want to disinfect your towels and clothes with every wash, rinsing antibacterial substances down the drain can kill the septic system microbes that break down waste. The quats in fabric softener are not only antibacterial, enabling them to kill off the good bacteria in your system’s tank, but they also contain nitrogen. Nitrogen concentrations in most domestic wastewater are between 50 and 60 milligrams per liter (mg/L), and the typical septic system is capable of removing 90% of these. Increasing this concentration by regularly using fabric softener means increasing the levels of nitrogen passing through your system, and ultimately more nitrogen finding its way into the groundwater.

Fragrance added to most softeners is a mixture of toxic ingredients like phthalates and synthetic musks, which are both suspected hormone disruptors.  Fragrances can be irritating and are among the world’s top five allergens. Some of the most popular fragrances and colors are a mixture of untested, toxic chemicals that can wreak havoc on your system and the environment. Petroleum products can also be toxic to the natural microbes in septic systems.


Safe Alternatives to Fabric Softeners

We understand the appeal of soft, fresh-smelling, static-free laundry. Luckily, there are safe alternatives (both for you and your septic system) to using chemically-laden, petroleum-based fabric softeners to achieve these results. Distilled white vinegar is a popular choice, offering great solutions to many common laundry woes. Try using a cup of white vinegar per a load of laundering during the rinse cycle.  This is a natural alternative and safe for clothing and the environment.  It is a natural sanitizer as well.  Adding essential oil and baking soda with the vinegar can add fragrance.  Make sure to purchase vinegar that is grain versus petroleum derived.

Alternatively, you can use natural wool or bamboo dryer balls to add fluff and softness to your clothes in the dryer instead of the washer. This easy switch will not harm your septic tank at all!



Using the right laundry products for your septic system is the best thing you can do. Not only does it extend the life of your system, but it protects the environment and your health as well.

At West Coast Sanitation, we know that you do not have time to deal with septic problems. One of the ways you can maintain this balance and keep your septic system working like it should is to have your tank pumped regularly. Please give us a call at (951) 780-5922 right away. We have professionals ready to answer your questions and get your system working properly again.