Clothes May Sizzle From Softeners

Ever get the feeling that nothing is safe anymore? We get danger warnings about everything from breakfast foods to tight underwear.

So I'm in my local supermarket in Anaheim looking at the fine-print labels on liquid fabric softeners and come across this phrase: "It may reduce flame resistance." Plus all kinds of other qualifiers.

Do I want to walk around with my flame resistance reduced?

This comes as no surprise to the private national consumer watchdog, Consumer Reports, which recently concluded new tests on liquid fabric softeners. Though it's not a federal agency that sets mandatory standards, its experts often perk up consumer awareness.

Its conclusion: "Consumers may want to rethink the way they do laundry."

Throw out your liquid fabric softeners, it recommends.

It warns that fabric softener build-up in some clothes can lead to dangerous levels of flammability. It recommends dryer sheets as an alternative for the laundering of most clothes, especially cotton fleece, flannel or terry.


Maybe you think this is carrying safety too far. After all, you aren't likely ever to be in a fire, right? But if your clothes do catch fire, wouldn't you want to be wearing something in which the flame will spread as slowly as possible?

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has banned all the most highly flammable fabrics. But all fabric burns at some point when exposed to a flame.

In its latest tests, Consumer Reports discovered that clothes laundered with dryer sheets burned at the same rate of speed as those with nothing added. But clothes laundered with liquid fabric softener burned faster in every test. And in three instances, the garments tested failed even to meet the minimum federal standards. Those were in a men's reverse-fleece sweatshirt, a women's all-cotton terry robe and a men's all-cotton velour robe.

But even more interesting was the test on children's sleepwear. Consumer Reports says its tests showed that after 50 launderings with liquid fabric softener, all-cotton pajamas met federal standards. But after 60 launderings, they all failed.

"The risk would most likely be borne by kids wearing these pajamas as hand-me-downs," its report states.

Dryer sheets won in this report, hands down.

Of course, many use a fabric softener to avoid static cling. If the dryer sheet doesn't cut it for you, the report says, hang synthetics to dry instead of machine drying them. (Yep, the old-fashioned way.)

Here's an important footnote from Consumer Reports: Read the warning labels.

If you want to question a manufacturer on your own, call Procter & Gamble's hotline at (800) 688-7638.


One other note on the report surprised me: It depicted a little girl in snug pajamas--"just right" said the caption. But depicted as "too loose" for safety was a little girl dressed exactly the way my daughter goes to bed, in a loose-fitting T-shirt (a hand-me-down from her parents that she turned into nightwear).

Here's the reason why, the report states: "Oversize T-shirts may be comfortable to sleep in, but for maximum safety, all-cotton sleepwear should fit snugly. The more air that can circulate around the cotton, the faster it will burn in a fire."

I doubt we'll convince our daughter to change her habits. But if your youngsters think they've outgrown tight-fitting pajamas, you might at least keep the Consumer Reports warning in mind.


Readers may reach Hicks by calling (714) 966-7789 or e-mail to

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