Vinegar as a Fabric Softener

In my new home I finally had the room for my own washing machine. And when I had my first laundry day I found out that I had forgotten to buy fabric softener. And naive as  was I did my laundry without fabric softener. Something I regretted when I came out of the shower and dried my face with a towel. It felt darn close to taking a grater to my face.

So doing your own laundry without a fabric softener isn’t a good idea. This did make me wonder though.

What does it do?

I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t wondered what fabric softeners do. So I started reading up on fabric softeners and what they do and how they do it. During my search on the internet I stumbled across a thread on a forum where someone recommended using cleaning vinegar as a fabric softener. I never heard of someone using vinegar in such a way, so I dug a bit deeper on the subject.

One of the first things mentioned is that vinegar is hypo alergenic, and thus perfect for anyone with sensitive skin or allergies. It seems it’s even better then hypo allergenic fabric softeners.

It also functions the same as normal fabric softeners as it:

  • Removes any detergent left in your clothing.
  • Prevents scale from settling in your clothes (which is the main reason it works as a fabric softener).
  • Prevents leeching of colour (didn’t find anything that actually confirms this claim).

After reading all that information I was curious enough to actually try it myself.

Experimenting with vinegar

The hardest part with this experiment was figuring out how much vinegar I should use so that it would act as a fabric softener. There are a lot of tips in the internet recommending vinegar as a replacement. However, almost no practical information about how to use it is available.

After a lot of digging I found a few numbers on an American forum. The users there used around half a cup, to one cup, of vinegar for their washing machines. Considering the size and efficiency differences with European washing machines I settled on a starting dose of 50ml (almost 1/4 cup).

After using the 50ml of vinegar as a replacement for fabric softeners I did notice a difference in the softness of my laundry. Although it wasn’t really a good result. So I started experimenting with dosages between 75ml and 100ml of vinegar (depending on the load in my washing machine). And this change did the trick.

My laundry now felt almost as soft, as soft, or even softer compared to laundry washed with a fabric softener. I still don’t know exactly what causes the “performance” differences. However I have the suspicion it has to do with how fast my laundry dries, and the fact that I dry my laundry on a clothesline (which is probably the biggest contributor to the varying results).

I save quite a lot of electricity by using a clothes line instead of a clothes dryer. The fact that this impacts how soft my laundry is has to do with movement. As fabric tumbles around in a clothes dryer the movement breaks up any scale in your laundry, this makes the fabric feel softer and fluffier. The same thing happens when you dry you clothes on a clothesline on a windy day. But considering I have my clothesline indoors, I can’t take benefit of this effect.

Also I have noticed that the result depends on the quality of the fabrics you use. Of course this has to do with how well the used fabrics are made, but this is not the point I’m trying to make here. Quality of a fabric deteriorates due to wear and tear, and this influences how well vinegar works as a fabric softener. I have some very old towels (I ‘inherited’ them from my parents, and I can remember my parents having them at least for 10 years) and every time I washed them I noticed that the vinegar doesn’t work as well on them as on my new towels. A fabric softener does a lot better in that situation than vinegar. And this effect is there in fabrics that aren’t as old and worn, although almost not noticeable (if you do, it’s time to replace the items in question, as I’m doing with the towels).

Also one thing I was comprehensive about was how my laundry would smell after I used vinegar as  a fabric softener. Would it smell like vinegar or some other unpleasant odour? To my relief it didn’t smell, it didn’t smell of much really. It just smells like clean and freshly washed laundry. The only time it did smell like vinegar was when I used to much. And I only smelled it for a few seconds when the fabrics would get wet (I only smelled it when I was drying my face, and it vanished so fast the first two times I wasn’t sure if I actually had smelled it).

In total it just took me about 5 laundry days to figure out how to use it. Which is fast for something with not much practical information about on the internet.

Environmental impact

One of the nenefits of vinegar, being as efficient as it is in breaking down scale and removing suds, is that it will extend the life of your washing machine. Parts will not suffer the wear and tear from the build up of suds, and most importantly, scale. As scale is one of biggest contributors to wear and tear to the parts of your washing machine.

So your washing machine will last longer, without as much maintenance, and usage of replacement parts. Which reduces the amount of waste coming out of your household (and saving you money at the same time). So less material ends up in landfills or has to be recycled.

Considering cleaning vinegar only contains acetic acid and water it really can’t do much harm to the environment. However I do recommend trying to find a cleaning vinegar that has been made from organic sources, as vinegar can be made from petrochemicals (chemicals extracted from mineral oil).

Also vinegar is biodegradable as it is an organic compound. It does use oxygen during its degrading process, so it can pull oxygen from the waterways it is released in. Although this shouldn’t be a problem for water passing through a sewage treatment plant (and for your local environment vinegar is the least of it’s problem if untreated sewage is released into it). It also readily degrades in anaerobic conditions (no oxygen environments).

I can’t find any really good information on the environmental effects of fabric softeners. The only one that I dare list, as it is the least “paranoid” on the subject, is the website sixwise. It is true that fabric softeners contain quite a lot of different chemicals to produce the desired effects. And some of them can be quite nasty in certain dosages. I dare not say anything on this subject as I don’t have the data.

That said, I rather err on the safe side with our already stressed ecosystems. And rather recommend vinegar than a regular fabric softener.

How to use it

As vinegar removes scale and sudge from the inside of your washing machine you can be left with an enormous mess if you use it for the first time with laundry in the machine. You can image that this isn’t a good experience if you, or any one else, uses vinegar for the first time (I didn’t have this problem as my washing machine is brand new).

So before you try this out for yourself, follow these instructions: pour 100ml (almost half a cup) of vinegar in the detergent dispenser of your washing machine, and let it run a complete cycle without any laundry in it. Repeat till there is no foam in your washing machine at the end of the cycle, and no foam in the water during a cycle (do not add more as the vinegar itself can foam if you overload water with it).

For my washing machine, with a load capacity of 6kg, and the water hardness I have I’m quite happy with 75ml of vinegar per load. Ofcourse, your milage may vary.

A general rule of thumb is:

  • The harder the water your have, the more vinegar you need. If you have very hard water start with 100ml of vinegar per load (assuming your load capacity is the same). For moderate hard and for very soft water you need 75ml of vinegar.
  • The higher the load capacity of your washing machine, the more vinegar you need. Giving an exact figure for this is hard as it depends on the amount of water used by your machine. Try adding 25ml more if you aren’t satisfied with the softness of your laundry.
  • The more water your washing machine uses, you need to add more vinegar. Here I can’t give you an exact figure, as this is also greatly dependent on when and how your washing machine uses it’s water. Try adding 25ml extra if you have an older washing machine and see if you’re happy with the results.

If the above is a bit to complecated (I would probably find it that way if I wanted to use vinegar for the first time), just start with 75ml of vinegar for a new washing machine. And use 100ml if you have a larger one than mine or if yours is older than 4 years.

And use the general rule of thumb instructions for adjustments and understanding how the vinegar might work in your situation. And if you run into a snag along the way, or have questions, just ask me for help. I did the work so you don’t have to.

Good luck and have fun experimenting.

Collin Maessen is the founder and editor of Real Skeptic and a proponent of scientific skepticism. For his content he uses the most up to date and best research as possible. Where necessary consulting or collaborating with scientists.