Does Fabric Softener Clean Clothes?

If you’ve ever run out of laundry detergent after loading up your washing machine, you might be tempted to use a capful of fabric softener instead. But does fabric softener clean clothes?

Fabric softener does not clean clothes. Instead, it adds lipids (fatty compounds) to clothing, making them softer and more resistant to static electricity. Therefore, you cannot wash laundry with fabric softener alone to get them clean. 

Understanding which products to use when washing clothes is essential to enjoying the cleanest laundry. This article will explore whether you can use fabric softeners to clean your clothes and related questions. Keep reading to learn more. 

Does Fabric Softener Clean Clothes?

Unfortunately, fabric softener does not clean clothes. It can help your clothes feel softer and smell better, but it cannot separate dirt and oil from fabrics. You’ll need a lye-based soap like Fels-Naptha or laundry detergent (both are surfactants) to clean clothes.

What Is the Point of Fabric Softener?

The point of fabric softener is to soften clothing, eliminate wrinkles, and reduce static electricity (generated while clothing tumbles in a dryer). Additionally, many fabric softeners also contain fragrances to help clothes smell better. 

While laundry detergent strips away body oils, dirt, and other common clothing contaminants, fabric softener makes clothing more comfortable by making them softer. These treated clothes are more gentle on bare skin, reducing chafing and discomfort. 

Additionally, the lipids in fabric softeners can also reduce static electricity while clothes are tumble-drying. This ensures that clothes don’t stick together while drying, resulting in a faster drying time. 

Reduced static electricity in your drying machine also makes it easier to fold recently-dried clothes! So instead of peeling apart your clothes after they’ve finished drying, you can immediately put them away.

Another benefit (or purpose) of fabric softener is that it can reduce wrinkles in clothing. The fats imparted by fabric softeners tend to “plump up” fabrics, making them slightly heavier and more resistant to developing unsightly wrinkles.

Is Fabric Softener and Laundry Detergent the Same?

Fabric softener and laundry detergent are not the same. Laundry detergent is a surfactant that helps separate dirt and oil from fabrics. In contrast, fabric softener is a lipid-based cleaning product that makes fabrics softer and fresh-smelling. 

Surfactants are amphiphilic, meaning they consist of molecules with a water-attracting head and a water-repelling tail. Essentially, surfactants like laundry detergent effectively pull dirt from laundry and carry them away using the water in your washing machine. 

On the other hand, fabric softener isn’t a surfactant. Instead, it’s a combination of fragrances and lipids (fatty molecules).

In short, you can wash laundry without using a fabric softener and still get clean clothes. However, your clothes will still be soiled if you attempt to wash them with fabric softener but without laundry detergent. 

What Can I Use if I Have No Laundry Detergent?

Suppose you’re about to wash a load of dirty laundry, but discover that you’ve run out of laundry detergent. In this case, you don’t want to make a beeline for the fabric softener. After all, fabric softener alone won’t help you clean your clothes. 

Fortunately, you can use several common household products in place of laundry detergent.

If you have no laundry detergent, you can use distilled white vinegar, baking soda, boric acid (borax), or dish soap to clean your clothes. The amount you’ll want to use for each product varies depending on your laundry load size. For example, when using dish soap, only use a teaspoon. 

These are multipurpose cleaning products that you can easily find around your home. Plus, most are safe to use around children and pets, although borax should be used with care, as it can cause skin irritation and severe symptoms (when consumed). 

Baking soda and vinegar are amongst the most lauded DIY cleaning products, and their effects are just as useful on clothing. They both do a marvelous job at removing stains, eliminating odors, and softening and brightening clothes. 

When using vinegar or baking soda, the general rule is to pour in ½ a cup to a full cup (250 to 500 ml). 

Also, if you’re wondering whether you can use baking soda and vinegar together in the washing machine, 21 Oak suggests choosing one of the two or using them at different times in the wash cycle. This is because baking soda and vinegar have different ph levels that can offset each other, losing the advantages of both. 

Therefore, go for one ingredient, or use baking soda in the wash cycle and vinegar during the rinse cycle. 

It’s also worth noting that baking soda and vinegar are less likely to create excess suds, unlike dish soap.

If you’d like more information on how to wash clothes without detergent, read my other article, Can You Wash Clothes Without Detergent?

Can I Mix Fabric Softener With Laundry Detergent?

Generally, fabric softener is added to laundry after the initial wash cycle. This is because pouring fabric softener onto your wet clothing during the rinse cycle ensures that the product sinks into the fabric without entirely washing away. 

However, you might also wonder if mixing fabric softener with laundry detergent is okay. 

You should not mix fabric softener with laundry detergent, as they can decrease the effectiveness of each other. They have different purposes, and the detergent may wash away the softener. Additionally, the softener can lower the cleaning ability of the detergent. 

Therefore, it’s recommended that you use fabric softener and laundry detergent separately. Add laundry detergent during the wash cycle and softener in the rinse cycle to get soft, fresh-smelling clothes. 


Although fabric softener can make your clothes come out of the drier feeling softer, smoother, and smelling great, it’s not a soap-based solution. As such, it doesn’t clean clothes in the same way as laundry detergent or plain soap.

However, if you run out of laundry detergent, you can use baking soda, powdered borax, or white vinegar in a pinch.

You can also use dish soap, but if you add too much, your washing machine could overflow with bubbles—so exercise caution!

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