What’s the difference between fabric softener and dryer sheets?

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My bottle of Downy fabric softener boasts that it’s “better together” with dryer sheets (Downy brand, of course). I know a lot of people that use one or the other, or neither, but not a whole lot who use both. It’s probably because many people aren’t sure if they do different things.

Both fabric softener and dryer sheets add scent and softness and reduce wrinkles and static, they work a little differently and don’t have the exact same outcomes. “Fabric conditioner is infused during the wash cycle and goes into the actual fibers of the fabric to condition and protect clothes from stretching, fading and fuzzing, while dryer sheets are heat activated in the dryer and work on the surface to fight wrinkles and static,” explains Mary Johnson, P&G fabric care scientist. “Think of fabric conditioner as the conditioner you apply to your hair after you shampoo, and dryer sheets as the finishing hairspray you apply when you’re done styling.”

They sound like delightful benefits, but not everyone is so enamored with them. Cleaning expert Jolie Kerr basically thinks fabric softener belongs in one of Dante’s circles of Hell. There are definitely some fabrics that don’t mix well with the liquid. Coating towels, microfiber, and athletic gear with conditioner makes them all less effective. Towels won’t absorb as well, microfiber can’t pick up dust as well, and your gym clothes won’t wick away sweat properly. Fabric softener bottles also carry a warning about using them on children’s sleepwear, because it reduces flame resistance. It can similarly affect fabrics such as fleece and chenille. Vinegar offers an alternative for things like towels. It can also soften fabric and reduce static.

Sadly, one fabric softener seems to be unavailable. Sofft was a Kickstarter project from 2014 that promised we’d barely have to wash our clothes again, because it turned your ordinary wardrobe into stain-repellent garments when you added it to the laundry cycle. Think of how naturally soft your jeans would become if you didn’t have to throw them in the washer for months at a time.

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