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Is fabric softener a good hair conditioner?

Ling loves to learn…I was reading this post about replacing hair conditioner with fabric softener. The blogger’s mother found this “idea” through Woman’s World magazine.  This sounds really dangerous….. Could the magazine be sued for liability issues? But most importantly, is this a bad idea?

The Beauty Brains respond: 

It amazes me that people are scared to death of the so called “toxic ingredients” in cosmetics (which are designed to be used on skin) but they have no problem applying a household laundry product to their body (which is NOT designed to be used directly on hair and skin.) There are two main reasons why this is a bad idea:

Putting laundry products directly on your skin is not safe

Despite what  people may tell you, cosmetics ARE regulated to ensure they are safe.  These products are  formulated and tested to ensure they are safe for direct, prolonged contact with skin. Not surprisingly the laws that govern fabric softeners are different than the ones that control cosmetics. That’s not to say that fabric softeners are necessarily dangerous but they contain ingredients that aren’t designed to be directly applied to skin. Here are three examples:

  • The conditioning ingredients themselves may be more aggressive and therefore more irritating.
  • The colorants don’t have to be approved for use in cosmetics and therefore may be unsafe.
  • The co-solvents used (which would be rinsed away in the laundry process) may dry skin or have other undesirable side effects.

Fabric softener won’t work as well as conditioner

Even if safety wasn’t an issue, why would you want to do this? Fabric softeners are formulated to soften fabric where as hair conditioners are designed to detangle, smooth, and increase shine. The two products are similar but that doesn’t mean they are interchangeable. Here are a few examples of characteristics that you want from a conditioner that a fabric softener is NOT optimized to deliver.  

  • Nice hair feel: Fabric softening ingredients have a stronger charge than many hair conditioners so they may stick to fabric to provide long-lasting softness. This is a good thing when it comes to your clothes which you wash rather infrequently. However in the case of your hair, repeated frequent use of fabric softer could result in horrific buildup. Also, the types of quats (quaternary ammonium compounds) used in hair conditioners are fine-tuned to deliver the best aesthetic experience possible. The ingredients that are good at softening fabric may leave hair feeling heavy and limp with a notable waxy coating.
  • Increased shine: A good conditioner will include some sort of agent to add shine to your hair, for example a silicone. You will not find this in a fabric softener since “shine” is typically not desirable of clothing.
  • Pleasant scent: Fabric softeners are heavily fragranced you may find yourself choking on the scent of Downey or Snuggle compared to your typical hair care product.

The Beauty Brains bottom line

While fabric softener may function as a hair conditioner why would you bother when you’re risking excessive buildup, poor performance, and skin irritation or worse? As we noted in our recent post about using lip gloss as eye shadow, there’s a lot of bad beauty advice out there. Fortunately the Muse was savvy enough to NOT recommend using this do-it-yourself product.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Eileen April 4, 2014, 10:31 am

    It’s amazing what some people will consider doing for the sake of saving a bit of money, and that is how these ideas are usually promoted. Clothing fabric softener is certainly much cheaper than a hair conditioner but they are intended for entirely different uses. It is beyond me how a person could reasonably think one product could substitute for another–unless they read about it in a print publication, saw it in a video (i.e. Refinery 29’s irresponsible use lip gloss as eyeshadow video), heard about it through the proverbial grapevine, etc. I know that the consumer bears the ultimate responsibility for being well educated and informed, but the media also has a responsibility to do their due diligence before publishing such potentially harmful ideas. I’ll step off my soap box now. Oh, wait! Is it safe to stand on a soap box in the first place? LOL

    • admin April 4, 2014, 2:14 pm

      Stand on a box of detergent bars instead, it’s less drying to your skin.

  • Ling April 4, 2014, 3:44 pm

    @ the beauty brains: Thanks for the answer. Not that I wanted to do it, but I wanted to confirm my suspicions.

    @Eileen: yeah, I agree about the media. I can’t believe that a MAGAZINE published this!!!!! They should be held accountable for this.

  • Anna January 15, 2015, 4:35 pm

    Thank you for this – I would not go in that direction (fabric softener as hair conditioner) but I sometimes use hair conditioners I don’t like as fabric softeners, especially on fibres like silk or wool, in hand wash. I wonder what’s your take on that? I hate to see good hair conditioner that doesn’t work for me get completely wasted…

    • Randy Schueller January 16, 2015, 6:53 am

      Hair conditioners and fabric conditioners do have some ingredients in common so I suppose this could work. It depends on what’s in the formula you’re using. Some hair conditioners contain silicones that can build up on fabric but if you’re seeing good results I guess it’s fine.

      • Anna January 18, 2015, 2:36 am

        No silicones 🙂 thank you, Randy.

    • Chelsea January 2, 2016, 2:01 pm

      I use conditioner I don’t like as shaving cream until it’s gone. I’ve actually come to prefer it to traditional shaving creams.

      Also, my conditioner is like $6 and it lasts about a month. My fabric softener is closer to ten and it never lasts an entire month. I think even the cheapest fabric softener is more expensive than the cheapest conditioner.

  • vaneeta ingram January 23, 2015, 12:11 pm

    Have you really researched the ingredients in shampoos and conditioners? Synthetic hair wigs extention are made of plastics and animal hair (wool) anyway human hair is a fiber much like your clothes. If you know what you are doing then yes it can be used as a hair conditioner. Do your own reasearch!!!!!

  • Karen February 16, 2016, 11:55 am

    My mom used fabric softener in my hair when I was a child back in the 60’s. It made my hair super soft and it’s great on de-tangling. I never had a bad reaction from it nor did it damage my hair.

    • Ermac Beck May 7, 2016, 8:48 pm

      I think you have to weigh practicality with common sense. If it wouldn’t be reasonable to expect a random person to say yes if you asked that same person if you can put it on their hair just to try it, don’t put it on yours. And even if they did say yes neither of you should unless you’re willing to deal with potential consequences which could be disastrous. And have signed a waiver waiving all parties of any responsibility for putting industrial chemicals on hair and nobody actually cares if something bad might happen. Although in cases of death…. you’re still liable.

      However, if it works awesomely for you, GREAT! But I really wouldn’t advocate using it for other people because it might not work the same. And, could have, again, disasterous consequences even if it worked really well for you. Kind of like how I love peanut butter but peanuts actually kill some people.

      If you have spurious beauty secrets that are unusual and REALLY REALLY WORK, I would preface it with a blackbox warning similar to “This is definitely a bad idea if it doesn’t work as expected and may cause health problems, disease, disfigurement, or death. Do not actually try this for any reason; this is purely an editorial journalistic piece.”

      I’m no chemist but when I think about how a capful is designed to loosen the fibers on an entire washtub of clothes, the chemicals might be concentrated beyond a point that would be safe for use as cosmetics even if you happen to discover that by a fluke that they actually *are* exactly the same ingredients in a fabric softener and a hair conditioner. Hair conditioners would be PH balanced for hair and to be safe for use on people. Fabric softeners would be PH balanced to soften clothes without damaging them. They’re not interchangeable. Considering how some people slather on copious amounts of hair conditioner on their hair, I would definitely forsee a skin reaction occurring if fabric softener was slathered on to hair the same way since fabric softener softens clothes with just a little bit going into a tub of laundry.

      Furthermore, even if the ingredients other than water are the same it doesn’t mean they will have the same result; the chemicals might be mixed in proportions that are different in each product. Imagine mixing up making soda and baking powder. They both have a common ingredient and use, but are not for the same thing and substituting them at equal volume will ruin someone’s birthday cake. So, proportion of ingredients as well as product activation methods might have a result of making it unsafe for fabric softener to use on hair even if the list of ingredients is the same as a kind of hair conditioner. While I’m no chemist, I would venture to guess fabric softener would have to be diluted with an arbitrarily large amount of water until all ingredients in the fabric softener were at safe levels for use on hair. There is no way for you to measure this in all practicality. That would make this, well, impractical.

      Similarly, I would guess hair conditioners used as fabric softeners would require more product to achieve the same level of chemical concentrations to effectively soften fabrics which could have other undesirable effects such as damage to fabrics. It just seems impractical either way.

      Moreover, fabric softener could be very concentrated whereas hair conditioner probably isn’t. Fabric softener is not PH balanced for use on human hair or skin and as a result could cause chemical burns, hair loss, blindness, allergic reactions, or death.

      That said, I put a quarter teaspoon of fabric softener with a cup of water on my hair and used a dot of dishsoap as an emulsifier and stirred vigorously and poured it on my hair, avoiding my eyes. I rinsed vigorously, avoiding my eyes. Nothing horrible happened. In fact my hair looks f***ing fantastic. But don’t do it. You might have unanticipated results. So. Don’t be a Nike. Just don’t. (Seriously… if that little fabric softener worked there is some seriously strong chemicals in there.)

      Bottom line: It’s highly risky, probably stupid, it might work, but it could ruin you for life. Or death. Just don’t.

  • Hannah February 23, 2016, 7:00 pm

    I’ve used fabric softener in my hair before. I’m sure it could potentially be dangerous considering it’s not necessarily meant for direct contact with skin. But I would like to point out that we do actually touch it on a regular basis. If we wash our clothes and use it, that soft feeling is the coating on the clothing from the softener which then touches our skin. Obviously it’s very diluted, though. When I used it, I never had any bad reactions and my hair was extra soft and very manageable. I didn’t use it to save money, I was trying to find something to make my hair more manageable. Anywhos, if you’re willing to take a risk then try it, but realize, since everyone is different, you may not like the results.

  • Marie Lord April 6, 2017, 6:59 pm

    I have used fabric softener to remove wallpaper and years of build up grime from formica. I recently stopped adding to my towels and sheet sets to see if this is the reason for hair loss. Just wet a dryer sheet and put it in a pan with stuck on food. It removes it slick as a whistle. What the heck is it doing to our body

  • Thomas Roth December 22, 2018, 12:28 pm

    I tried it and lived to tell you about it. It’s great!! And no static cling.

  • Michelle Price September 29, 2019, 10:07 am

    I have used it, it worked wonders for me.