Fabric softeners are designed to reduce the amount of static in synthetic fibers, and are composed of many chemicals, some of which can be major irritants on the skin and body. Babies, children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are typically more sensitive to the chemicals in fabric softeners and are more likely to experience reactions.
Contact dermatitis is the technical name for a reaction on the skin when it makes contact with an offending allergen, such as fabric softener. Mayo Clinic explains that the signs and symptoms of a fabric softener reaction can include a red rash or bumps, itching, pain, tenderness or a localized skin rash. Two of the chemicals in fabric softener responsible for this reaction, states the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia, are quanternium and imidazolidinyl, described as formaldehyde releasers. A more severe allergy to fabric softener can cause hives -- small, swollen welts -- to form on the skin.
According to the Dayton Ear, Nose, and Throat Surgeons, Inc., fumes from fabric softener can irritate some people, leading to tiredness, difficulty breathing, anxiety, dizziness, headaches, faintness and memory troubles.
Remove clothing that you suspect is causing the reaction and avoid scratching the affected area. Over-the-counter anti-itch creams that contain hydrocortisone can typically relieve discomfort, as can wet dressings applied to the skin. Mayo Clinic states that it can take two to four weeks for a skin reaction to clear up, so be patient and avoid recontact with allergens.
If hives develop, administer Benadryl or another over-the-counter antihistamine, and continue to administer it every six hours until symptom severity abates.
While fabric softener feels refreshing and makes your clothes feel nice, there are alternatives if you have a fabric softener allergy. According to PlanetGreen, a Discovery Channel affiliate that discusses health and environmental topics, you can replace your fabric softener with vinegar to soften up your laundry naturally. Add three-fourths of a cup of vinegar to the final rinse cycle of a load of laundry.
If you are concerned about a fabric softener allergy, wash your clothes again and see if the symptoms reoccur. If they do, see an allergist to receive a thorough, official diagnosis.
See your doctor if you experience sleep disturbances from skin discomfort, skin infection or pain, or if you are embarrassed by the way your skin looks.