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Dryer Sheets | In-Depth Look at How They Work 

Dryer sheets are a staple in most laundry rooms. Adding a few sheets to a drying load makes clothes come out feeling softer and fresher, and it means you’re less likely to lose a sock up the sleeve of your jumper due to static.

You are probably aware of how dryer sheets make your clothes feel but do not know how they work. In this article, I provide detailed explanations of how dryer sheets work and how they affect your dryer.


Dryer sheets counter static, soften clothes, and add fragrance. Static is a charge imbalance, and dryer sheets are positively charged to absorb the free electrons. The softener coats clothes. Fragrance is released into the dryer and absorbed by clothes.

The Purpose of Dryer Sheets

Dryer sheets are small white pieces of materials, usually polyester or cellulose fibers, that have been coated with softening agents, fragrances, and lubricants.

They were first introduced to combat static electricity in tumble dryers and to reduce shocks. 

In addition to reducing static electricity, dryer sheets also soften clothes and add fragrance to the fabrics in the dryer.  

Each of these functions makes clothes more pleasant to wear. Let’s discuss each purpose and mechanism in detail.

Static Buildup Is Reduced by Dryer Sheets

How Static Builds up in a Dryer

Static electricity is an imbalance between positive and negative electric charges within or on the surface of an object. 

All objects are made up of atoms, and every atom is composed of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Electrons sit on the surface of objects and are responsible for static. 

Static is a common issue with cloth dryers because as clothes tumble in the dryer, they rub against each other, and this action causes electrons to be exchanged between fabrics in the dryer. 

The science behind this is simply the principle of opposite electric charges attracting each other. 

Thus, whenever there is an imbalance of electrons between the clothes in the dryer, fabrics with a weak affinity for electrons transfer electrons to those with a strong affinity for electrons. 

Factors Influencing the Level of Static Buildup in a Dryer

The following factors influence the level of static buildup:

  • The humidity level. Static is more likely to build up in low-humidity environments or whenever the air is dry. 
  • The type of materials in the dryer. Synthetic materials like polyester and nylon retain electric charge longer than natural fabrics. So, if they are dried together with materials like cotton or wool, it might result in static cling.
  • How dry the clothes are. Moisture provides a conductive path for displaced electrons to return to the original material, so whenever moisture dissipates from fabrics, they are more likely to develop a static charge.  

How Dryer Sheets Counter Static

What makes dryer sheets effective isn’t the sheet’s fabric but rather the coating on the fabric. 

Dryer sheets are coated with fabric softener or lubricant. 

Fabric softeners are positively charged, so adding them to your dryer can help balance out the electrons in fabrics. 

Whenever there is an imbalance of electric charge between fabrics in the dryer, fabric softeners absorb the negative charges in the dryer and neutralize them, leaving the clothes with a positive charge.

This effectively prevents static cling because similar electric charges repel each other and, since positive charges cannot attract each other, it would be impossible for static to develop.

Dryer sheets also combat this problem by depositing lubricants in fabrics so that friction isn’t generated even as fabrics rub against each other during the drying cycle. As friction is what generates static charge, you can see how such a mechanism would help.

Dryer Sheets Help to Soften Clothing

Dryer sheets perform the same function as fabric softeners. However, unlike fabric softeners, which are added when clothes are still in the washer, dryer sheets are used in the dryer.

The sheets are coated with softening agents, such as fatty acids, alcohol ethoxylates, and fatty alcohols. This is why you might notice a slightly tacky texture whenever you rub a dryer sheet between your fingers.  

Once the dryer gets heated, the fabric softener that coats the dryer sheet warms the fabric softener that coats the dryer sheet so that the softening agents melt from the sheet and transfer to the clothing in the dryer. 

Woman putting a dryer sheet inside the laundry dryer filled with clothes

Dryer sheets don’t just sit in a particular spot of the dryer during the drying cycle. Instead, they tumble along with clothing so that as the softer agents melt out of the sheets, they are evenly distributed through the fabrics in the dryer. 

If you have a defective dryer or you overloaded the unit, you might notice grease-like stains on clothes after drying them. The stains are caused by excess fabric softener deposits and it typically occurs whenever a heated dryer sheet stays in a particular spot for too long. 

Fragrance Is Added Through Dryer Sheets

In addition to reducing static and softening fabrics, dryer sheets also have the added benefit of making clothes smell nice and fresh.

Dryer sheets can either be scented or unscented. But unless it is explicitly stated that the dryer sheet is unscented it would most likely include fragrance. 

Unscented dryer sheets (amazon link) are targeted toward people with allergies or skin sensitivity and typically use plant-based or biodegradable ingredients to soften clothes and fight static. They also do not include ingredients like fragrances or dyes. 

Scented dryer sheets (amazon link) are more popular and there are various fragrances available, ranging from floral to tropical. The scent is usually infused into the dryer sheet by adding fragrance molecules to the sheet’s coating.

Downy Infusions Dryer Sheets Laundry Fabric Softener, Calm, Lavender & Vanilla Bean, 105 count

Like the fabric softening agents, the fragrance in the sheet’s coating is released when the dryer gets heated. This is because the heat vaporizes the chemicals.

Unlike the softening agents, which are released directly to the fabrics while the dryer tumbles, the fragrance is released into the drum and is then absorbed by the clothes in the dryer.

This is why you would notice the distinct scent of the dryer sheet’s fragrance whenever you open the door of your dryer. 

Do Dryer Sheets Leave Behind a Residue?

As discussed, dryer sheets transfer a softening coating to fabrics and it is this coating residue that makes clothes feel softer. 

Unfortunately, dryer sheets also leave residue all over your dryer.

This doesn’t pose any permanent damage to your dryer, but a buildup of residue from repeated usage of dryer sheets and insufficient cleaning can affect the efficacy of the dryer, and this would ultimately reflect on your utility expenses. 

The two dryer components that are most affected by dryer sheet residue are the lint filter and moisture sensor. 

Over time, the residue builds up in the lint filter and the silky film clogs the filter, reducing air circulation in the dryer and increasing the rate and extent of lint buildup. This poses a safety hazard and affects the dryer’s efficacy, causing it to take longer to dry clothes or stop midway through the drying cycle. 

To prevent residue from clogging the lint filter, the filter should be cleaned after every drying cycle and it should also be given a thorough clean at least once every month. 

The moisture sensor in dryers monitors the moisture level in the unit so that the cycle ends whenever clothes are free of moisture.  

A buildup of dryer sheet residue can prevent the moisture sensor from working properly and this can lead to over-drying and ultimately increased energy expenses. 

Cleaning the moisture sensor with rubbing alcohol at least once every month would help prevent dryer sheet residue from interfering with its operations.

Reasons to Avoid Using Dryer Sheets

Sources

https://diversey.com/en/blog/minimizing-effects-static-electricity-drying-process

https://www.thespruce.com/get-rid-of-static-cling-2146150

https://www.callahansappliance.com/blog/how-to-get-rid-of-dryer-static/#

https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/uk/house-and-home/household-advice/a675616/how-to-remove-static-in-clothes/

https://www.solarappliance.net/news/dryer-static-on-clothes/

https://paradiseapplianceservice.com/dryer-repair/how-to-eliminate-dryer-static-on-clothes/

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