Liquid fabric softeners, which are added to washing machines during their final rinse cycles, are typically more expensive than dryer sheets. However, repeated reviews and professional tests show they surpass these products when it comes to shedding static and softening clothes. Liquid softeners require approximately one ounce for an average-sized load of laundry, although a few concentrated brands offer the ability to do a few more loads with the same volume. Like laundry detergents, fabric softeners come in a bunch of scents to suit your fancy.
Overall, ConsumerReports.org offers the best insights on liquid fabric softeners. In their review, 22 different fabric softeners are evaluated (including liquids, dryer sheets, cloths and balls) on how well they soften clothing, control static and maintain towel absorbency. Editors say liquid fabric softeners consistently perform better than dryer sheets, reducing static cling and producing softer clothes. Of the common perception that fabric softeners -- liquids in particular -- reduce the absorbency of towels, this review finds that only two products tested caused a noticeable difference in towel absorbency. Though the reason why is unclear (testers hypothesize it has something to do with their specific ingredients), this finding highlights this commonly held belief as false.
Gain Ultra Liquid Fabric Softener (*Est. $9 for 44 oz.) is named the highest-rated fabric softener in the most comprehensive review we found, outperforming other brands in terms of its ability to reduce static, retain absorbency and soften clothing. Repeated consumer reviews also rave about this liquid fabric softener. A steady stream of satisfied user reviews appear on ExpoTV.com, with many saying they appreciate Gain Ultra's reasonable price.
Gain Ultra Liquid Fabric Softener comes in several scents -- including Apple Mango Tango (the scent ConsumerReports.org tested), Original Fresh and Lavender Lilac Moment -- and feedback is consistent among consumers no matter what kind they used. Reviewers from ExpoTV.com praise Gain Ultra's ability to control static and soften clothing. When it comes to scent, most consumers enjoy the Gain Ultra scents and find them appealing, but there are a few who say they're overpowering.
Several professional reviewers say Ultra Downy Liquid (*Est. $9 for 34 oz.) controls static, retains absorbency and softens clothing. Consumers at sites like Drugstore.com agree, saying Ultra Downy smells great. The regular Ultra Downy line offers four fragrance choices, as well as a Free & Sensitive version, which contains no added dyes or perfumes that can irritate skin. Otherwise, however, the Free & Sensitive version contains the same ingredients as the scented varieties. This line comes in sizes ranging from 40 to 150 loads (in 34 oz. to 129 oz. bottles) and require slightly less than an ounce per average-sized load of laundry.
It's worth noting that Downy Simple Pleasures (*Est. $9 for 41 oz.) has the same ingredients as the Ultra Downy varieties, but with different scents. The Spice Blossom Dare and Lavender Serenity scents are the most popular among reviewers.
The green trend, coupled with complaints about traditional fabric softeners being irritating to sensitive skin, has led to the development of more all-natural, environmentally friendly fabric softeners in both liquid and sheet form. Unlike the "free" or "clear" versions of traditional fabric softeners (which contain the same ingredients as their scented counterparts), green fabric softeners aim to go beyond simply being fragrance- and dye-free; many are made of organic ingredients, such as plant oils and corn sugar, and feature biodegradable packaging.
Seventh Generation's Natural Liquid Fabric Softener is GoodGuide.com's top-rated liquid fabric softener, which comes in Free & Clear and Blue Eucalyptus & Lavender versions; both earn an overall score of 8.2 out of 10. According to the GoodGuide.com fact sheet, the non-toxic, biodegradable ingredients in this liquid softener (unlike some traditional brands) are not known to cause long-term adverse health effects. Those with sensitive skin report good results with both the fragrance-free and the scented versions. Compared to Gain Ultra, some consumers say Seventh Generation Free & Clear Natural Fabric Softener (*Est. $9 for 40 oz.) softens clothing but doesn't reduce static well.
Surprisingly, the natural liquid fabric softener with the most mentions among our sources doesn't score as well on GoodGuide.com as Seventh Generation. While only partial data is available for Ecover Fabric Softener Liquid (*Est. $6 for 32 oz.), it earns a score of just 7 out of 10 in the health category. According to GoodGuide.com, Ecover contains a controversial fragrance ingredient and also contains sorbic acid, which can cause skin irritation. And unlike Seventh Generation, Ecover doesn't come in a scent-free version, making it a less appealing option for consumers with sensitive skin. Ecover also doesn't fare well in formal testing, performing better overall than only dryer balls and a reusable dryer cloth. (To be fair, Seventh Generation Natural Fabric Softener wasn't included in this same head-to-head testing.) While it does a good job of controlling static and maintaining towel absorbency, it performs only about as well as dryer sheets when it comes to softening clothes. Ecover comes in an original scent and a Sunny Day fragrance.