Of fabric softeners and millennials: the best laid plans for marketing to the peskiest generation

Oct 8, 2019

Commentary: It was fabric softener that clinched it for my Mom. I was now officially a millennial after a Yahoo listicle pointed her toward what all my generation has been killing. “It’s that,” she said, “that’s the thing they all are killing that fits you to a T.”

I explained that using it was just putting unnecessary chemicals on my clothes; what was the need? She pounced, “That’s exactly what the article said. You’re one of them.”

You don’t know me, listicle. So I had to go find the source. I wasn’t sure which article she had culled her information from, but it might have sunk in by osmosis. The Big Cleaning Cabal has been lamenting their poor sales to eager business writers with a deadline crunch since about 2015.

In all the articles, the companies doth protest that millennials don’t understand the value, or even the function, of fabric softener. Well, checkmate for Big Clean, because that’s entirely true: I do not.

I was a spoiled one, doing laundry first when I got to college. Armed with my detergent, all darks and lights in one hamper, and a fistful of quarters, I was asked by the ancient machine to pour in fabric softener when a mysterious yellow light appeared during the cycle.

Who has time for that? I had procrastinating my class assignments with binge-watching anime on my To Do list. I couldn’t be babysitting a machine. What year was it.

So I continued to forgo the fabric softener, even as I learned to separate colors, bought my own washer and dryer, integrated my husband’s undies with mine, and had him gently suggest that some things - like his fancy schmanzy work shirts - might need, ah, the delicate cycle, with delicate soap. I grabbed myself a Woolite in the store, while the Downy bear got nary a glance. Partially because, the more you stare, the creepier and more judgmental he gets, but more because a less harsh soap made more sense.

Fabric softener still did not. Are we doing this because this is what we’ve always done? One of the hallmarks of millennials seems not to be just the fight against smelling like artificial flowers, but bristling against the idea that this particular thing is needed because that’s how it’s always been done.

Okay, but am I still missing the point about fabric softener? I turned to Wikipedia, the dreaded scourge of teachers arguing the credibility of sources everywhere. But hey, this is 15(ish) years later, and I have kids screaming in the house with glee, dinner simmering, and a desire to binge-watch Bon Appetit YouTube episodes. I need fast information.

Sir Wiki states that machines put stress on textiles, and air-drying makes them rough. I nod along while reading, remember my grandma airdrying her wash next to the boilers in the basement. Her towels were next level in home skin exfoliation. They were rough.

Then, the wiki talked about how in the US and UK, with machine dryers, softeners were more for the smell and antistatic elements. Below that, it warned that there are also possibilities of skin irritation and flammability, much like the dinner that I’m slightly ignoring while writing this.

There is it. Pro: smell; con: skin irritation and flammability. I’ll pass on the need to smell like a meadow of flowers, and maybe make a decision not born from a need to air dry clothes. But that said, if air drying becomes the next big hipster thing, say an artisanal approach to laundry, and we need a fluffy bear to help us mend our over-exfoliated skin, maybe it’ll come back for its time in the sun-filled meadow.

Cassie McClure is a writer, wife/Mama/daughter, fan of the Oxford comma, and drinker of tequila. Some of those things relate. She can be contacted at