What Causes Static in Laundry

Would you believe you have a small lightening storm in your laundry room? That’s basically what static electricity is! Well, I may be exaggerating just a tad, but the basic processes of lightning and static formation are essentially the same. 

The Basics

Stray electrons in the atmosphere are either negatively or positively charged. If you remember from magnetism science lessons in school, opposite charges attract and same charges repel. It’s the same with electrons, but when the opposite charges meet in the sky or from the cloud to the ground or even from your hand to the grocery cart: ZAP! But in your dryer, the charges aren’t strong enough to create those zaps, so they cling instead. 

Lightning Storm over the Ocean

What causes this process in my dryer?

Friction: The tumbling action of your dryer causes fabrics to rub against each other. Synthetic fabrics, like nylon and polyester, hold onto their charges longer than natural materials do, such as cotton. These charges can be positive or negative. Since synthetic fabrics hang onto their charges longer, they create more static cling than natural fabrics do when drying. 

Humidity: Humidity plays a part too! Have you ever noticed that static cling in your laundry happens more often in winter than summer? Cold or cool air holds less moisture than warm air. The amount of moisture in the air is called humidity.

High humidity often occurs in summer due to warmer temperatures’ ability to hold more moisture. This results in water molecules collecting on the surface of items, such as the inside of your dryer or hanging out longer in your damp clothing. These water molecules prevent or decrease the build up of electrical charges.


How can I reduce or prevent static cling in my laundry?

Increase Humidity

Remove Clothing Sooner: Drying clothes 100%, and then some, is actually damaging to the fibers. Removing clothes from the dryer while they are still a bit damp not only decreases the fiber damage, but allows humidity to remain in the clothes and in the dryer air just enough to reduce the static build up. Then just hang your damp clothes on a hanger, clothes rack or clothes line to finish drying.


Add 100% Wool Dryer Balls: When using a clothes dryer, adding at least three to six wool dryer balls to your regular sized laundry loads will increase humidity to your tumbling clothes indirectly. The wool balls absorb the moisture from your wet clothes. They also absorb some moisture that is evaporating into the hot dryer air. Then the damp wool rubs all over your clothing as they tumble. This helps discharge the electricity in your clothes. The more wool laundry balls you have in the clothes dryer, the more surfaces of your clothing they come into contact with as they tumble. Damp wool balls also help prolong the humidity in the warm dryer air. A plus to this is that they help dispel wrinkles with all their rolling around. 

Photo Credit: Olsen + Olsen


Dispel the Electric Charges

Add Aluminum Foil: Aluminum foil is in no sense eco-friendly. But neither are synthetic dryer sheets coated in synthetic, or even toxic at times, substances.

Aluminum is the most common element on our planet after oxygen and silicone. It is the most abundant element in earth’s crust. However, it’s not renewable, and it’s not found in its pure, metallic form and so must be processed. The extraction of ore (bauxite ore) which contains aluminum and the processing of aluminum is damaging to the environment, labor intensive and creates a large ecological footprint. It’s also tricky to recycle, as it’s often rejected due to potential food contamination. However, it’s a common household item that even many eco-friendly families may have on hand.

I once heard that you'd need to reuse your aluminum foil at least six times to make it neutral to the damage it causes. I don’t know how much truth there is to that statement, but I do know a handy way to reuse it six or more times for those who do keep it in their house. 


Aluminum Foil

When drying clothes in a clothes dryer, toss in balls of aluminum foil about twice the size of your wool dryer balls. The aluminum helps discharge the electricity, though it needs to come in close contact with all surfaces of your clothing to be 100% effective. So it will help tremendously, but probably not completely—especially if drying synthetics. Though, adding the aluminum balls AND wool balls together may get you the most static control possible. If doing this, add at least three or more balls of aluminum foil to regular sized loads to increase surface area of clothing touched. This can get a bit noisy as they compress and start to bang around, but they do help reduce wrinkles and reduce the need for toxic static reducing sprays and wrinkle reducing sprays. They also help prevent the clothing item being tossed back into the laundry because of it being full of static! You can use these anywhere between one to two months at a time depending upon how much laundry you do. Then toss them into the recycle bin if your recycling company accepts them. A phone call or email to your recycler will let you know. 

If already wearing the clothing item in question, the increased friction of your clinging clothes to your moving body is going to continue making the problem worse. So, what to do? What to do? Rubbing a flat sheet of aluminum foil over your clothing can help discharge the static electricity. Alternatively, you could increase the moisture in contact with the charged fabric by rubbing damp hands across your clothing for a temporary reduction in static. You could also try rubbing water or a moisturizer onto your skin below the clothing to get at both sides of the problem, though that presents its own challenges!


Reduce Friction

Air Dry: Whether you air dry outside on a clothes line or inside on a clothes rack (or vice versa), you are preventing your clothing from rubbing against each other as they dry; therefore, no charges build up.

Separate: Separate your synthetic fabrics from your natural fabrics when using a clothes dryer.  Since natural fabrics are less likely to hang onto their charges, you will have less chance of building up static as they tumble dry without their static-charging synthetic counterparts—especially if you use wool balls in the dryer, as well. What should you do with your synthetics? Well, you could air dry them on hangers, a drying rack or clothes line (most synthetics dry pretty quickly this way) or you could add wool balls AND aluminum foil balls to your synthetic dryer load. Granted, the longer they tumble dry the harder it will be for your wool and aluminum to do their job so don’t over dry.


Remove Clothing Sooner: As stated above, over-drying clothes is damaging to fibers, but it also increases the amount of friction without that humidity as a buffer. Removing clothes while they are still damp keeps that humidity buffer longer as explained already, but it also decreases the amount of friction your clothing is exposed to. A side-effect is you are also reducing your energy usage and impact. 


Buy Natural Fiber Clothing

Natural clothing (plant and animal-based) used to be the only clothing types available. When synthetics hit the market, an entire field of options opened up: water-repellant fabrics, textures from rough to smooth—soft to slick, weight differences (as compared to cotton or wool), and allergy preventives to those unfortunate souls allergic to feathers, down or to the dust mites that create havoc in cotton mattress covers or cotton sheets and pillows. So while buying only natural fabrics is a wonderful goal, it’s not always an option (says the severely allergic to everything author). Luckily, limiting synthetic fabrics to when it’s only, absolutely necessary is an option many can embrace. But the more natural fiber clothing you have as compared to synthetic clothing, the less likely static will be an issue for you.


The best option overall is just air dry your clothing. But based on the percentage of people living in urban areas, polluted areas, allergy seasons, rainy and snowy seasons, HOAs that dont want to see your undies on a clothesline…, we realistically know this can’t always be the case. So the next best thing you can do is try reducing your drying times and using wool dryer balls to maintain a good humidity level. If you do get a lot of static issues, try more natural fiber clothing. If you really need to use aluminum foil in your home, use it for some good to try to counteract the bad it causes and eliminate fabric softeners, coated dryer sheets and fabric sprays. Wishing you great laundry days everyone!



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1 comment

Very well written and informative. Thank you.

Nell kimbrell

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