I have never used fabric softener with our cloth diapers or towels. I think any diaper site will tell you to avoid all fabric softeners. Because they decrease absorbancy, it's a bit counter-productive to use them with towels. All these years we've cloth-diapered, though, I've continued to use fabric softener with our other loads. Just a tiny bit, but still some.
A couple of months ago, we started to reach the end of the last bottle we bought on sale and I decided to research dyer balls.
Dryer balls are just what they sound like: balls that go in the dyer with your clothes while the dryer is running. They supposedly separate the clothes to decrease static cling and naturally soften them, without the chemicals of a standard fabric softener. Wool dryer balls seem to compare favorably to the PVC ones. From what I read online (taken with a grain of salt), the PVC balls can damage clothes, do not decrease drying time substantially and are not particularly environmentally friendly.
That was all fine with me because I really just wanted to buy the Baby Bear Wool Dryer Balls at Cloth Diaper Outlet. I ordered six of them. Between the discount for ordering six and the free shipping with orders over $50, the cost was about the same for six as for four (which is probably the minimum necessary to make any difference when drying clothes).
Here they are, a couple of months later, all settled into their new home:
If I didn't have four kids to tend and homeschooling to manage, I would have done a nice scientific experiment for you comparing the time my clothes and diapers took to dry before the dryer balls with how quickly they dry after them, but I don't have that kind of time. (I do have that kind of personality, though.) I think some loads are drying faster, particularly the heavy ones: diapers, towels, jeans, and big blankets (which I don't hang outside anymore after those ubiquitous Kansas winds tore some of mine). I do think my SuperDo inserts dry much better than before. (I try to turn them inside out as I move them from the washer to the dryer, but sometimes they reverse themselves in the dryer and don't dry all the way.) I rarely have to hang them to finish drying now that I have the dryer balls.
I can say for certain is that I haven't used any fabric softener for about two months and our clothes are just as soft as ever. We have had a tiny increase in static, but hardly worth mentioning. Sometimes the dryer balls try to make an escape. They end up tucked into the arms of shirts or pant legs. I found one early on in the dog crate, but I think Moses learned that wasn't going to be tolerated.
They make some noise while bouncing around in the dryer. I have been avoiding using them when we're about to go to bed so they don't disturb us, but I dry all the time just a few feet away from Second Son's crib while he's sleeping in there and he doesn't seem to mind at all. (I've been hearing recently from people who say you should not use a dryer when you're away from home or sleeping anyway, for risk of fire, so perhaps it's for the best.)
Intuitively, using wool dryer balls seems much more environmentally friendly than using fabric softener and probably better than using the PVC balls. They are made of all-natural materials with a minimum of packaging. (Mine came without any outer packaging at all -- just the mailing envelope.) There seems to be some debate as to how long they'll last. Some people claim they've been using the same ones for years.
At the very least, I think using the dryer balls is a good investment decision for our diapers. Though I never used fabric softener in the washer with the diapers, it seems likely some residual softener was getting mixed in. It's not like I have a dedicated cloth diaper washer and dryer.
I received nothing in exchange for this review. I purchased and paid for the Baby Bear Wool Dryer Balls myself. I am an affiliate of Cloth Diaper Outlet and receive a small commission if you follow these links and make a purchase. If you are interested and crafty enough, you can make your own wool dryer balls. I've read the instructions here and they look pretty easy. I may even try them myself one day. You can also find lots of beautiful homemade wool dryer balls on Etsy.