The Hidden Health Risks of Traditional Air Fresheners

Think back to the last time you cleaned out your car. Did you pull out all the trash? Vacuum the insides? Replace the air freshener? If you did, you may have exposed yourself to harmful chemicals.

Air fresheners seem pretty benign. They smell nice and typically cover up unwanted smells, such as stinky baby diapers or embarrassing odors from the bathroom. But that cute little pine tree hanging from your mirror may be exposing you to as many as 100 different chemicals during its reign over your car. And many of those chemicals are harmful. 

Chemicals emitted from traditional air fresheners include phthalates, formaldehyde, free radicals, and terpenes such as limonene, alpha-pinene, and beta-pinene. On top of this, some of the chemicals in air fresheners can react with the ozone in the air of your home or car, creating even more chemicals.

Can Air Fresheners Be Harmful?

Anything that smells strongly is going to release chemicals into the air. When you smell a turkey roasting in an oven, particles of the turkey are entering your nose. That is how smell works in and of itself. That means when you’re inhaling these chemicals, even if you don't touch the air freshener at all, some of them are getting absorbed into your body.

What Toxic Chemicals Are in Air Fresheners?


You may have heard of phthalates before. This is a very common group of chemicals used everything from toys and trucks to shampoos and lotions. They are everywhere, and they're not good for us. In fact, phthalates are known as endocrine disruptors.

An endocrine disruptor is a chemical that interferes with your hormones. Hormones are very important to the body, as they affect everything from the reproductive system and how tall children grow to how our brain functions.

Any part of the body run by hormones can malfunction due to an endocrine disruptor. In fact, we know that phthalates actually increase the risk of developing breast cancer.

The number of chemicals in an air freshener has to be substantial in order to create a potent aroma, and that means exposing yourself to a lot of endocrine disruptors every time you catch a whiff of that fresh scent.

Of all the ingredients found in air fresheners, phthalates are one of the most concerning. Your hormones are very important to your body and messing with them can cause a whole host of different problems.


You may know formaldehyde in excess isn't good for you. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen. It causes cancer in the nose and throat. Small amounts of formaldehyde are present everywhere and occur naturally both in the air and in foods we commonly consume on a daily basis, such as apples, bananas, and even spinach.

The problem with formaldehyde comes when you are exposed to too much of it, too frequently. Studies done in people who work with formaldehyde regularly, such as those who preserve bodies, showed an increase risk of leukemia as well as other cancers.

We can't help being exposed to some formaldehyde in our daily lives, but it's best to limit our exposure as much as possible, and breathing in large amounts of it is definitely a bad idea.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

VOCs are airborne gas byproducts that come from many common household products. You've been exposed to them if you've ever painted a room or even cleaned your countertop. Unfortunately, many of the VOCs in air fresheners are highly toxic, according to a 2015 study in Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health.

These compounds can cause irritation to your throat and lungs, and can even cause damage to your liver and kidneys, according to the EPA. The EPA recommends ventilating the room when working with products that contain VOCs, but we tend to do just the opposite when we have an air freshener in use. After all, if you plug an air freshener in and then immediately open up a window to ventilate it, you’ll be reducing its effectiveness.

Free Radicals

When your air freshener reacts with oxidants in your home or car, it can create new chemicals unintended by the manufacturer. Some of these reactions include the creation of hydroperoxyl and alkyl peroxyl radicals.

If you've ever been told to eat more blueberries or raspberries for their powerful antioxidant properties, you'll know that these are good because they can help fend off these free radicals in our body.

Free radicals are bad for our bodies because they have an unpaired electron in an atomic orbital. These free radicals can wreak havoc inside your body, donating their electron to other cells, or taking one. This unpredictable behavior can damage your very DNA, speeding up the aging process or even making you ill.

Antioxidants can help bind to free radicals before they cause damage, but it's best to avoid adding more to your body whenever possible. That means saying no to traditional air fresheners that could be filling your home with free radicals.

Traditional Candles Emit Toxins Too

When we think of an air freshener, we tend to think of the cards we stick in our cars, or the plug-in air fresheners constantly spilling delicious smells into our home. But if you've ever lit a scented candle to provide a warm look as well as a nice smell, you're not exempt from the toxins air fresheners release.

Several studies have been done on scented candles and their contribution to indoor air pollution. Just like with traditional air fresheners, a 2009 study conducted at South Carolina State University found that scented candles released the same kinds of chemicals as air fresheners.

They also release pollutants from the burning of the candle itself though. A 2001 study conducted by the EPA found that scented candles produced more soot than ordinary candles, which could result in asthma, lung damage, or even cancer if prolonged use occurred.

That's a big price to pay for something as small as a fresh scent.

Not All Natural Air Fresheners Are Made Equal

If you really love your air fresheners, you might be tempted to grab one that advertises itself as “green” or “natural.” This label can be misleading, however. The companies who make air fresheners are not required to disclose their ingredients, and these air fresheners can have hundreds of different chemicals in them—many of them the exact same as in standard air fresheners.

In a study on “natural” air fresheners, laundry soaps, and other scented items conducted by Anne Steinemann and her colleagues, the researchers used gas chromatography to analyze how many VOCs were in these products. The results were not promising.

They found 133 different VOCs in these products, with 17.1 per product tested being the average. The VOCs included chemicals such as formaldehyde, ethanol, and acetone. Their recommendation? The best scent for your home is no scent at all.

In the future, Steinemann and her crew hope that manufacturers will be required to disclose their ingredients, thereby encouraging them to find healthier options than the chemicals they are putting into air fresheners now.

Alternatives to Traditional Air Fresheners

If you've decided you need to put an end to the air fresheners in your home, you're probably wondering what you can do to safely replace them. Even the cleanest of homes have unpleasant smells from time to time. Sometimes, a holiday scent or other fresh smell is important for your home.

Luckily, giving up traditional air fresheners doesn't have to mean living in a stinky house or car. There are natural alternatives available that not only smell great but may be beneficial to your health.

Essential oils are one of the most recommended replacements for traditional air fresheners, and they may actually benefit you beyond just a great smell. Peppermint essential oil has been shown to make you feel more alert, and, of course, pleasant smells we associate with happy times can lift a bad mood.

You can use essential oils through a diffuser, or by applying them to a piece of cloth and tucking them under your car seat, as an example.

Heiroma’s room and linen sprays are free of harmful chemicals, including phthalates and parabens. Instead, they’re packed with essential oils and other plant-based ingredients.

If you're concerned about your health but still want a fresh smell for your home, essential oils may be the best route for you to take. It's certainly going to be healthier than that plug-in air freshener.

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