We are bombarded by air fresheners seemingly every day – in the workplace, businesses, public restrooms, schools, homes of friends and family, and even taxis and car services. On store shelves you’ll find them in numerous forms: electric, automatic misting sprays, gels, beads, plug-ins, heated oils, sprays and more.
Because they contain ingredients that are associated with various health effects, our constant exposure to air fresheners is cause for concern. Researchers have measured and identified air freshener chemicals that are linked to cancer, neurotoxicity, and effects from endocrine disruption. Not to mention a large portion of the population experiences headaches and respiratory difficulty from exposure to fragrance.
While they may be called “air fresheners,” the name is somewhat misleading. Air fresheners likely don’t actually improve air quality by removing impurities. While some air freshener products claim they can do just that, when asked for data to back up their claims, manufacturers were unable to provide public data or information.
Indoor Air Pollution
Most of us are familiar with outdoor air pollution, but did you know that the air inside our homes can be more toxic than the air outside our homes? While this might have come as a surprise, the good news is that you have a lot of control over the air inside your home!
Common household products like air fresheners, cleaning products, personal care products, and even furniture contribute significantly to indoor air pollution (along with other sources like appliances, radon, building materials, and outdoor sources). Indoor air is important because between school, the workplace, and our homes, people today tend to spend the majority of time indoors – up to 90 percent.
One simple action to improve the air quality in your home is by switching from conventional air fresheners to healthier options. That’s because in studies measuring the different substances that air fresheners emit, researchers have found numerous chemicals associated with toxic effects. These include: volatile organic compounds (VOCs), benzene, formaldehyde, toluene, m,p-xylene, phthalates, and more.
For example, formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, has been measured at high levels. Levels were even higher when air quality was measured when multiple products were used at the same time (cleaning products, air fresheners, and perfume). High concentrations of VOCs have been measured in the emissions from numerous air freshener types too, including sprays, plug-ins, solids, and more.
Some indoor air pollutants associated with air fresheners aren’t substances emitted directly from the air freshener. Instead, when primary ingredients mix with ozone (a common indoor and outdoor pollutant), new substances are created, which are called secondary pollutants. Some secondary pollutants associated with air freshener use include: formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acetone, picric acid, and methyl vinyl ketone. These secondary pollutants are also concerns for human health (see more below).
Air freshener chemicals can also stick to and be absorbed by furniture, walls and surfaces, carpets, and more. They can then be released and re-enter indoor air, even after the air freshener is no longer in use.
If you’ve ever taken a look at air freshener packaging, you’ve likely noticed that labels only include vague terms like “fragrance” and “odor eliminator.” In many cases, there may be no ingredients listed whatsoever.
Companies are legally allowed to keep fragrance ingredients confidential because they’re deemed trade secrets by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Trade secret status exempts them from requirements about listing ingredients on product packaging, which is why air freshener packaging contains little to no information about what’s truly inside the product.
A lack of fragrance ingredient disclosure is problematic because numerous substances known to be found within fragrances (like those listed below) are associated with health impacts. Without listing ingredients on the label, it is impossible for consumers to know what substances they might be exposed to.
Chemicals of Concern in Air Fresheners
Air fresheners contain fragrance ingredients to impart a scent, but they also contain other ingredients including those that suspend or bind the fragrance to the liquid, gel, or solid substrate; those that disperse the fragrance; and those that preserve the product. In fact, some of the unscented ingredients (like solvents) can be emitted in even higher concentrations than ingredients that impart scent.
This list below includes fragrance ingredients, other common air freshener ingredients, as well as secondary pollutants:
- 1,4-Diclorobenzene (1,4 DB): a VOC that may impair lung function. Impairment of lung function is of special concern for those who have asthma or other respiratory illnesses, especially children.
- Acetaldehyde: a probable carcinogen.
- Benzene: a known carcinogen and developmental and reproductive toxin.
- d-Limonene: associated with skin and eye irritation. This substance is a sensitizer, which means it’s likely to increase the odds of a future allergic reaction.
- Formaldehyde: a known carcinogen.
- Parabens: linked to breast cancer and effects associated with hormone disruption.
- Phthalates: associated with effects from endocrine disruption, including damage to the female reproductive system, birth defects, and lower sperm counts.
- Styrene: associated with cancer and neurotoxicity.
- Toluene: linked to developmental and reproductive toxicity.
- Xylene: linked to the effects of central nervous system depression, like headache, dizziness, depression, and impaired short-term memory.
- Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): substances that readily become vapors or gases. Because a wide range of substances are known as VOCs, the associated health impacts span a wide range. Numerous VOCs are known to be toxic. (Some of the other substances on this list are VOCs.)
Beware of Greenwashing
Claims like “all natural,” “green,” and “clean” do not have standard legal or regulatory definitions. Instead, they’re usually self-declared terms that are used for marketing purposes, as opposed to reflecting the safety and sustainability of the ingredients.
This is true with air fresheners as well. For example, when testing products labeled “all natural,” one organization found that 86 percent of the products tested contained one or more phthalates. Many phthalates are toxic substances linked to breast cancer and effects associated with endocrine disruption. These substances hardly constitute “all natural,” “green” or “clean.”
Remember to look beyond marketing terms when choosing air fresheners (and any other product) to ensure that you’re using truly green and clean products. Use our tips below for safer, fresher air.
Tips for Safer, Fresher Indoor Air
If you use air fresheners, you might be thinking: Okay, I understand air fresheners’ potential health effects but how do I make sure my home smells good? A pleasant home is absolutely possible without air fresheners. And in fact, most people actually want fragrance-free air. In studies measuring people’s preferences, the majority of people prefer fragrance-free air including in workplaces, businesses, airplanes, hotels, and beyond. This means that while the air freshener may smell great to you, your friends and co-workers likely prefer fragrance-free air!
Also keep in mind that a large number of people experience health effects from being exposed to fragrance – some of the most common being headaches and respiratory problems. So while you may enjoy a fragranced home, your friends may secretly be suffering in order to spend time with you. In very heavily scented homes, fragrances can even be imparted to food cooked in the home. And because the brain gets used to a constant smell (in a process called habituation), you might not even be able to smell it for yourself.
We know it might be tough to hear, but removing air fresheners (and other fragrances like scented candles and cleaners) will leave your home not only more pleasant for friends and family, but also safer. Here are our top tips for fresher and safer indoor air:
- Remember that most people prefer fragrance-free air. There is nothing wrong with a home that smells like, well, a home – not a spring fresh rainfall or a tropical rainforest.
- Get to the source of the stink. If there is an unpleasant odor in your home that you feel like you need to cover up, get to the source of the problem. Is there a leak that’s causing stinky mildew? A cat who isn’t using the litter box? Old carpet that needs to be removed? Numerous guides exist online with tips for safely removing pesky odors. Tracking down and eliminating the odor at its source means there will be no need to attempt to disguise the smell.
- Baking soda is a safe way to absorb odors. If you have an odor you can’t shake, leave small bowls of baking soda around the house for a few days. Baking soda is also great in refrigerators, in the bottom of garbage cans and bags, and in other areas where needed. Baking soda absorbs odors instead of masking them, so make sure to replace it periodically.
- Properly ventilate your appliances to avoid lingering food smells (and exposure to particulate matter). If you can’t vent to the outdoors, install a recirculating appliance vent that sucks up air, purifies it, and releases it back into the air of your home. If this is not possible, open your kitchen window while you are cooking.
- Surround yourself with greenery. Air filtering plants like the spider plant, golden pothos, the snake plant, and the peace lily can improve indoor air quality as these plants literally filter the air naturally. (If you have children or pets, check for toxicity warnings first.)
- Use a vacuum with a HEPA filter to suck up settled particles to avoid recirculating them into the air, and vacuum often. Old, inefficient vacuums can just kick up pollutant particles that have settled on the floor.
- Open the windows. On good outdoor air quality days, open up the windows to bring in new air. We recommend this practice in the winter too – even if it’s just for a few minutes!
- Keep things clean! By regularly cleaning the usual culprits of stink (think: toilets, appliances, and areas used by pets), you can prevent odors before they start.
- Assess the damage. Air freshener chemicals can be absorbed in the home by things like furniture, walls, carpet, and more. This means if you’ve been using air fresheners for a long period of time, you might have some work to do. Depending on the extent of the damage, you may need to consider steam-cleaning carpets, furniture and other household soft goods; airing out furniture, rugs, and furnishings outdoors; applying a fresh coat of no-VOC paint; and/or purchasing a high-quality air filter. If you’ve taken these steps, completely removed air fresheners, and your home is still harboring scents, you may need to consider replacing furnishings or building materials in your home, where necessary.
- Ask a close friend to weigh in. Sometimes air freshener use gets out of control, but because our brains get used to scent over time, we might not be able to smell it in our own homes. Ask a close friend to weigh in on your air freshener use, as you might not even know it’s a problem.
- Be wary of “all natural” and “green” claims on air fresheners. These marketing tactics have no legal or regulatory status, so remember to dig deeper to ensure the product is truly safe.
- Practice safe scents. If you’ve gotten to the source of any odor issues and you still want to fragrance your home, use safer methods. This can include DIY essential oil sprays or simmer pots using fruit, herbs and spices. Check out these DIY recipes for inspiration:
Remember to avoid any essential oils you are sensitive or allergic to. Always dilute essential oils properly.
In the Workplace and at School
Workplaces and schools often expose us to air fresheners involuntarily, what some have dubbed “secondhand scent.” Some workplaces and schools are now adopting fragrance-free policies to reduce involuntary exposure. Here are some tips for pursuing fragrance-free workplaces or schools:
- Be prepared. Schedule a meeting with decision makers to discuss implementing a fragrance-free policy. Come prepared with information about fragrance’s contribution to indoor air pollution (like this article), fragrance’s impact on health, and sample fragrance-free policies (like these sample workplace and sample school policies from the ALA).
- Garner peer support. If met with resistance from decision makers, you may need to gain peer support. This could be through a petition or asking peers to join you in a meeting with decision makers.
- Be persistent. Positive change doesn’t always happen quickly. Be patient, but persistent.