Health Hazards Hide in Air Fresheners

Watch TV commercials, and you'd think that Americans' Self-esteem depends upon air fresheners.

The "breath of fresh air in a can" seems like the instant answer to household odors.

The scents offered, from Tropical Paradise to Vanilla Passion, appeal to more than just the need for cleaner air.

Many scent-impregnated cardboard air fresheners offer themed jokes.

How 'bout Presidents Bush and Obama, Dick Cheney and Hillary Clinton, or Corn Dog and Bacon scent air fresheners?

After all, who doesn't enjoy the smell of blueberry, tropical mango, remote island paradise, or mountain meadow and pine?

This is greenwashing, marketing a toxic product behind a curtain of flowery images and funny gags.

Olfactory Factory

Americans do not want strong smells in our bedrooms, kitchens, bathrooms, or in our cars.

Did you microwave the popcorn for 10 minutes?
Mom! Johnny forgot to take out the garbage, and the truck just went past.
Dude, that smell had better be the dog!

Unpleasant odors - from cigarette smoke, cooking, pet litter, cleaning chemicals, and mold - are a social embarrassment and a health problem.

When home air smells, an incredible 75% of American households turn to air fresheners.

An estimated 40% of Europeans use them.


Since antiquity, natural scents of flowers have been used to improve the odor of home air. And before refrigerators, vacuum cleaners, and flush toilets, we really needed them.

Aerosol spray cans of freshening chemicals and insecticides were marketed since the 1940s.

But by the 1970s, the market's growth was stalled by the chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) propellant atmospheric ozone hole controversy.

In the 1990s, a resurgence of consumer interest in scents lead to development of new air freshening chemicals and delivery systems.

At that point, stateside annual sales of air fresheners amounted to several hundred million dollars. A revolutionary new product, the plug-in freshener, used heat to vaporize air-freshening ingredients.

Plug-ins required no user effort, just refill the scent tray about once a month, and enjoy automatically dispensed fresh air 24-7.

The industry boomed to over $1.7 billion, doubling in size in just four years.

Plug-in, spray-bottle, or stand-alone liquid and gel air fresheners are now ubiquitous. Ninety percent market share belongs to the home air fresheners segment.

Careers and entrepreneurship have blossomed, and advertising budgets multiplied.

A diversity of air freshener delivery systems have become popular. Besides the plug-in electric and spray aerosols, there are air freshening candles, potpourri, and gels.

Thousands of styles and colors are offered to coordinate with home or office decor.

Market Trends

This is a global market, people worldwide are embracing aerosol dispersion of chemicals as an intense, refreshing experience.

Like many mass-market air purifiers, the air freshener dispensers are sold as loss-leaders for overpriced refill cartridges and renewal materials.

Low-sophistication soccer moms were the traditional scent buyer stereotype. But additional groups suggested a broader marketing push.

Marketing the scents as "hip" appeals to younger consumers. The 'tween and teen demographic is where lifetime buying habits are established.

Hispanics and blacks are another target demographic.

Perhaps most disturbing is marketing focused on new parents - suggesting new moms install air fresheners in nurseries to mask the diaper smell.

Some of these gadgets have been construed as symbols of gang membership.

Drug dealers have found strong airborne scents help confuse drug-sniffing dogs.

A U.S. federal court has ruled that police detention and search of a "nervous" driver was justified because he had an air freshener in his car.

Air Fresheners: Big Business

Major corporations have built out the niche. Johnson Wax Procter and Gamble, Dial Corporation, Sara Lee, and Reckitt Benckiser are major players.

But just about anybody can make the small scent-impregnated paper type freshener. For instance, the well-known "Little Trees" brand has put out ads warning producers of the multiple counterfeits on the market of trademark violations.

Mom-n-pop outfits have sprung up offering custom imprinted designs, with corporate logos or advertising messages displayed.

These range from images of Jesus Christ to the vulgar and profane.

Many are humorous.

Advertising air fresheners have a longer utility period than typical calendar-and-pen type promotional gifts.

People use them on desktops and car mirrors.

Taiwan and mainland China, where entrepreneurship is blossoming and consumer protection non-existent, are jumping aboard the air freshener boom.

Cool, with today's economy, it seems good that something is actually selling.

The problem is that scent products of all kinds do nothing to improve air quality and contain dangerous chemicals.

Uh, just exactly what chemicals?

Can't reveal that, top secret.

Ingredients? Secret

“Fragrance” is a pretty word that hides a list of over 3000 volatile organic chemical compounds used as air freshener ingredients. Many of these synthetics were created relatively recently.

The dangers of air fresheners are carried on tiny airborne droplets that you can't see.

But it isn't just your nose being coated with the oils, your lungs are getting a paint job too.

Many "fresheners" obscure odors with a scent that confuses the olfactory organs. Some disburse anesthetics to dull the sense of smell.

Manufacturers of consumer products in general are not required to disclose ingredients.

Few air fresheners list chemicals on their labels.

In fact, ingredients are legally considered trade secrets, protected by law.

Ingredients? Toxic

Many chemicals that produce those fresh alpine scents are potential health hazards, as the chemically sensitive have long known intuitively.

Studies are now emerging showing that the chemicals that create those clean smells are hazardous to your health.

Air fresheners labeled "all-natural" or "unscented" are not necessarily innocent.

Chemicals found in air freshening formulas included numerous proven toxics. Here are a few honorable mentions.

The aldehydes express a flower smell when mixed in the proper proportions with water.

Acetaldehyde is the first metabolite of alcohol, an important mediator of alcoholism, and is a suspect in many chemical sensitivity syndromes (MCS, CFIDS, FM...).

Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.

Acetone is used in paint thinner and nail-polish remover.

Limonene is a terpine with an orange-like scent.

Ethylene-based glycol ethers are water-soluble solvents classified as "hazardous air pollutants" by the U.S. EPA and as "toxic air contaminants" by California's Air Resources Board.

Camphor, used in solid air fresheners, is an irritant which can cause central nervous system depression, headaches, and shortness of breath.

Paradichlorobenzene is a pesticide present in moth balls. It is environmentally persistent and accumulates in human body fat.

Terpenes, used in some air fresheners for a pine or citrus scent, can produce toxic secondary pollutants, including aldehydes, when exposed to ozone.

Ozone comes indoors from smoggy outdoor air, accumulating at concentrations as high as 50% of outdoor levels.

Secondary oxidation products are an issue in modern oxidant-using air purifiers. For more on the oxidation byproducts of air freshener chemicals, see:

Indoor secondary pollutants from cleaning product and air freshener use in the presence of ozone

Had enough chemistry?

What about ketones, alcohols, dichlorobenzene, chloromethane, 1,4-dioxane, dihydromyrcenol, linalool, linalyl acetate, and beta-citronellol?

And what are phthalates?

I had four semesters of college chemistry, but gave up trying to understand the hundreds of chemical ingredients attributed to various air fresheners.

Aerosol spray air fresheners often employ petrochemical propellants such as butane, isobutane and propane. These neurotoxins are also flammable.

Just light a match to the can.

Uh, maybe you should just watch this video instead.

Kids, DO NOT try this exploding air freshener can gag!


That's a real list of toxins.

But the focus of the present air freshening controversy centers on a particular group, the phthalates ("THAL-ates").

Controversy over their health effects did not begin with air fresheners.

Phthalates are added to fresheners to dissolve other chemicals and prolong the life of fragrances.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) released a study in 2007 that commissioned chemical assays on 14 of the most popular air fresheners.

NRDC found that 12 of the 14 contained phthalates.

These chemicals are believed to cause hormonal disruption, birth defects, and reproductive degeneration.

A summary of NRDC's results, listing the products tested and levels measured is available as an Adobe reader (.pdf) file.

NRDC: Hidden Health Hazards in Air Fresheners

Phthalates are also used in other products, including cosmetics, paints, nail polish, and children's toys.

Phthalates soften polyvinyl chloride products for flexibility. Raincoats, shower curtains, medical tubing, upholstery, and detergents are other applications.

Air fresheners studied by NRDC contained phthalates - from zero to highly concentrated at 7,300 parts per million (ppm).

There are several types of phthalates, all considered developmental and reproductive toxins.

This complexity has fueled active scientific debate. But in my opinion, commercial interests dominate science.

I'm not waiting for common sense to prevail, as it seems to always do after each toxic debacle works its way through the system.

Today's boom business is tomorrow's toxic tort - as the business matures new "evidence" surfaces.

The industry's trade group has responded to NRDC's study with the standard industrial defense, calling the assays limited and "unscientific."

But I think the industry would happily focus air freshener critics on the phthalate issue, which can be resolved without undue economic damage while simultaneously greening the image of air fresheners and fragrance products.

Evidence Accumulates

Research has demonstrated connections between air freshener chemicals and allergies, asthma, and some cancers.

A European study on aerosol fresheners found a link to diarrhea and earaches in infants, and headaches and depression in mothers.

Published in 2006, a study by researchers at the University of Colorado and Baylor College of Medicine found that air-freshening chemicals may suppress enzymes which regulate apoptosis - normal cell death - delayed in cancer cells.

For 2005 the American Association of Poison Control Centers documented over 14,000 calls concerning air fresheners.

[2005 Annual Report of the American Association of Poison ControlCenters’ National Poisoning and Exposure Database, ClinicalToxicology, 44:803–932, 2006]

Air Fresheners and Asthma

A University of Washington survey on chemical hypersensitivity polled people about their reactions to air fresheners.

Around a third of respondents with asthma, and 17% of the whole sample, said air fresheners worsen their condition. Forty percent reacted negatively to scented products in general.

This survey reported people’s perception of a problem, not hard scientific evidence.

[Caress SM and AC Steinemann. 2005. National prevalence ofasthma and chemical hypersensitivity: an examination of potentialoverlap. J Occup. Environ. Med. May; 47(5): 518-22]

A study published in the Archives of Environmental Health in 1997 reported that mice exhibited signs of respiratory distress and neurological difficulties, after exposure to a solid air freshener.

“Air fresheners can cause problems for people with asthma. 20 million Americans are asthmatic, with asthma or lung diseases like emphysema and chronic bronchitis”
Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer, American Lung Association.

Dose Dependent

With continuous dispersal of thousands of untested and unspecified toxins in millions of homes, restaurants, toilets, and offices, we are conducting a great unscientific experiment.

What the total long term effects are cannot be known. Product constituents may not even be known with certainty, especially since the rise of the many less-sophisticated producers.

Who knows what dose is required to cause negative health effects, and what an individual's exposure is.

Room size, the distance from the air freshener dispenser, and time of exposure will vary from case to case. This is a toxic tort class-action plaintiff's attorney nightmare - no standards to clearly define the class.

Then there are other sources - synergistic interaction with dryer sheets, fabric softener, and laundry detergent will make analysis of the hazards difficult.

But those who use automatic air fresheners 24 hours a day, 7 days a week are really getting a dose.

Someone who has been camping right next to air freshener emissions on a toilet seat in a small, poorly ventilated bathroom will have contamination similar to the cleaning professional who works in these poisons all day.

We tend to become habituated to chronic odors, requiring increasing concentrations to smell the same scent.

Once the chemicals have condensed around particulate nuclei and fallen on the floor, carpeting, or furniture, residues will persist for years.

Carpeting, already toxic, absorbs these droplets, just waiting to poison a crawling rug rat.

Is Phthlate-Free Enough?

Some vendors withdrew the implicated air fresheners.

Manufacturers, while stalling and lobbying, have already begun to make air fresheners phthlate-free.

What a great marketing hook - "Contains absolutely no phthlates, just flower fragrance."

Car Air Freshener Health Hazards

The boom also produced an innovative range of automotive air fresheners.

The traditional "Pine Tree" card has been joined by solids, gel capsules, and several types of AC vent attachments.

Every automotive retailer carries these high margin impulse sale items.

A vast array of products are offered in this easy-entry business. There are many joke scents and even canned new car smell.

Cute stuff, but an auto cabin is the most toxic environment most of us spend time in.

Toxic chemicals outgas from new car plastics and glues.

Automotive AC/heater evaporator, drain pan, ductwork, and vent tubing tends to accumulate food (latex, dead insects) and moisture. This offers molds, mildews, bacteria and algae a home. These produce odors along with allergenic spores.

A very common problem with cars is leaking antifreeze, which makes a faint syrup smell when the heater is on.

Cigarette odor, particulate, and residues coat every internal surgface in smoker's rides.

Any car with an odor is hard to sell, so owners have a financial incentive to use the inexpensive car fresheners.

Healt effects of chemicals from car air fresheners are magnified by the small enclosed space and air recirculation.

"I placed a car air freshener (the pine tree) on the control panel of my car. You know, where the fuel gauge, speed gauge, and all that is at.

Anyway, the chemicals in the air freshener actually melted or ate into the clear plastic there on the control panel! I now have the image of a pine tree that I can not remove on the plastic control panel of my new car"

automotive forum post

Government to the Rescue?

The industry is largely unregulated.

Joining NRDC, the Sierra Club, the National Center for Healthy Housing, the Alliance for Health Homes, weighed in, petitioning government agencies for regulation of the air freshener industry.

The environmental and consumer groups requested labeling of all ingredients in air fresheners and a ban on known allergens and items appearing on California's Proposition 65 list of chemicals.

In the early days of the Obama administration, Congress has degenerated into partisan bickering over the many billions of borrowed dollars being passed around in the name of saving the economy.

Don't expect them to gore a cash cow growth industry any time soon.

The Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate phthalates, requires no labeling of air fresheners, and considers exposures by this route not to be harmful.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) rejected the groups' petition.

Due to the refill-as-profit-center marketing model, there are many small time refill blenders who make proprietary air freshener formulas.

CPSC, like many consumer protection and environmental agencies, has a restricted budget, and cannot evaluate the thousands of new products introduced.

EPA has also avoided direct confrontation with manufacturers of air fresheners.

EPA's "Indoor Guide to Air Quality" briefly notes that air fresheners "release pollutants more or less continuously."

EPA suggests caution with air fresheners on a page targeted at children.

But EPA also denied the petition, asking the seven biggest manufacturers to voluntarily submit product ingredient lists.

Well, the U.S. National Institute of Health Sciences was quoted in ScienceDaily to the effect that air freshener chemicals might reduce lung capacity and accelerate respiratory diseases.

The European Union joined 14 other countries in banning the worst phthalates from use in toys and cosmetics.

But not air fresheners?

Well, at least we can still count on one agency of government - the fire department.

Fire Hazard

Plug-In air fresheners are built as a small, plastic tray containing a gel-like mixture of fragrance. This tray is inserted in a plastic case with a 110 volt heat coil. When plugged in, the heat vaporizes the volatile fragrance

Numerous fires have been reportedly caused by plug in air fresheners.

Fire departments in England, where power is 220 volts, have posted home safety warnings after five homes with air fresheners installed were burned.

Back in 2002, SC Johnson voluntarily recalled 2.5 million of its Glade Extra Outlet PlugIns brand plug-in air fresheners. These had an extra plug piggy backed on and many users plugged appliances through the fresheners.

An Ounce of Prevention

"Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
Would not take the garbage out!"
classic children's poem by Shel Silverstein

Air fresheners work by flooding the olfactory organs with chemicals, including nerve-deadening agents, masking odors.

Volatile oils coat the inside of the user's nose.

Of course we don't want to be embarrassed when someone visits and the house smells a little off. But how many guests will be turned off by the overpowering scent of synthetic perfumes which the residents do not notice due to habituation?

Why not attack the source instead of trying to hide from the problem?

The right way to get rid of odors is to keep the home clean, dry, and ventilated.

Scent is a signal - odors are offensive for a reason - to protect us from the toxic source.

Stale smoke and rotting garbage stink to warn us away. Mold is still toxic after the smell is concealed

Masked odors indicate unhealthful housing conditions.

Most bad smells have a simple biological source. But many are dangerous, like gas leaks, backed up septic or sewer systems, and mold-breeding water leaks.

Cleaning should the attack source of odor. Why does kitty go on the rug? Because the litter box tells her nose it isn't safe to use.

Opening the windows isn't that expensive, even in winter. Exhaust fans are required in baths and kitchens by building codes, and don't cost much to run.

For me the air-polluters-as-fresheners debacle goes beyond cleaning up these chemicals. It exposes what I call "artificial health" marketing - deliberately inculcating the belief that we can be healthy by treating the symptom rather than the cause.

Non-Toxic and Homemade Air Fresheners

Those who still want air fresheners should look for natural products which list their non-synthetic ingredients. There are plenty of these.

DO NOT burn "natural" soy or beeswax candles with natural fragrance. While the ingredients may be non-toxic, indoor combustion is always unhealthy.

Homemade natural air freshener recipes abound on the web, this is just a glimpse.

Herbal-spice fragrances, like vanilla, jasmine, rose, lilac, lily of the valley, cinnamon, cloves, lavender, citrus, sandalwood, and cedar are aromatic possibilities.

Simmer spices or herbs in a saucepan water on the stovetop.

To eliminate strong odors in the microwave, nuke 4 tablespoons of vanilla for 60 seconds and leave overnight.

For refrigerators where food was left in while electricity was down, try coffee grounds in an old stocking or sock. Put sock in glass, fill with coffee grounds, tie knot. Be sure to wash sox first.

Use zeolite to eliminate odors.

Zeolite crystals can be found in health food stores or on the Internet.

Baking soda absorbs odors in kitchens, baths, and carpeting.

Ordinary hydrogen peroxide will kill mold and bacteria around sinks and baths.

Out and About

Air fresheners, now known to be air polluters, have multiplied in commercial spaces, especially casinos, motels, and restaurants.

There is a hint of addiction here - a BBC documentary about gambling suggested that casinos using scents saw increased profits.

A number of these chemicals, especially acetaldehyde, are known to be involved in addiction patterns.

I recommend avoiding air fresheners in public places.

Motels run by newcomers to the business are often very polluted.

These folks buy into franchise deals where supplier contracts specify air freshening chemicals.

If I enter the lobby and smell fragrance, I just run out. I have learned from long experience that I won't sleep well there.

Experienced operators learn that these chemicals drive customers away.

Higher class hotels use ozone machines in unoccupied rooms and very subtle natural scents.

End Health Hazards Hide in Air Fresheners, goto Home Page