Toxic Air Fresheners

I hate air fresheners.  Hate hate HATE.  All they do is cover up smells with other sickly smells.  Seriously people, there are better ways to make your home or car or garbage cans more olfactorily pleasing.  (Is that a word?)

Taylor and I recently came in close contact with a hawaiian scented Febreeze thing that was meant to cover up garbage stench in our building. A few minutes later Taylor was turning pink and having a hard time breathing.  Meanwhile, I was shuddering at the thought of all the hormone disrupting chemicals in those things.

A little research when I got home told me that the only “ingredient” in that air freshener is “fragrance,” which we’ve talked about before. Fragrance is a catch-all term that may include tens or even hundreds of different ingredients.  Fragrances are proprietary, so companies don’t have to disclose what is in them. Additionally, the government does not have any safety regulations in place for air fresheners.

So how do we know what’s in them if the ingredients aren’t disclosed? Science! Groups of scientists have tested common air fresheners, and found that even some marketed as green or natural contained high levels of nasty chemicals (see below studies for sources).

Here is what you are exposed to when you come in contact with “fragrance”:


These endocrine disrupting chemicals, which pose the greatest risk to pregnant women and young children, have been shown to interfere with male development and have been linked with other reproductive abnormalities.  Phthalates are on the EWG’s dirty dozen list of endocrine disruptors.

A study by the National Resource Defense Council on commercial air fresheners found phthalates in 12 of the 14 studied, with very high levels in three. Read more about the study here.

Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOCs)  

VOCs are simply small molecules that enter the air easily (they have a low vapor pressure); most smells are caused by VOCs. New shower curtain smell, new car smell, and even cooking smells are indicators that chemicals are in the air and you are breathing them in. Of course not all are bad, but many VOCs are hazardous to humans. For example, new shower curtain smell is an indication of the presence of the cancer-causing monomer used to make PVC. (Read my post on finding nontoxic shower curtains here.)

Some VOCs in fragrances you may know better as paint thinner and nail polish remover. Many are sensitizers, which means they act as allergens by lowering chemical tolerances. This is what Taylor experienced.

A group of scientists at the University of Washington measured the VOC content of 25 different scented consumer products (not just air fresheners) and found 133 different VOCs, 24 of which are classified as toxic by the US government.  Each product contained on average 17 VOCs, including the “green” ones.  You can read more about this study here.

Given that “fragrance” is the only ingredient in some air fresheners, you can see now why I’m not a big fan.  The internet is full of suggestions for alternatives to make your home smell nicer, and a few of these I use regularly.

For deodorizing: 

  • An open container of baking soda absorbs odors.  It needs to be changed every month, but on the plus side it is dirt cheap.
  • Vinegar can do the same thing.  Leave a dish of vinegar on the counter to absorb smells, or keep a spray bottle of diluted vinegar on hand.  Diluted white vinegar also makes a great green all purpose cleaner.  This is my favorite way to destink our garbage can!
  • Increase ventilation by opening a window.

For a better scent:

  • To replace a commercial spray freshener, fill a spray bottle with water and add a few drops of essential oil.  Essential oils can also be added to the vinegar mixture above or dropped into the dish of baking soda.
  • Boil herbs/spices/cinnamon sticks in a pot on the stove.  I’ve never done this but I think a pot of cinnamon scent sounds lovely.
  • Make a pomander.  Again, never done it but sounds great for the holidays.
  • There are fancy plug in air fresheners out there that use essential oils, but they are basically the same thing as oil + water + squirt bottle.  Definitely not worth the money. Or, you can make your own diffuser.

Luckily, the orange stinky thing that Taylor is allergic to is already gone from our building’s garbage area after a talk with the neighbors, who hated it as well. Hopefully it will soon be replaced with a friendly box of baking soda.

See also:


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