Our not-so-fresh conclusion about air fresheners

Our not-so-fresh conclusion about air fresheners

A quick spritz of air freshener may seem like the perfect quick fix for funky odors from the diaper pail or the bathroom. Unfortunately, that pleasing smell is just more indoor air pollution.

Levels of harmful air pollutants like formaldehyde, chloroform and styrene range from 2 to 50 times higher indoors than outdoors. And because we spend most of our time indoors, our toxic exposures inside our homes, workplaces and schools are significant.

The dirt on air fresheners

Air fresheners – in aerosol, spray, solid, candle or plug-in form – don’t remove odors. They just mask them.

It’s literally impossible to track down a full list of ingredients for most air fresheners sold in the U.S., because there is no requirement for companies to disclose ingredients. A few companies provide ingredient lists on their website in response to consumer demand, but the word “fragrance” may hide dozens of chemicals, many of which may never have been assessed for safety. Ingredients commonly used in fragrances in air fresheners include phthalates, which make fragrances last longer and are linked to male reproductive system birth defects and hormone disruption, and synthetic musks, which are linked to allergies and hormone disruption.

Last year, a University of Washington study found that eight unnamed, widely used U.S. air fresheners released an average of 18 chemicals into the air. On average, one in five of these chemicals were hazardous substances highlighted in federal and some state pollution standards. Fully half the air fresheners tested released acetaldehyde, a likely human carcinogen according to the EPA.

When EWG conducted more sensitive testing of the air freshener Febreze Air Effects as part of a 2009 study of cleaning supplies used in California schools, we detected a total of 89 airborne contaminants, including acetaldehyde.

Are there greener alternatives?

When it comes to air fresheners, not so much. Some cleaning supplies are rated green by third-party certifiers Green Seal and EcoLogo, but there are no green certification standards for air fresheners.

Natural or homemade air fresheners scented with essential oils aren’t guaranteed free of potentially harmful chemicals. Essential oils are a complex combination of highly concentrated, naturally-derived chemicals. Though they are found in the natural world, they are rarely so concentrated. Few natural chemicals in essential oils and other plant-based ingredients have been tested for safety. Some can trigger allergies in sensitive individuals.

Better ways to freshen your indoor air

Instead of using air fresheners, open a window, run a fan, and get rid of the real source of the smell. A box of baking soda is a safe way to reduce odors. A HEPA air filter can safely remove some odors and allergens.

It just doesn’t make sense to pollute our inside air. It’s easier, cheaper and healthier to just say no to completely unnecessary products.


Rebecca Sutton Ph.D.

Dr. Sutton is a senior scientist in the California office of the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization that strives to protect children from exposure to toxic chemicals. She is an environmental chemist and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley.

Note: This Perspectives Blog post is written by a guest blogger of DrGreene.com. The opinions expressed on this post do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Dr. Greene or DrGreene.com, and as such we are not responsible for the accuracy of the information supplied. View the license for this post.

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