What’s In Your Air Freshener?

What’s In Your Air Freshener?

It might not be as flashy as sight or sound, but smell is still a powerful sense. Even the lightest odors can awaken long-lost memories or change the atmosphere of a room: just think of the inviting smell of freshly-baked bread, the bright sunshine evoked from a freshly-squeezed lemon, or the unpleasant way lingering trash odors can haunt a room. There are all sorts of products that promise to improve your home by replacing nasty smells with everything from the scent of still-warm apple pie to garden-fresh florals (in 2010 air fresheners were a $7 billion business), but what’s really in all those sprays, waxes, and candles? Sadly, a lot of these products rely on toxic chemicals to cover up bad odors and can actually end up contributing to indoor pollution.

How do air fresheners work?

Air freshening products rely on a variety of methods to get rid of nasty odors in your home.

Masking: This is probably what most of us think of when we picture air fresheners. These products won’t do anything to remove offensive odors, but instead will cover the smell with something more pleasant. Common types include aerosol mists, evaporation gels, wood diffusers, or scent-infused candles.

Absorption: Materials like activated charcoal or silica gel will filter particles in the air that cause unpleasant odors. Absorption is a major component of most home air filtration systems and can get rid of everything from cigarette smoke to pet smells.

Receptor blockers: Some air fresheners work not by changing the air but instead by going to work on your nose. These chemicals can overwhelm or dull your sense of smell so you don’t notice the rotten odors around you.

Air sanitizer: Many odors are caused by bacteria or other organisms, and, like the name suggests, air sanitizing sprays and filters will kill any odor-causing bacteria haunting the air in your home.

What’s in air fresheners?

The ingredients in air fresheners will vary significantly depending on the product, but there are a couple of key toxic chemicals you should keep an eye out for.

VOCs: Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are noxious gases given off from a variety of substances, including paint, solvents, and air fresheners. Their effects vary widely, and they’ve been linked to everything from lung cancer to asthma. The most common symptoms that arise from VOC exposure are respiratory problems, nausea, and headaches (for example, the lightheaded feeling you get from using bleach or painting in unventilated rooms comes from VOCs).

1,4-Dichlorobenzene (1,4,-DCB): Dichlorobenzene is a particularly dangerous VOC that was shown by NIH studies to impair lung function. It’s the deodorizer found in products like mothballs, urine cakes, and industrial cleaning solutions.

Phthalates: The same dangerous chemicals used to soften plastics can also be found in many air freshening products. Phthalates are added to sprays and gels to help dissolve and carry fragrances despite that fact that they have been shown to interfere with sex hormones and fetal development. In 2007, a Natural Resources Defense Council study found phthalates in 12 of the 14 commercially available air fresheners they tested.

What to use instead?

There are lots of natural, effective ways to keep your home smelling nice and fresh. Of course, the easiest way to keep your home clean is to remove those nasty odors at the source –  an enzyme cleaner will safely remove biological messes like pet urine, mold, and food spills from hard surfaces and fabrics, and an air purifier will help remove odors like cigarette smoke. If you want to add a fresh scent to your home, try a natural spray or beeswax candle that makes use of essential oils instead of nasty chemicals.


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