Hazards of Car Air Fresheners – How to Stay Safe

That little tree hanging off the rear view mirror of the family car looks innocent enough. It emits a pleasant smelling aroma that masks the not so pleasant scent of a combination of wet dog, smelly sneakers, and something suspicious lurking on the back seat where your 8-year-old was sitting. But it is now becoming common knowledge that air fresheners of all types may be dangerous for your health. Are they worth using or are you taking a risk with your health and that of your family?

The fragrance industry has a long-standing reputation for keeping the formulas to their scents a secret. Unlike some other industries that require full disclosure of ingredients, the makers of air freshener products are protected from having to disclose their ingredients to the public. This is obtained through citing The Uniform Trade Secrets Act. The fragrance industry argues that the chemistry that goes into their formulations are “trade secrets.”

But in recent years, scent allergies have been on the rise. A significant portion of the population has developed sensitivities or allergies to specific chemical compounds in scents that can cause everything from headaches, nausea, sneezing, and itchy, watery eyes to more serious respiratory reactions.

The majority of home and car air fresheners are created with Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). These are synthetic chemicals that can stay suspended in air. The EPA lists a number of possible adverse effects of exposure to VOCs including headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage, cancer, and more.

In addition to VOC’s, air fresheners contain other chemicals that can be harmful to your health:


Formaldehyde is well documented as a carcinogen, and it is present in significant amounts in many air fresheners. Exposure can cause cancer as well as major respiratory issues like asthma, wheezing, bronchitis, and eye, throat, and nose issues.


Many companies don’t list this as an ingredient in air fresheners, and in fact, some are advertised as all natural, but a 2007 NRDC study tested 14 air freshener products, and while none put phthalates on their lists of ingredients, all companies had them. Phthalates cause birth defects, reproduction problems in both men and women and many other adverse health effects.

The compound p-dichlorobenzene causes harm to the respiratory system and has been found to cause liver cancer in mice.

Much proof exists that air fresheners of all types, including hanging air fresheners, vent style fresheners, and other styles are toxic, harmful to your health, and even dangerous. We live in a society that has been literally scent sanitized. It has become the norm to use fragrances to mask natural human smells to make our daily lives more pleasant. But is this what we really want?

Advertisers spend billions convincing the public that any smell that is remotely natural or human could be offensive and that there is an urgent need to eliminate or mask these scents in order to live a better life. We have slowly grown accustomed to artificial scents in every aspect of our lives. Our homes, cars, workplaces, shopping venues and more are inundated by synthetic fragrances that leave less and less room for experiencing life in its pure olfactory form, and even cause desensitization of our ability to register pleasant or unpleasant odors.

Considering the use of commercial car air fresheners is so risky, what can you do if you want your car to smell good but you want to stay healthy? First, get rid of that little tree and ditch the clip on vent fresheners.

Fortunately, there are some wonderful alternatives that are just as pleasant smelling as their more toxic counterparts and are much safer for you and your family. Some of these can be purchased online and many of them can be found right in your own kitchen cabinets.

  • Do you love the smell of coffee? Fill up a cloth sachet with partially crushed coffee beans and hang it on your rearview for the natural smell of java. It’s a great wake-me-up scent to use.
  • Vanilla beans are an alternative to try as well. You can find these in health food stores or online. Wrap them in a cloth and place them under the seats of your car for a pleasant and long lasting aroma that has been proven to induce feelings of happiness.
  • Spices like cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg impart a wonderfully comforting scent and you need look no further than your kitchen. You can fill a small cloth bag with these and hang them in the car. Whole cinnamon sticks tied with a ribbon and hung from your rearview mirror also offer a strong and completely natural alternative that will mask almost any offending smell.
  • Citrus peels from lemons, limes, or oranges have an invigorating scent that is said to be energizing. The next time you peel and orange, don’t throw away the peelings. Instead, scatter them under your car’s seats for a pleasant smell that will start your day off right. (Just remember to remove them after a few days. You don’t want to have to cover up the smell of moldy fruit).
  • Essential oils are readily available in health food stores and online and they offer powerful antibacterial, antiseptic, antifungal, and antiviral properties making them ideal for freshening up your car. They come in a wide array of scents like lavender, rosemary, peppermint, and many others and a little bit goes a long way. Just dab some on a cotton ball or cloth and place in your car for a long-lasting aroma. You can even experiment with making your own scent by combining them.

For folks who would like to purchase something ready-made, Moso Natural has air freshener bags, an alternative that uses charcoal and other ingredients to neutralize odors. Eco-Me Natural Air Fresheners have created a line of non-toxic, all natural air fresheners that can be purchased on Amazon and come in delicious smelling scents like vanilla, mint, and cool citrus. 


Sandy Gregorio is a freelance creative writer who collaborates with various healthy lifestyle enthusiasts to share her experiences through the written word. She worked as a content marketing specialist in her formal life, but recently left to pursue a full-time freelance career. 

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