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Are air fresheners bad for your health?

The short answer is in some cases YES they are.  Some air fresheners sold as consumer products are possibly hazardous to a person’s health. There are different types of air fresheners in the marketplace that are causing some alarm right now and for good reason.

We refer to the two main types of air fresheners in this article. Some air fresheners use chemicals that affect our sense of smell, paralyzing or numbing the nerves for a period of time after being exposed to the “fragrance” in the air freshener. Other types work by coating the nasal passage with a thin layer of oil which blocks the nerves.

Unless clearly marked otherwise, air fresheners and other scented products contain phthalates which are used to add longevity to the scent.

But first, let’s start with the ingredient listed on the labels called “fragrance”, or sometimes printed as “perfume”.


What is “Fragrance” or “Perfume” on the ingredients of Air Freshener mean?

When you look on the label for the ingredients used, you will often find something along the lines of “Fragrance” or “Perfume”. It’s usually, the first ingredient listed.

When looked up in the dictionary, the definition of “fragrance” is “the state or quality of having a pleasant odor”

Label of air freshener

Label of air freshener

Well, this doesn’t really tell us what is in the “fragrance”, it just tells us that it smells nice. But as far as the ingredients for the scent, that’s all that’s listed. Why is that you wonder?

It’s because the fragrance recipes are considered trade secrets, and because of this the manufacturers are not required to disclose the chemicals or ingredients used to produce the scent. Simply writing down “fragrance” is all that is required for the label.

Now, when we are talking about products with fragrance, unless otherwise stated, you can place a safe bet that “phthalates” are being used. Since the “phthalates” being used are considered part of the recipe, they are not usually listed with ingredients on the labels for consumers to be aware.


What are “Phthalates” and why are they used?

Phthalates are a man-made compound used in manufacturing soft plastics. They are made from a combination of alcohols and phthalic anhydride.

In natural form, phthalates are oily, colorless, odorless liquids that do not evaporate quickly. When added to a scented product, phthalates have the ability to hold a scent for a longer period of time. This makes it ideal for products that are used for their scent like perfumes, skin moisturizers, hairspray, and many more products.

Phthalates are known endocrine disrupters and have been linked to reproduction, developmental and behavior disorders. They are considered highly toxic, especially for babies and developing children and should be avoided when possible.

Air Freshener or Air Polluter?

Air Freshener or Air Polluter?

Symptoms of exposure to phthalates may include:

  • Irregular heartbeats
  • Headaches
  • Earaches
  • Depression
  • Diarrhea in babies

Other concerns about use of Air Fresheners

As if phthalates and secret ingredients aren’t enough to worry about, there are some other very real concerns about some types of air fresheners and the chemicals they contain.

According to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there are four basic ingredients in air fresheners are formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, p-dichlorobenzene, and aerosol propellants.

Let’s look at each of these ingredients a little closer.

Formaldehyde
A main ingredient of many air fresheners and a known carcinogen.

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable, strong-smelling chemical that is used in building materials and to produce many household products.

When exposed to formaldehyde at higher concentrations, some individuals may experience burning and watery eyes, nose and throat irritation, wheezing, nausea and skin irritation. The sensitivity to formaldehyde may also differ between persons, as some may be very sensitive to exposure and others may experience no discomfort. Long term exposure still needs more studies.

Petroleum Distillates
Petroleum distillates are hydrocarbon solvent produced from crude oil. Short term exposure symptoms include dizziness, headaches, nausea, and irritation of the eyes, nose and throat.

Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) & NIOSH list Petroleum distillates in their pocket guide to chemical hazards. There are listed exposure limits for workers because this stuff is dangerous to work with. Interesting that we willingly spray it into the air we breathe to make it smell nice.
p- dichlorobenzene
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has p- dichlorobenzene listed as indoor toxic air. Short term exposure may have symptoms such as irritated eyes, nose, throat and skin. Longer term exposure can result in adverse effects on the liver, central nervous system and skin.

Aerosol propellants
A compressed inert gas that acts as a vehicle for discharging the contents of an aerosol container.

There are a number of different propellants used that indclude:

  • Propane
  • Butane
  • Isobutene
  • Carbon dioxide / CO2
  • Nitrous oxide

It is doubtful that you will find out which of these are being used. It is very likely that on the label it will only be listed as “propellant”.

Nerve-deadening chemicals and Nasal coating

There types of air fresheners contain a nerve-deadening chemical that can actually paralyze the senses for a period of time. Others will coat the nasal passage with a thin layer of oil, blocking the sense of smell for a period of time.

The initial odour is not actually removed from the area, but you likely won’t smell it as your smelling senses have been temporarily turned off. As you regain your sense of smell, you also acclimatize to the smell in the air and it is not as offensive as it once was.

So there you have it, know you know what is in these air fresheners, and how some of them work.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to stop using all your favorite air fresheners. Like much of life, moderation is the key. When used in moderation and in a well ventilated area it is not likely to pose immediate health risks.

This article is meant as in information piece to inform on what is in the products that are being sold as it is not always made known on the labels.

Every individual has the right to pick their own poisons, but its only fair that you know exactly what poisons are potentially being sprayed into our environment before making that choice.

Tips for safer air freshener selection: 

  • Have a scent free policy for work environment
  • Avoid synthetic fragrances
  • Use essential oils only
  • Look for no labels with NO synthetic fragrance or scented with essential oils only


Studies of interest

University of California – Berkeley
University of California – Berkeley did a study in 2006 and the in the study it was found that many of the common household cleaners and air fresheners offered at stores could emit toxic pollutants at levels that may lead to health risks.


Natural Resource Defense Council

Natural Resource Defense Council tested 14 air fresheners and found that 12 of them contained phthalates.

Products that have “fragrance” most likely contain phthalates. Commonly found in perfumes and air sprays, there is no regulation in the air freshener industry so there is nothing to stop a company from introducing a new “fragrance” spray or air freshener before any studies are done to measure the amount of phthalates in the ingredients.

Phthalate exposure has been linked to birth defects and developmental disorders.

Additional resources:

Daily Health Post

National Resources Defense Council

How stuff works

CBC News

Huffington Post

US EPA

Science Daily

Community Research and Development Information Service

Breast Cancer & The Environment Research Centers

Scientific American

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