Why air fresheners don’t freshen anything

Air fresheners emit a range of toxins that are known to be hazardous to health. So why on earth do people continue to use them in their homes and cars?

Air fresheners

While house hunting earlier this year, the owner of one of the properties we viewed had lit scented candles for our visit and then left the house while the estate agent showed us around. She must have thought the artificial aroma would impress us, but it had completely the opposite effect. It was so overpowering that we rushed through the viewing and escaped to the street as quickly as we could, gasping for air.

How air fresheners work

Air fresheners come in many forms. There are the scented candles and reed diffusers pictured above, as well as aerosols, electric plug-ins, gels, beads, heated oils, hanging discs, mist dispensers and more. Global retail sales are expected to top US $13 billion this year. It’s very big business.

However, air fresheners do not freshen the air at all. They work by producing a chemical reaction in our nasal passages that trick us into thinking external smells have changed.

This deception is brought about by the use of over 100 different chemicals, including acetaldehyde, benzene, d-limonene, formaldehyde, parabens, phthalates, styrene, toluene, xylene and 1,4-dichlorobenzene. Some of these are known carcinogens or neurotoxins and can cause eye, skin and throat problems, headaches, asthma attacks, respiratory issues, neurological disorders, hormone and endocrine disruptions and ventricular fibrillation.

The products continue to be sold because manufacturers are not required by law to prove they are safe to use or even disclose the ingredients. Like other fragranced products, they fall under the mantle of protected trade secrets.

Indoor air pollutants

We have now reached a situation where a UK study in 2021 found that the use of indoor aerosols (which includes air fresheners, hair sprays and deodorants) now produces more air pollution in the form of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than vehicle emissions do outdoors.

The Environmental Protection Agency in the US has come to similar conclusions. Its website states: ‘a growing body of scientific evidence has indicated that the air within homes and other buildings can be more seriously polluted than the outdoor air in even the largest and most industrialized cities’.

How crazy is that? People are using fragranced products, thinking they improve the air quality in their home, when in fact they are only adding to the problem. And don’t think for a minute that “green” air fresheners are any different to regular brands. When tested, they have been found to be just as toxic. Even diffusing essential oils can be hazardous to health because of the way the oils chemically react with ozone and other substances in the air.

The nose knows

The human nose has phenomenal capabilities. Using air fresheners affects its functionality and has a dumbing-down effect on our natural sense of smell.

A Scottish nurse named Joy Milne, for example, can smell Parkinson’s Disease (PD) long before the illness physically manifests. Her husband was diagnosed with PD when he was 45, but she first smelled it 12 years earlier. She describes it as having a musky aroma, which doctors have now discovered is caused by a chemical change in skin oil.

In a test conducted at Edinburgh University, Joy was given twelve T-shirts to smell, six of which had been worn by PD patients. The results at first were thought to be flawed because she identified seven of the T-shirts as being impregnated with the smell of PD. However, eight months later the owner of the seventh T-shirt got in touch to confirm he had been diagnosed with the disease. As in her husband’s case, she was able to smell it before the physical symptoms appeared.

Most people do not have Joy’s heightened sense of smell. However other sweaty T-shirt experiments have revealed that couples can sniff out a genetically compatible mate and a partner’s smell can make us feel less anxious. These tests were conducted with ordinary people. However, they only worked when no artificial fragrances of any kind were present. They interfere too much with natural abilities we all have.

Somehow, millions of people have allowed themselves to be convinced by clever marketing that they and their homes and cars smell so bad that air fresheners and other fragranced products are desirable, necessary and safe. They are none of these things.

What to do

First, check if your local hazardous waste collection centre recognizes air fresheners as hazardous waste. It’s unlikely  they will, but if they do, that’s great. Collect up any you have, take them there, and never buy them again. The only other alternative is to throw them away in your general waste, where the chemicals will pollute the area of the landfill site they end up in. That’s very unfortunate, so best avoided, but until the world comes to its senses and legislation is passed to prevent manufacturers from making these products in the first place, it may be your only option.

If you have been using air fresheners to mask unpleasant smells in your home, locate and deal with the source of the odour. Baking soda can work miracles and improving your ventilation will also help. These are much better solutions for your long-term health and wellbeing.

And don’t stop there. Richard and I stopped using fragranced products in our home decades ago, including soaps, shampoos, laundry detergents, fabric conditioners, cleaning products, deodorants, and so on. Unscented versions used to be very hard to find, but they are much more widely available now. Do an internet search for “fragrance-free” and the type of product you are looking for. Your nose will thank you, and your body too.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd, 2022

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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8 Responses to Why air fresheners don’t freshen anything

  1. My hazardous waste collection center takes air fresheners, etc. I’ve taken full shampoo bottles, nail polish and nail polish remover, spray cleaners, medication, batteries, light bulbs, broken down electronics…basically anything that can be purchased at the local stores or pharmacies, and it’s all been happily accepted. The city would rather have people bring these items to the special collection center than have it contaminate groundwater and cause other harm, etc. in a landfill.

    I personally don’t use chemicals anymore in my home or on my body, so I agree with the purpose of this article, but I feel that people should look into disposing of things responsibly because keeping Mother Nature healthy is important too.

    I don’t live in the U.K., so I don’t know what the resources are for recycling and disposing of household chemicals and other hazardous waste, but anyone reading your blog has access to the internet, and I encourage people to look at the resources for disposal and recycling on their city’s website, which is just a click away.

    1. Hi Leesa

      I’m glad to hear your hazardous waste collection centre accepts all the items you’ve listed, and I certainly encourage everyone to check if this facility exists in their part of the world too.

  2. does this apply to using items from nature such as burning white sage leaves (supposedly purifies air and other benefits) or beeswax candles with plant oils etc?

    1. Hi Veronica

      All candles emit particulate matter (PM 2.5) when burned, which is an air pollutant. Beeswax candles have been found to emit less PM 2.5 than cheaper paraffin wax candles while burning, but considerably more when smouldering after being extinguished. Overall, beeswax is therefore a better choice for candles, providing the space they are used in is well ventilated.

      Adding essential plant oils to beeswax candles changes this. It creates all the same problems that I explained in my reply to the question below asked by John A.

      Burning sage leaves certainly does not freshen the air. It is used by some people in the mistaken belief that it clears energies in spaces. I explain in this article why that doesn’t work. Other claims have been made that it has antibacterial properties when burned. This is also not substantiated. Burning sage, in fact, has no known purpose. Anyone with respiratory health issues would be well advised to avoid using it.

  3. I can’t imagine how a diffuser with organic essential oils would be harmful. If you know something about please share.

    1. Hi John – Many people who use essential oil diffusers are surprised to hear that they can be a health hazard. The problem is the terpenes they contain, such as limonene. Terpenes react with substances such as ozone, carbon dioxide and methane, that are found to a greater or lesser extent in the air in all homes, to create toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. This article explains the process in more detail: Diffusing essential oils: Harmful or beneficial to human health?

  4. I live in the U.S., and I disagree with the comment “throw them all in the bin” and basically let them pollute the area of the landfill site they are in, and that “there’s nothing you can do about that”.

    Because of how we are all connected ecologically, the chemicals will continue to permeate the environment from the landfill that they are in. All the natural forces of Mother Nature…rainwater, wind, etc…will make sure that they spread far from the landfill site that they were placed.

    A few days ago, I read a really upsetting story about a young polar bear in Russia who was emaciated and starving because it had an empty can (previously a condensed milk can) stuck in its mouth for who knows how long. It had picked up that can from a landfill site when it was scrounging for food. The story ends that it had wandered into a village, and vets were eventually able to remove the can from its mouth and return it to the wild (with antibiotics, since it’s mouth was cut badly), but still can you imagine how much worse it would be with the toxic chemicals that humans have dumped in a landfill?

    A better solution would be to take the extra time to dispose of things properly. My city has a website for the waste management services. Anyone can read on the website what is allowed to be placed in the regular recycling bin, what is allowed to be placed in the dumpster, and what needs to be taken to the hazardous waste collection center.

    Most large cities & towns in the U.S. have special hazardous waste (for chemicals, electronics, asbestos, etc., etc.) collection centers that you can bring your items to for proper handling and disposal. It does take a little extra effort to put your items in your car and drive down to the center, but it is worth it. I live in a small apartment, so I usually just collect one small box worth of items before I go to the special collection center. My center is staffed by very polite volunteers in hazmat suits. I’m grateful for their service, and I personally don’t mind making a special trip to drop off my items.

    I hope anyone reading this would consider looking into the recycling and safe-disposal options that your city or town might offer.

    1. Hi Leesa – The problem is that air fresheners are not classed as hazardous waste, so I have never heard of any waste recycling centre anywhere in the world that makes any special provision for dealing with them. At the moment, the only two options open to people are to use them in their own home and pollute their own air or throw them in the bin and send them to landfill. The reason I wrote this article is to create more awareness about this issue so that people will understand it’s not a smart choice to buy air fresheners in the first place.

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