The truth about air fresheners

Air freshener

Many people really don’t know how toxic synthetic car and home air fresheners are.

I won’t tolerate them for a minute when travelling in a friend’s car and have been known to refuse public taxis until one comes along that is air freshener free. I’m not allergic to them as some people are. I just know how harmful most of them are and choose not to sit in a confined space breathing in the vapours. If people knew what was in them, I think most would do so too.

The majority of air fresheners work by producing a chemical reaction in our nasal passages that trick us into thinking the smell is no longer there. It is. We just can’t smell it any more.

The way this effect is achieved, it amazes me that it’s even allowed. A study conducted by Anne Steinemann of the University of Washington in 2008 found that the most common household air fresheners (including the so-called ‘green’ ones or those with ‘essential oils’) emit substances that have no safe exposure level according to federal standards. They often contain chemicals such as formaldehyde, phthalates, toluene, styrene, acetone, acetaldehyde, 1,4-dichlorobenzene and chloromethane. All of these are hazardous to health in some way. Some are known carcinogens. What the heck are they thinking putting these ingredients into scented products designed to be inhaled?

Another University of Washington study in 2009 (Steinemann & Caress) found that 20% of the general population and 34% of people suffering from asthma get headaches or experience breathing difficulties when exposed to air fresheners. There have been many other studies done that show air fresheners are far from safe. Yet still they continue to be sold by the truckload. Global retail sales are expected to top $7 billion in the USA this year. It’s big business, and the latest fad is scented incense sticks that are not designed to be burned but simply to sit in a pot in the corner of a room creating toxic, sweet smelling odours. Even very pure essential oils can be a problem, because of the way they chemically change when heated.

And don’t get me started on scented candles. There are many health hazards with these too, even with the essential oil type. The idea of using air fresheners or scented candles to improve the quality of a space is fundamentally flawed.

Related article
Air Fresheners and Health Don’t Mix by Julie Braden

Copyright © Karen Kingston, 2010


About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui and healthy homes. Her best known book, 'Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui', has sold 2 million copies in 26 languages. She is known for her in-depth, practical and perspective-changing approach.
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7 Responses to The truth about air fresheners

  1. Gerri says:

    What about an ionizer?

    • Ionizers are very different because they do not pump out chemicals. However many ionizers emit high levels of electromagnetic fields, so you need to make sure the machine is placed far away from anywhere you spend long periods of time during the day or night.

  2. Sylvie says:

    What about Lampe Berger? It is a kind of catalytic burner, and it purifies the air as well as parfumating it.

    • Allie says:

      Did you every find out about the ‘safeness’ of Lampe Berger (ie do scents contain phthalates). . . apparently phthalates are banned in EU where the formulas are produced. Would love to know. Cheers.

      • Hi Allie

        I’ve never used a Lampe Berger myself, but from my research into this subject, there are concerns. The manufacturers don’t list ingredients on their websites but I found a list of ingredients online of a grapefruit/citrus Lampe Berger oil, done by a self-confessed geek and analytical chemist. According to him, it does include phthalate. I’ve copied his analysis here:

        89.4% Isopropyl Alcohol
        7.2% Limonene (scent)
        3.1% dipropyleneglycol (not sure if it’s part of the scent mix or added intentionally)
        0.5% methyldihydrojasminate (scent)
        0.1% piene (scent)
        0.05% ethyl citrate (scent)
        0.04% diethyl phthalate (not sure if it’s part of the scent mix or added intentionally)

        Animal studies have shown that phthalates can damage the liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system. I avoid using products that contain these, or anything that contains dipropyleneglycol.

        More worryingly, the main ingredient, isopropyl alcohol, may have serious health consequences. It has been linked by Dr Hulda Clark to cancer. In her book, The Cure For All Diseases, she says, “Without taking in propyl alcohol you could never get cancer. It takes two things to give you cancer: propyl alcohol and the human intestinal fluke parasite.” While I find much of her research impressive, I do have to take into account that she eventually died of of multiple myeloma (a blood and bone cancer), which does somewhat question the validity of her theories.

  3. silvia says:

    What about incense? I normally use the Satya Sai Baba ones.

  4. Ann B. says:

    Thank you for your blog on air fresheners. These things are the bane of my life. I am so allergic to the chemicals that these things emit that my life is severely limited.

    My husband and I are both affected. We foolishly purchased a home where ‘plug-ins’ had been used for years. The fragrance has permeated the drywall, even the inside of the attic and walls and studs reek of this stuff. It has been a remodeling nightmare trying to stop this stuff from oozing through paint, and out of any microscopic openings into wall spaces. Unlike natural fragrances, it never dissipates, or if it does, it takes many years.

    People are not thinking when they use these things. If you add this insult to our air quality to all the other sources of fragrance (laundry products, hair products, cleaning products), it is overwhelming.

    There is a whole segment of the population that suffers from chemical sensitivities who are written off as wackos for having problems with these things, so it is good to hear a healthy person commenting on the issue.

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