5 Things You Should Know About Air Fresheners

Your sweet-smelling home may be upping your risk of serious health issues, including cancer.

By Sara Schwartz

Whether you want your house to smell like apple cinnamon strudel or clean laundry or a meadow at dawn, rest assured — there’s an air freshener for that. But did you know that your sweet-smelling home may be damaging your health? Over the past decade, scientific studies have shown that many common household air fresheners contain chemicals that may be potentially harmful.

Between aerosol sprays, electric plug-ins, candles, oil diffusers, and other products, the U.S. air freshener market will pull in $1.8 billion in 2015, and these products are used in about 75% of households, says the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). According to Anne Steinemann, Ph.D., a professor of civil engineering at the University of Melbourne who has studied extensively the health impacts of fragranced household products, one-quarter of the ingredients in air fresheners are classified as toxic or hazardous. “Ultimately your risk depends on exposure,” she says. "You don’t have to have symptoms. Just because it doesn’t kill you, it doesn't mean it’s not harming you. Some effects are not immediately obvious.”

How Worried Should You Be?

While it’s been established that air freshening products contain hazardous chemicals, and that these chemicals are present in the air where you use them, not every researcher believes the average exposure will cause you harm. Kent Pinkerton, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Health and the Environment at the University of California Davis, specializes in inhalation toxicology and studies the health impact of particles present in outdoor and indoor environments. “I’m not sure that we should say air fresheners should be banned from use,” says Dr. Pinkerton. “We don’t really have solid evidence of that. But certainly some of the chemicals that have been measured from air fresheners should draw caution.”

For perspective on this issue, think about what our lungs experience daily, says Dr. Pinkerton. “Our lungs are designed as a filter,” he says. “In a typical day, even on the cleanest day, we will breathe into our lungs millions of particles, and yet we are perfectly fine. Either the particles are not toxic or we filter them out.”

When considering the potential health risks of using a product like air fresheners, you have to consider the weakest links, which in this case are people whose lungs are already susceptible (such as asthma sufferers or people with COPD) and children. “Kids don’t have a complete metabolic system—they can’t process things the way adults do,” says Dr. Pinkerton, who is also a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the UC Davis School of Medicine. “Whatever is in the air, a child may have as many as 30 times greater exposure because of their size and their level of activity.”

In the end, Dr. Pinkerton believes it’s important for people to consider the risks, so they can make the best choice for their health and that of their family. “Our great concern is longterm exposures,” he says, which hasn't been properly studied for air fresheners. “If we use air fresheners for years and years, is that a potential risk?”

5 Air Freshener Chemicals to Keep an Eye On

If you do use air fresheners, consider the possibility that these chemicals may be present in the product you're using:

Volatile Organic Compounds

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are airborne gas byproducts emitted by a wide array of household products, from paints to disinfectants and automotive products, says the Environmental Protection Agency. The most prevalent VOCs classified as toxic or hazardous in fragranced air fresheners are acetone, ethanol, d-limonene, pinene, and acetate, according to a 2015 study authored by Steinemann and published in Air Quality, Atmosphere & Health. Depending on your exposure and sensitivity, toxic VOCs can produce a range of health effects, including eye, nose, and throat irritation, nausea and headaches, and even damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system, says the EPA, which offers a complete list of symptoms.

“The most common chemicals in fragrance mixtures are terpenes (limonene, pinene, etc), and they have inherent toxicity,” says Steinemann. “When they react with the ozone in the air, they generate a range of secondary pollutants, like formaldehyde and ultra fine particles. Ultra fine particles have been linked with heart and lung disease, and respiratory difficulties.”

To minimize your exposure to VOCs, the EPA recommends the increasing ventilation when using products that emit VOCs, meeting or exceeding any label precautions, and throwing away unused or little-used containers safely. For more VOC safety information, visit EPA.gov.

Formaldehyde

The scientific community hotly examined air freshener safety about a decade ago; studies revealed that an abundance of potentially dangerous chemicals and chemical byproducts—such as formaldehyde—are released with each perfumed puff. A 2015 study published in the journal Science of The Total Environment assessed the health risks of breathing in those chemicals in a realistic scenario: in a home while using other household products that contain the same ingredients. Researchers found that electric air fresheners release significant formaldehyde emissions on their own (17% of the Critical Exposure Limit or CEL), and that combined with seven other common household products (such as all-purpose cleaning agents and furniture/floor polish), your exposure to formaldehyde can reach 34% of the CEL in just 30 minutes.

“Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen,” says Dr. Steinemann. “As for symptoms, you may experience eye, nose, and throat irritation, coughing, wheezing, bronchitis, and dizziness.” Reactions and reaction severity depend on your individual sensitivity, she explains.

Before you throw away all your household cleaners and scented sprays, consider this statement made by one of the study authors, Dr. Ovnair Sepai, Principal Toxicologist at Public Health England’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, in response to the media uproar about air freshener: “The use of scented candles and other household cleaners is not a public health concern under normal ventilation conditions or product use.”

According to the World Health Organization, other indoor sources of formaldehyde include: resins found in particleboard and plywood, paints, varnishes, household cleaning products, cosmetics, and more. “When using any chemical mixture with another, there’s the potential of a more adverse reactionm” says Dr. Steinemann. “You increase your risk when you combine products with fragrance, such as cleaning products, hand sanitizers, laundry products.”

Worried about formaldehyde exposure in your home? Formaldehyde air testing kits and monitors are available at Amazon and other retailers. “Formaldehyde is one of the few indoor air pollutants that can be readily measured, says EPA.gov. “Identify, and if possible, remove the source. If not possible to remove, reduce exposure by using a sealant on all exposed surfaces of paneling and other furnishings.”

Phthalates

If your pregnant daughter-in-law or young grandchildren spend a lot of time at your house, you might reconsider your home-deordorizing habit. In a 2007 study of 14 home air fresheners, the NRDC found that 12 of them contained phthalates, including “all-natural” and “unscented” varieties. Phthalates, which are used to dissolve and carry fragrance, are linked to changes in hormone levels, poor semen quality, birth defects and reproductive harm, says the NRDC report. Furthermore, a type of phthalate called Di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, which is found in scented products like air freshener, is "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). At the time of the study, only two products tested completely negative for phthalates: Febreze Air Effects and Renuzit Subtle Effects.

1,4 dichlorobenzene

One of the primary ingredients in mothballs, room deodorizer, and urinal cakes, 1,4 dichlorobenzene (1,4 DCB) has been implicated in two serious health concerns: The compound may cause “modest reductions in lung function,” according to NIH, and lifetime exposure has resulted in liver cancer in mice, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Even a small reduction in lung function may indicate some harm to the lungs,” said NIEHS researcher Stephanie London, M.D., lead investigator on the study, in an NIH News article. “The best way to protect yourself, especially children who may have asthma or other respiratory illnesses, is to reduce the use of products and materials that contain these compounds.”

Allergens

For people with seasonal allergies, chronic asthma, COPD, or a common cold, air freshener is a definite no-no, says Janna Tuck, M.D., a practicing allergist in Cape Girardeau, MO, and a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. “Plugins, sprays, candles, any fragrance — all contain irritants to the airways,” says Dr. Tuck. “Patients who have asthma, COPD, or allergic rhinitis, they already have inflammation, so irritants can exacerbate the problem.” A 2011 news report released by the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology linked the VOCs in air fresheners with a 34% increase in health problems in people with asthma. “The example I use is, if you don’t smoke and you go into place with smoke, do you get stuffy?” says Dr. Tuck. “And if you already have a cold, how much stuffier do you get? If you’re sensitive enough to these VOCs, they can cause permanent damage. As an allergist, I don’t recommend that any of my patients use air fresheners.”

The Safest Ways to Get a Good-Smelling Home

If you're worried about the health effects of VOCs, phthalates, and other chemicals in home fragrance products, but you still want your home to smell like something, stick to natural sources, says Dr. Steinemann. "If you really want an aroma, brew mint tea or grind up a fresh orange," she suggests. "Only natural, pure sources will be free of chemicals. Even essential oils emit similar chemicals to air fresheners."

Another way to freshen up your home: Just open the windows. "Why use an air freshener at all? It's not designed to clean and disinfect the air; it's a chemical mixture that masks odor," says Dr. Steinemann. "The best smell is no smell. That means your house really is clean."

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Opening a window is feasible only at certain times of the year where I live in the Midwest, and my bathroom window is impossible to open. The bathroom odors from normal bodily functions do not mean one's house is not clean, but I still want to minimize those odors. I'd like suggestions for dealing with that, especially if essential oils and other home-made deodorizers contain potentially dangerous compounds. I use the aerosols sparingly, but I do not intend to stop using them. I don't want to use a scented candle because I won't leave it unattended. I think balance is needed; consider the dangers and weigh your options. Don't panic.

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