Are Air Fresheners Bad for the Environment?

Concerns about the safety and toxicity of air fresheners have been prevalent for some years, and the near-global ban on CFCs hasn’t eliminated those concerns.

Air fresheners contain chemicals – not all of them labeled or easy to find out – so the concerns aren’t unwarranted. The toxicity of air fresheners is difficult to determine but many air fresheners are known to contain carcinogenic ingredients.

The impact air fresheners have on the environment is even harder to study.

Air fresheners are bad for indoor air quality, which can even affect pets, and shouldn’t be used around water sources. Almost every air freshener contains ingredients that are toxic to aquatic life, and others can cause allergic or toxic reactions if sprayed directly on pets.

Is air freshener good or bad for the environment?

While air fresheners are now CFC-free, air fresheners still release all kinds of chemicals into the air. These chemicals can collect inside and reduce indoor air quality. Some can also have a wider impact on the environment.

Air fresheners introduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like acetaldehyde, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, formaldehyde, and xylene into the air. Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene are known as BTEX chemicals – according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, BTEX chemicals are some of the most commonly found VOCs.

The VOCs affect indoor air quality and aren’t always easily detectable. Some people suffer from irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat from exposure to VOCs, or else headaches and nausea. It’s the fragrance used in air fresheners that determines the amount and type of VOCs.

While the amount of VOCs released by air fresheners is hard to compare against naturally occurring VOCs (such as by volcanoes), most VOCs are released by man-made activities like the processing of petroleum products, production of paints and lacquers, and more. That includes processing the plastic used to contain air freshener.

Reducing your air freshener usage or completely limiting it will have an overall positive impact on your health, but its wider effect on the environment is hard to gauge.

What’s so bad about air fresheners?

Air fresheners have gotten a bad reputation in the past for containing chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). While CFCs were banned in the 20th century, many still distrust air fresheners – and for good reason.

Under 10% of air freshener ingredients are disclosed to the public, so even air fresheners claiming to be ‘green’ can contain hidden synthetic chemicals.

There’s no certification for ‘green’ or ‘all-natural’ air fresheners, so manufacturers can make any claims they want without being regulated.

The impact air fresheners have on indoor air quality can be hazardous for our health, especially as we don’t know what they contain. Even fragrance-free air fresheners are thought to contain phthalates. Phthalates can disrupt hormones in the body.

Air fresheners can also be toxic to pets, whether they breathe them in, roll in them, or eat them. There’s been an increase in feline asthma in cats who live in households that use air fresheners or incense, or else contain cigarette smoke.

Many people also have reactions to air fresheners, from allergic reactions to asthma.

Are air fresheners bad for your lungs?

The VOCs introduced by air fresheners have been linked to health hazards, with some shown to be carcinogenic or causing respiratory or lung problems.

Exposure to any of the BTEX chemicals can be hazardous to your health.

Formaldehyde is another major concern and is often a byproduct of construction, household products, and industrial combustion processes. Formaldehyde, like benzene, is a known carcinogen and can affect or cause respiratory problems.

Is it good to spray air freshener?

There’s little scientific evidence for the claims associated with air fresheners – despite air fresheners claiming to remove odors, disinfect the air, or reduce allergens. Even if air fresheners can help these areas, they don’t address the source of odors, bacteria, or allergens.

It’s far better to skip the air freshener entirely and find the source of discomfort in your home. Ensuring the room is well-ventilated is the most basic means of removing odor, but regular cleaning can ensure bacteria and allergens are removed.

What can I use instead of air fresheners?

Instead of air fresheners, you can reduce odors by:

  • Ventilating the room by opening windows or using an exhaust fan
  • Maintaining HVAC systems and keeping them clean
  • Regularly cleaning and vacuuming
  • Removing sources of odor

It’s best to opt for natural solutions to odor. Baking soda can absorb odor, while lemon and vinegar can also be used as alternatives to air fresheners.

Many recipes for DIY air fresheners contain essential oils. You should research the essential oils you want to use before committing to them – many essential oils are made with synthetic chemicals, and natural oils can be toxic for pets and children.

You can create air fresheners that you can spray around the house just like air fresheners, or you can disinfect surfaces with natural cleaning methods with some lemon for scent.

An even better solution is to create herbal bouquets in your home. These can even be bought from a local florist with some flowers you like. Geranium, peppermint, rosemary, and lavender are great choices for freshening the air.

Growing your own herbs can cut down on costs and can even help your local pollinators.

For people suffering from allergens it can be more difficult to tackle the source, but speaking to your doctor can help you find the right medication while you ensure:

  • Windows are closed during high pollen (use air conditioning instead)
  • Bedding and mattresses are washed regularly
  • You use dust mite-proof covers for bedding
  • Curtains are washed regularly
  • Condensation and causes of mold are tackled quickly
  • Your possessions are dusted regularly
  • Lowering humidity and maintaining optimal temperatures to reduce dust mites and mold

Mayo Clinic has even more ideas on reducing allergens in your home.

Which air fresheners are toxic?

Most commercial air fresheners are toxic to your health, and it’s incredibly hard to prove which aren’t, especially with the lack of transparency around the ingredients used in them.

It’s better to be safe than sorry by reducing or eliminating your air freshener usage.

What is the safest air freshener?

It’s hard to work out what the safest air freshener is because of the lack of regulation and transparency.

Fresh air should be as clean and healthy as possible, especially if you’re cleaning up after yourself and have a regular cleaning schedule. Ventilation always helps, though there are extra considerations if you have allergies or live near a highway.

Making your own DIY air freshener allows you to have control over the ingredients you use, tailoring them for your comfort and enjoyment. But if you don’t have enough time or money for it, you can modify your cleaning habits to freshen the air instead.

Use natural cleaning techniques using lemon and baking soda for the best results. Baking soda can also be placed in areas where you find a lot of odor if you’re unable to tackle it – but keep your cleaning and odor-absorbing baking soda separate.

 

The absolute safest method of sprucing up your home with scent is to grow your own plants. Herbs and particularly strong scented flowers can live on your windowsill or in your garden, and you can clip parts of them to bring inside when the flowers bloom.

Alternatively, you could make your own candles.

There are some air fresheners you can buy that have a reduced impact, such as plant-based air fresheners, but you need to research them for yourself. Some air fresheners of note include:

Does Febreze pollute the air?

Febreze is one of the most popular air freshener brands. They say their mission is to “develop odor-eliminating formulas that help you breathe happy”.

Febreze is also one of the more apparently transparent brands, with a “no list” of ingredients that includes:

  • Formaldehyde
  • Phthalates
  • Benzene
  • Bisphenol A
  • PVC

There’s no guarantee that they couldn’t be hiding other ingredients they use, especially under other names (like many cleaning and fragrance brands do).

Some of their most worrying self-declared ingredients for the environment are nitrogen (a greenhouse gas), benzisothiazolinone (toxic to aquatic life), and undetermined fragrances that are almost certainly synthetic.

According to the Environmental Work Group, only some of the ingredients in Febreze products are disclosed. They identified the deodorizing agent as of moderate concern and benzisothiazolinone as of moderate concern for the environment – the former having chronic aquatic toxicity and the latter having acute aquatic toxicity.

While the EWG doesn’t mention air pollution in their report, it’s without a doubt that Febreze does pollute the air and reduces indoor air quality.

Is Febreze toxic?

Febreze is not as toxic as some other air fresheners due to the lack of phthalates, formaldehyde, and BTEX chemicals, but that doesn’t mean the ingredients they use can’t be toxic.

The EWG report marks developmental and reproductive toxicity of Febreze air fresheners at low concern, along with cancer, though skin allergies and irritation have some concerns. This isn’t uncommon, as many of the ingredients are irritants to the eyes or can cause allergic reactions on contact.

However, it’s not known what else Febreze air fresheners contain.

Is Glade air freshener toxic?

Glade air freshener contains some similar ingredients to Febreze, though the EWG has classed their environmental impact as of moderate concern.

Unlike Febreze air fresheners, Glade air fresheners use sodium phosphate which is rated as of high concern for general ecotoxicity – producing sodium phosphate creates a hazardous waste stream.

Other ingredients are also shown to have some aquatic toxicity, and isobutane is marked as concerning for developmental, endocrine, and reproductive effects. Isobutane is known to be carcinogenic to humans.

The European Commission classified isobutane as a Category 1 carcinogen, as well as Category 2 for genotoxicity.

Is Air Wick air freshener poisonous?

Air Wick air fresheners are rated by the EWG as even worse than Febreze and Glade products. The report into Air Wick’s lavender and chamomile air freshener shows high concern for developmental and reproductive toxicity, mostly due to the ingredient sodium borate.

Sodium borate is a toxic ingredient. Also known as borax, sodium borate has been found to affect testosterone and follicle stimulating hormone. The margin of exposure for sodium borate is “estimated at 72 for males and 129 for females”, though normal exposure isn’t expected to be toxic to humans.

However, sodium borate is shown to be very toxic to rats per prenatal growth and morphologic development.

A review in 2021 found that inhalation toxicity data was sparse, though a study did find reduced fetal weight in an animal after inhaling a boric acid content of 20%.

While the inclusion of sodium borate in Air Wick air fresheners is unlikely to pose toxic exposure to consumers, workers manufacturing the air fresheners are likely to have higher levels of exposure which could affect reproductive toxicity.

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