Health/Fitness » Health

Toxic Commercial Air Fresheners

by Kent McGroarty
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jan 15, 2010

In short, synthetic air fresheners and sanitizing sprays do not freshen the air in the home or car. Rather, they are full of toxic chemicals that can coat the inside of the nose with oil and deaden the nasal passages which are really the least of the adverse health effects commercial air fresheners can cause. Health risks from regular exposure to air fresheners include, but are not limited to, headache, earache, irregular heart beat, depression, and diarrhea in babies. Daily exposure means toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, phthalates, and terpenes are being inhaled or absorbed by the skin or both. While the levels of toxins released by air fresheners are generally low and negative health effects are not immediate, time spent indoors increases the risk exponentially.

The majority of household air fresheners and sanitizing sprays contain phthalates, versatile chemicals found in many consumer products such as cosmetics, fragrances, pharmaceuticals, vinyl children's toys, pesticides, paints, and interior finishes. Phthalates work to prolong and maintain scent in air fresheners and can be inhaled or absorbed by the skin via aerosol particles. Once phthalates are in the bloodstream they can alter hormones and increase the risk of endocrine, reproductive, and developmental health issues.

There are numerous factors relating to the amount of phthalates or other air freshener toxins that get into the body and cause health issues. These include how many phthalates are in the product(s) being used, frequency of use, room size, how much time is spent in said room, how much bare skin is exposed, how hard and fast a person breathes, and whether or not the person is an adult or child. At this time health problems from skin or inhalation exposure are "hard to predict" as many of the studies of phthalate toxicity have focused exclusively on oral exposure.

The Natural Resources Defense Council released a list of air freshener brands that tested positive for phthalates as well as those that were phthalate-free. Air fresheners with the highest level of phthalates include Ozium Glycolized Air Sanitizer and the now-recalled Walgreen's Air Freshener, Walgreen's Scented Bouquet Air Freshener, and Walgreen's Solid Air Fresheners.

Air fresheners/sanitizers with medium levels of phthalates include Air Wick Scented Oil, Febreze NOTICEables Scented Oil, Glade Air Infusions, Glade Plug-in Scented Oil, and Oust Air Sanitizer Spray. Those with low levels of phthalates or none at all include Citrus Magic, Febreze Air Effects Air Refreshers, Lysol Brand II Disinfectant, Oust Fan Liquid Refills and Renuzit Subtle Effects.

Be aware that just because a product does not contain phthalates does not mean it is without other harmful chemicals. Many air fresheners contain large amounts of terpene, a chemical that can "react with naturally occurring ozone to create formaldehyde." Ozone is a form of oxygen that exists in different levels indoors and out, so the creation of formaldehyde is basically a given anywhere synthetic air fresheners are used. Both photocopiers and "ozone-generating" air purifiers can increase the level of ozone in the air. Formaldehyde is a classified human carcinogen and has been linked to cancers of the upper airways. Air sanitizer sprays that contain high levels of phthalates and formaldehyde-forming chemicals have been linked to increased asthma risk by 30-50 percent.

Other toxic chemicals found in many commercial air fresheners/sanitizer sprays include 1.4 dichlorobenzene, a volatile organic compound that can cause "reduction in lung function." Terpenes, chemicals found in lemon, orange, and pine scents, can also mix with ozone, thus creating toxic compounds. Limonene is one of several allergens found in many air fresheners/sanitizer sprays and those with allergies to such chemicals can experience rashes if not asthma attacks.

Air fresheners/sanitizer sprays can even cause problems unrelated to toxic chemicals! Damp indoor areas can create mold, and air fresheners mask the smell of mold, which harms the respiratory system. Plug-in air fresheners have been deemed potential fire hazards if "misused or assembled incorrectly." S.C. Johnson removed 2.5 million of its Glade Extra Outlet Scented Oil in 2002 due to this problem.

There are innumerable ways to freshen the air in your home or car without using synthetic air fresheners. Open windows whenever possible unless you live in a highly polluted area, even if it's just a crack during the winter. Leave out a box or bowl of baking soda to absorb odors and try sprinkling some of it on the carpet before vacuuming. White vinegar and water spray will sanitize and freshen the air as will a spray made of water and essential oils such as lavender, lemon, eucalyptus, clary sage, and many more. Keeping plants in the house cleans and sanitizes the air and removing the trash/compost daily helps as well.

These are all great ways to keep a safe and healthy home that smells fresh without spending money on potentially toxic chemical fresheners. In fact, two excellent pieces of advice in relation to cleaning products: if you can't eat it (as for example, white vinegar and baking soda, both of which can be ingested) then don't use it, and never use any product with a skull and crossbones symbol on it as this signals a very dangerous product, indeed!

Kent McGroarty is a freelance writer. She is a frequent contributor to EDGE’S Style, Travel, Health, and Fitness channels. Contact her at


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