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Air Fresheners

This page is from the P2RIC's SustainUpdates section from the University of Nebraska-Omaha



 Air Fresheners are a common commercial product used to create a  pleasant smelling and clean indoor atmosphere in homes and businesses.  They are known to contain a number of different chemical agents in order to neutralize offensive odors and create a more pleasant scent.  The basic ingredients in air fresheners are formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, 1,4 dichlorobenzene and aerosol propellants.  Recently many of these chemicals have been investigated for their safety.  Some common chemicals found in air fresheners have been found to be toxic to humans and may increase the incidence of many different health problems.  Natural and healthy air fresheners are now being used as alternatives to conventional air fresheners in order to minimize health hazards and environmental pollution.

Environmental Impact

The fragrance industry is estimated to reach $6 billion in the U.S. by 2012.  About $1.7 billion of this market is directly related to air freshener sales, up $600 million since 2003.  The recent increase in the use of these products stimulated a more comprehensive investigation into their safety.  There are many concerns with using common commercial air fresheners but the main problem lies in the types of chemicals present inside them.  The most dangerous of these chemicals are  phthalates (pronounced ''thal-ates'').  Phthalates are hazardous chemicals known to cause cancer, hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems.  A study performed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 12 of 14 common household air fresheners contained phthalates and that none of them listed phthalates as an ingredient.  This study indicates that a significant percentage of air fresheners currently being used is a threat to public health.  US National Institute of Health (NIH) found that exposure to a VOC called  1,4 dichlorobenzene that is found in many air fresheners may be harmful to the lungs.  Another chemical present in air fresheners is terpene, which when exposed to the air creates formaldehyde.  Formaldehyde is classified as a human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.  Exposure to these dangerous chemicals has a cumulative effect and health risks increase with exposure to any of these substances.  Implementing the use of healthier or natural air fresheners that do not contain these substances would substantially decrease health risks associated with air fresheners. 

Toxic phthalates found in air fresheners:
The chemicals below were found in at least one of the 14 air fresheners NRDC tested.

• Di-ethly Phthalate (DEP): Associated with changes in hormone levels and genital development in humans.

• Di-n-butyl Phthalate (DBP): Recognized as a reproductive toxicant by the National Toxicology Program and the State of California. It can lead to changes in genital development.

• Di-isobutyl Phthalate (DIBP): Associated with changes in male genital development.

• Di-methyl Phthalate (DMP): Inconclusive evidence has shown reproductive toxicity in animal studies.

• Di-isohexyl Phthalate (DIHP): Limited toxicity testing has shown that DIHP is probably a developmental and reproductive toxicant.

Best Practices    

Enhance Ventilation-Good ventilation systems reduce the need for air fresheners by eliminating the need to mask odors and naturally eliminates unpleasant odors. Air fresheners cannot substitute for good ventilation.

Minimize Air Freshener Use-Air fresheners only mask the offensive odors and do not remove them.  Avoid using air fresheners as often, but when necessary use as little as possible in order to reduce the amount of hazardous chemicals in the air.  Air fresheners should only be programmed to run if needed and should only be used for odors that are unable to avoid.  

Use Natural and Safe Air Freshener Alternatives-Many products are available that offer healthy alternatives to commercial air fresheners.  Organic soy and beeswax candles, natural potpourri, fresh flowers or herbs, natural essential oils, environmentally friendly non-aerosol pump sprays, and baking soda are all safe alternatives.  Businesses that are looking to find non-toxic air fresheners should investigate available products to ensure their safety.  Currently, regulations do not require manufacturers to list ingredients or require them to perform health and safety testing.  Businesses and consumers should be aware of this and should take time to find air fresheners that are known to be safe. 

Use Low-level Phthalate Air Fresheners-Use air freshener products known to have low levels of phthalates and other hazardous chemicals present in order to reduce potential health risks.  Most products do not have labels that inform consumers of the presence of toxic chemicals.  Consumers should be aware that the majority of air fresheners contain at least a low level of these dangerous chemicals and should understand that they are using them at their own risk. 

Polices and Regulations

 Air freshener manufacturers are currently not required to reveal ingredients present in their products.  The 2007 NRDC study on air fresheners resulted in a petition to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to more tightly regulate air fresheners.  The NRDC recommends that the CPSC ban the use of hazardous phthalates and toxins appearing on California's Proposition 65 list of chemicals in consumer products and require manufacturers to provide ingredient information on the product labels.  They also recommend that the EPA require manufacturers to test and submit results of phthalates found in air fresheners, the extent of human exposure to phthalates in air fresheners, the health effects of the exposure, and the toxicity, persistence, sensitization, and other health effects of inhaling chemicals in air fresheners.

In an article published in October 2007, CPSC President Chris Cathcart denied the NRDC petition and stated that the findings from the NRDC study were not "rigor and scientific" enough to accurately conclude that they are dangerous to human health.  "Air freshener products that are on the market undergo extensive testing to meet or exceed the high standards and regulations set by government regulatory agencies. Companies conduct safety assessments including ingredient reviews, exposure and risk assessments and in-home testing." The EPA denied the NRDC petition as well but asked the 7 largest manufacturers to voluntarily submit product ingredients, range of concentrations for each chemical, each chemical's function, and total annual amount used.  The responses and results submitted by the manufacturers to the EPA are now available to the public.


Air Freshener Petition to the EPA. Environmental Protection Agency.  Retrieved March 20, 2009.

Hidden Hazards of Air Fresheners. Natural Resources Defense Council.  Retrieved March 20, 2009.

Indoor Air Pollutants and Toxic Materials. Center for Disease Control and Prevention.  Retrieved March 20, 2009.

CSPA Response to NRDC Study.  The Free Library.  Retrieved March 20, 2009.