Are Air Fresheners Harmful To Your Health?

Jan 2, 2022 | Home & Garden, General | 0 comments

Are Air Fresheners Toxic?

In our modern world, many people use store purchased air fresheners as a means to create a pleasant fragrance in the home. These devices come in many forms and are a common feature in many homes, often in the form of plug-in air fresheners from major companies. Other common forms include automatic misting devices, heated oils, and synthetic gels. Most customers simply purchase these products and enjoy the pleasant aromas, without much further thought about what they are actually breathing in.

There has been increasing awareness amongst scientific communities about the potential health hazards from air fresheners. Indeed, research is now suggesting that air fresheners may actually exacerbate indoor air pollution by adding toxic chemicals to the air. [1]

These chemicals can have a significant effect on some people. In a survey of 2,115 Americans, it was found that 19% of participants reported adverse health effects from air fresheners. [2]

There has even been attempts to put a name on the symptoms that can arise from the use of these devices, with the name ‘Air Freshener Syndrome’ arising as early as 1985! [3] The term was used describe the presence of a cluster of neuropsychological symptoms and signs, including unreality feelings, headache, nausea, lassitude, ataxia and tremor. These symptoms seemed to be linked to the presence of air freshener products.

Air Fresheners Fill The Air With Small Droplets Of Scented Chemical Compounds
Air Fresheners Fill The Air With Small Droplets Of Scented Chemical Compounds

Air fresheners generally work by filling the air with small droplets of pleasant smelling chemicals in the form of tiny oil droplets. These oil droplets are then inhaled and the aroma of the oils Some air fresheners may also release chemicals that bond to ordodorous particles s in the air and act to neutralize them.

Regardless of the promise on the front of the packet, it is important we remember that all these devices work by the release of Volatile Organic Compounds, often referred to as ‘VOCs’ in to the air and living space. VOCs are chemicals that turn into a vapour or gas easily at room temperature, emitted from certain solids or liquid. Air fresheners release a number of VOCs in to the air.

A 2010 study investigated volatile organic compounds emitted from 25 common fragranced consumer products including laundry products, personal care products, cleaning supplies, and air fresheners. The results were concerning, finding that 133 different VOCs were emitted from the 25 products, of which, 24 are classified as toxic or hazardous under U.S. federal laws. Every product used in the study emitted at least one of these compounds, and on average, there were 17 VOCs released per product! [4]

To make matters worse, only one of these VOCs was listed on any product label! Even products marketed as being ‘Green’ didn’t fare any better in the study, which found no discernable difference in the number of VOCs between products marketed on the labels as being ‘Green’ and those which were not.

The reason these companies can legally not list these chemicals is because the formulas used to create the fragrances are considered ‘trade secrets’ in accordance with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This allows companies to remain secretive over the exact chemicals going in to their product.

To understand the potential health implications of this, we first have to take a closer look as to exactly what chemicals are being released by our air fresheners.

What Chemicals Are In Air Fresheners?

The presence of certain VOCs has caused concern amongst many scientists and health agencies to be less than complimentary about air freshener usage. The Environmental Protection Agency state that there are four basic ingredients in air fresheners – Formaldehyde, Petroleum Distillates, P-Dichlorobenzene, and Aerosol Propellants.” They also note that ‘Air Fresheners are usually highly flammable, and also are strong irritants to the eyes, skin, and throat.” [5]

Most Air Freshener Plugins Use A Large Variety Of Potentially Hazardous Chemicals
Most Air Freshener Plugins Use A Large Variety Of Potentially Hazardous Chemicals

Furthermore, a 2002 EPA test found that “air fresheners plugged into electrical outlets react with common indoor air pollutants to produce toxic chemicals like benzene derivatives, pinene and limonene, aldehydes, phenols, and cresol”. These chemicals can cause a variety of unpleasant health impacts.

Let’s take a quick look at some of the chemicals found in air freshener products, and briefly describe their dangers.

Benzyl Alcohol – Contact may irritate skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. May be slightly toxic by ingestion.

Camphor Oil – Can cause skin and eye irritation.

Cresol – Skin and eye irritant.

Dichlorobenzene – Nervous system toxin. Can cause breathing difficulties. Anticipated to be a human Carcinogen. [6]

Ethanol – Can be carcinogenic in some instances. [7]

Formaldehyde – The constituents of air fresheners can react with ozone to produce secondary pollutants including formaldehyde. A skin and eye irritant. A confirmed Carcinogen. [8] [9]

Limonene – A skin irritant and environmental hazard. Can react to form formaldehyde as a secondary pollutant.

Linalool – A potential irritant. Acts on the central nervous system (CNS). [10]

Phthalates – Phthalates have been linked to sexual hormone disruption and reduced fertility. [11]

Toluene – A toxin linked to reproductive failures. Prolonged low-level exposure can lead to liver damage, kidney damage, and mild neurotoxicity. [12]

Xylene – Long term inhalation exposure of humans to mixed xylenes results primarily in Central Nervous System (CNS) effects, such as headaches, dizziness, fatigue, tremors, and loss of coordination. Respiratory, cardiovascular, and kidney effects have also been reported. [13]

When we consider the effects of these chemicals, it is possible that a number of these are responsible for air freshener side effects. The effects profiles of these compounds certainly provides a reason to pause and consider why we fill our indoor spaces with them. We fill the air we breathe with potentially harmful chemicals, simply for a short lived pleasant aromatic sensory stimulus that often goes unnoticed anyway.

Health Impacts From Air Fresheners

Could air fresheners be making you unwell? Let’s now have a look at a few of the potential impacts that air fresheners may have on our bodies.

1. Endocrine Disruption

There has been concern over the years that many of the chemicals used in air fresheners could be affecting human endocrine system. The endocrine system is made up of all the body’s different hormones. It regulates all biological processes in the body from conception, and continues to do so through adulthood and into old age.

The endocrine system plays a key role in metabolic function, development of the brain, and maintaining blood sugar levels. The endocrine system also plays a crucial role in reproductive health, including the female ovaries and male testes. This is important, as endocrine disruptors often can lead to sexual dysfunction. [14]

Phthalates May Be Interfering With Human Fertility
Phthalates May Be Interfering With Human Fertility

Phthalates, a common chemical in air freshener products, are weak endocrine disruptors, and androgen blocking chemicals. This means that when absorbed into the body, phthalates can mimic or block female hormones, and in males, they can suppress the hormones involved in male sexual development. [8] [15]

Whilst research is ongoing and developing, it has been found that some phthalates are “reproductive and developmental toxicants in animals, and suspected endocrine disruptors in humans”. [16]

Further studies are being conducted to work out if exposure to these chemicals is causing issues with sexual development and fertility in humans. In animal studies, the effects of phthalates have been analysed in greater detail, and the results are not favourable. Animals exposed to high levels phthalates in studys have displayed signs of:

● Early onset of puberty.

● Interference with male reproductive tract development.

● Hormone interference.

● Reproductive and genital defects.

● Lowered testosterone levels in adolescent males.

● Lowered sperm count in adult males.

This may all sound quite extreme, and you may be wondering if air fresheners could really be producing chemicals that could have such an impact. The question we need to ask is ‘do air fresheners contain phthalates’. Unfortunately, it seems like air fresheners could indeed be a source of phthalate ingestion. A study in 2020 analysed maternal urine samples from 841 women, looking for phthalate metabolites. The study found that Diethyl Phthalate (DEP) levels were significantly higher when women reported using air fresheners (35% increase). [17]

2. Breathing Difficulties

A 1997 study evaluated the emissions of air fresheners at several concentrations, and found that inhilation of the airborne chemicals “caused increases in sensory and pulmonary irritation, decreases in airflow velocity, and abnormalities of behaviour measured by the functional observational battery score”. The study trialled the emissions at several different concentrations, including levels that some people are actually exposed to in daily life when living with indoor air fresheners. [1]

Asthmatics And Other Sensitive Individuals Can Be Triggered By Air Fresheners
Asthmatics And Other Sensitive Individuals Can Be Triggered By Air Fresheners

Asthmatics are even more at risk from this, with 41% of asthmatics reporting health problems from air fresheners or deodorizers in a 2018 survey. [18] The survey also found that “asthmatics would prefer that workplaces, health care facilities and health care professionals, hotels, and airplanes were fragrance-free rather than fragranced.”

A 2018 study revealed that “exposure to fragranced consumer products, such as air fresheners and cleaning supplies, is associated with adverse health effects such as asthma attacks and breathing difficulties”. The study concluded that “most asthmatics would prefer workplaces, healthcare facilities, and environments that are fragrance-free, which could help reduce adverse effects”. [19]

3. Allergic Reactions

Air freshener products can trigger allergic reactions. The most at risk from suffering allergic reactions from air fresheners are individuals with chemical sensitivities, but children are also vulnerable to this. As we looked at earlier in the article, there are many different VOCs that can serve as irritants, and some of these can cause allergic symptoms to emerge upon inhilation of droplets, and also in contact with the skin. [20]

Air Fresheners Can Trigger Allergic Reactions In Some People
Air Fresheners Can Trigger Allergic Reactions In Some People

Compounds in air fresheners can react with ozone in the air to form secondary pollutants. A study in 2014 found that VOCs from plug-in air fresheners resulted in concentrations of formaldehyde and 4-oxopentanal forming in the indoor environment. These compounds can lead to sensory irritation and airflow limitation, respectively. [21]

Some of the allergic symptoms that can be triggered by air fresheners include;

● Allergic rhinitis, sneezing, runny nose, blocked nose.

● Sore and/or itchy eyes.

● Irritated and itchy skin, particularly in those with atopic dermatitis.

● Headaches.

● Coughing and wheezing.

Whilst not everyone will be at risk of allergic symptoms upon exposure to air fresheners, it is worth considering that filling indoor spaces with potential irritants may provide a diffuse cloud of potential allergens. If you are in a shared space, there is a risk of others being affected even if you are personally not allergic.

Healthy Ways To Keep The Home Fresh

If air fresheners are not to be used, then what are some healthy ways to improve the air quality in your home? There are a few ways we can safely create good quality air conditions for our indoor spaces.

Keeping Rooms Well Ventilated And Growing Houseplants Helps Keep The Air In Your Home Fresh
Keeping Rooms Well Ventilated And Growing Houseplants Helps Keep Your Home Fresh

There are methods we can use to remove bad odours from our environment without resorting to masking them with strong chemicals. Here are some methods to help improve the air quality in your home.

● Provide good ventilation to indoor spaces via open windows.

● Clean regularly. This includes sweeping and mopping wooden floors, and vacuuming carpets with a vacuum cleaner that ideally has a HEPA Filter installed. Steam cleaning provides a full deep clean and may be suitable in some circumstances (but not all!)

● Baking Soda can be used to absorb odours, and can be placed in bowls in specific areas to freshen them up. This is a safe way to target an area that has a stubborn or specific odour.

● Never allow garbage or old food to pile up for long periods of time.

● Keep indoor areas dry, and try to prevent moisture buildup, as this can lead to mould growth.

● Install a Carbon Monoxide Alarm in your property

● Take action to reduce the presence of allergic triggers such as mold, dust mites, and animal hair.

● Aim to keep indoor humidity between 30% And 50%.

● Consider installing bathroom and/or kitchen fans that exhaust the air to outside. This increases ventilation and helps remove airborne pollutants.

● Utilise nature, and grow house plants in your home! Spider Plants (Chlorophytum comosum) and Snake Plants (Sansevieria trifasciata) are both easy-to-grow house plants that filter the air naturally. Research has shown that snake plants can remove toxins, such as formaldehyde and benzene, from the air inside your home. [22] [23]

● Consider purchasing an air purifier unit for your home.

These are just a few methods that can help to ensure your home has a good quality of breathable air in it, and therefore reduce the need for using any air fresheners. If you are desperate for your home to have a specific scent, then consider the use of natural essential oils with an Ultrasonic Diffuser.

Conclusion

Individuals that are sensitive to the VOCs produced by air fresheners may present with significant symptom profiles upon exposure. However, even if some people may be able to tolerate the compounds from air freshers without too much of a noticeable impact, it is worth considering that they could still be affecting health in subtle ways.

Individuals suffering from Asthma and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity are particularly at risk from exposure. A study from MCS America recommended against using chemical air fresheners and/or chemical room deodorizers of any kind.

According to researcher Claudia Miller, products intended to keep homes smelling fresh can set people up for a lifetime of chemically induced illness, and repeated exposure to small amounts of household chemicals can trigger symptoms to previously tolerated chemicals. “The best smell is no smell”, says Miller. [24]

All this considered, avoiding chemical air fresheners could help minimise indoor pollution and could provide a healthier living space. A clean and well ventilated home could be the natural solution we need.


If you are considering purchasing some house plants to help filter the air in your home, you may want to check out our article on the matter, which looks at several of our favourite house plant options for natural air filters!

[References]

1. Anderson RC, Anderson JH. Toxic effects of air freshener emissions. Arch Environ Health. 1997 Nov-Dec;52(6):433-41. doi: 10.1080/00039899709602222. PMID: 9541364.

2. Caress SM, Steinemann AC. Prevalence of fragrance sensitivity in the American population. J Environ Health. 2009 Mar;71(7):46-50. PMID: 19326669.

3. Lawson RH. Is there an air freshener syndrome? Bristol Med Chir J. 1985 Jan;100(373):10-3. PMID: 3986635; PMCID: PMC5076871.

4. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0195925510001125

5. https://blog.epa.gov/tag/air-fresheners/

6. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/1_4-dichlorobenzene

7. Seitz HK, Pöschl G, Simanowski UA. Alcohol and cancer. Recent Dev Alcohol. 1998;14:67-95. doi: 10.1007/0-306-47148-5_4. PMID: 9751943.

8. Kim S, Hong SH, Bong CK, Cho MH. Characterization of air freshener emission: the potential health effects. J Toxicol Sci. 2015;40(5):535-50. doi: 10.2131/jts.40.535. PMID: 26354370.

9. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/712

10. Ibrahim ALshaer F, Fuad ALBaharna D, Ahmed HO, Ghiyath Anas M, Mohammed ALJassmi J. Qualitative Analysis of Air Freshener Spray. J Environ Public Health. 2019 Nov 5;2019:9316707. doi: 10.1155/2019/9316707. PMID: 31781257; PMCID: PMC6874985.

11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27546318/

12. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/427529/Toluene_TO_PHE_130515.pdf

13. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/7237

14. https://www.epa.gov/endocrine-disruption/what-endocrine-system

15. Heudorf U, Mersch-Sundermann V, Angerer J. Phthalates: toxicology and exposure. Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2007 Oct;210(5):623-34. doi: 10.1016/j.ijheh.2007.07.011. Epub 2007 Sep 21. PMID: 17889607.

16. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/research/supported/assets/docs/j_q/phthalates_the_everywhere_chemical_handout_508.pdf

17. Sugeng EJ, Symeonides C, O’Hely M, Vuillermin P, Sly PD, Vijayasarathy S, Thompson K, Pezic A, Mueller JF, Ponsonby AL; Barwon Infant Study Investigator Group. Predictors with regard to ingestion, inhalation and dermal absorption of estimated phthalate daily intakes in pregnant women: The Barwon infant study. Environ Int. 2020 Jun;139:105700. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2020.105700. Epub 2020 Apr 28. PMID: 32361062.

18. Steinemann A. Fragranced consumer products: effects on asthmatics. Air Qual Atmos Health. 2018;11(1):3-9. doi: 10.1007/s11869-017-0536-2. Epub 2017 Dec 11. PMID: 29391919; PMCID: PMC5773620.

19. Steinemann A, Wheeler AJ, Larcombe A. Fragranced consumer products: effects on asthmatic Australians. Air Qual Atmos Health. 2018;11(4):365-371. doi: 10.1007/s11869-018-0560-x. Epub 2018 Mar 17. PMID: 29780436; PMCID: PMC5954056.

20. Gallant MJ, Ellis AK. Prenatal and early-life exposure to indoor air-polluting factors and allergic sensitization at 2 years of age. Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2020 Mar;124(3):283-287. doi: 10.1016/j.anai.2019.11.019. Epub 2019 Nov 22. PMID: 31765814.

21. Nørgaard AW, Kudal JD, Kofoed-Sørensen V, Koponen IK, Wolkoff P. Ozone-initiated VOC and particle emissions from a cleaning agent and an air freshener: risk assessment of acute airway effects. Environ Int. 2014 Jul;68:209-18. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2014.03.029. Epub 2014 Apr 24. PMID: 24769411.

22. https://ntrs.nasa.gov/api/citations/19930073077/downloads/19930073077.pdf

23. https://www.gardenersworld.com/how-to/grow-plants/how-to-grow-snake-plant-sansieveria/

24. Miller, C.S. (2001), The Compelling Anomaly of Chemical Intolerance. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 933: 1-23. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-6632.2001.tb05810.x

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Written by Keymer Health

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