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Air Fresheners and IAQ

While this year has been warmer, it’s still cold outside and we may be looking at more snow in the coming weeks. Cold weather leads many of us (especially the elderly) to retreat indoors for extended periods of time, hiding away where it’s warm. Close living quarters, especially with larger families or pets, often invites unwanted smells. Whether it’s a small spill, unwashed laundry, or a backed-up sink, strong smells in a closed area are no fun for anybody. But when we try to clear out a bad odor, we often reach for air fresheners and deodorizers. While many of these do just add a cover-scent to whatever’s in the room, candles, oils, incense, and aerosols can all add health risks to otherwise clean air.

Should you be worried about the contents of your air freshener? Well if you use them rarely and no one in your family has any respiratory issues, probably not. An occasional spritz from an aerosol to clear the air in a room isn’t a problem. We’re more concerned with extensive exposure to airborne contaminants, especially when small children and the elderly are involved.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

VOCs are gases that are emitted from solids and liquids. Many household items contain them and, unfortunately, they may contribute to short- and long-term negative health effects. According to the EPA:

“EPA’s Office of Research and Development’s “Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) Study” (Volumes I through IV, completed in 1985) found levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside, regardless of whether the homes were located in rural or highly industrial areas. TEAM studies indicated that while people are using products containing organic chemicals, they can expose themselves and others to very high pollutant levels, and elevated concentrations can persist in the air long after the activity is completed.”

The more toxic VOCs consist of chemicals such as acetone, d-limonen, and acetate. You can find a full list of VOCs and products likely to contain them on the EPA website. And yes, they’re also contained in some air fresheners.


Pronounced Thay-Lates, these chemicals are an accelerant that makes it easier to carry fragrance throughout a home. They allow for scents to be carried in the tiny droplets sprayed out by an aerosol or spray bottle. Unfortunately, they’re also used even in “unscented” varieties. Phthalates are hazardous not just to your health, but to anyone in the home. Very few air freshening products lack phthalates so be cautious.

1,4 Dichlorobenzene

It’s not just scented air fresheners that are problematic either. Many deodorizers contain 1,4 DCB, exposure to which can lead to lung damage. If you’re looking for a good deodorizer, keep the room ventilated and avoid using a deodorizing agent that contains 1,4DCB.

Candles and Incense

Unfortunately, issues exist with more than just aerosols. The wax in candles contains many of the same accelerants as aerosol and oil air fresheners. Likewise, incense sticks, depending on the scent, can release carcinogens into the air, and smoke is never good for your body to inhale regardless of the source.

So What’s the Alternative?

With so many issues in freshening the air, what can we do when it’s too cold to open a window? Many of these issues can be resolved with simple cleaning. For backed-up sinks or spills, removing the source of the odor is the first step. Clean the area thoroughly and then ventilate if possible. If that means visiting a friend for an hour or so while your room airs out, it’s worth it.

For stubborn odors, you can freshen up the air with a very simple household cleaning trick. Dampen a rag with vinegar and wave it around the room. Vinegar is a natural deodorizer and cleaning agent. Circulating air and waving a vinegar-rag around will help to remove the smell from the room. Otherwise, try purchasing a carbon-filter deodorizer. It’s more expensive but they’re stronger and healthier than the alternative.