The UnFreshening Ingredients In Toxic Air Fresheners

Toxins in car air freshener

I have never been a fan of air fresheners in cars. The main reason is that I am highly prone to motion sickness – I mean, it can happen even when I’m the one driving. These days, however, I am rarely the driver. My husband and I share a car and I mostly completely love the car sharing economy, which has made it more affordable and convenient to get around. It’s actually quicker and cheaper for me to call an Uber to get to most places downtown than to drive, find parking and pay for it.

But then there’s this air freshener issue. On a recent trip I took, I was picked up by Mohammed, an Uber X driver who clearly read the How To Be A Great Uber Driver Manual – offering me a bottle of water (in the BPA-leaching kind of bottles), some mints (the aspartame-sweetened kind of mints), a charger for my phone (he had cords for every type of phone), and there from his rearview mirror hung his Uber issued (and branded) air freshener.

The bottled water and mints I could politely decline. But the air freshener – that bit wasn’t up to me to decide and that’s not okay. I definitely don’t want to ride in any car, plane, train or even sit in someone’s home that smells like fast food or wet dog, but wouldn’t simply keeping these spaces clean do the trick?

The thing is, air freshener isn’t actually freshening anything at all. They work by spraying a whole bunch of chemicals that simply mask the smelly air, while exposing us to an inhalable toxic cocktail that bypasses most of our organs of detoxification by coming in through our lungs and skin, where they rapidly enter our blood stream and then make their way around the body.

The scariest part of this is that it’s incredibly difficult to determine what is actually being used in these sprays and those car-sickness-making-swinging-pine-trees with scents like “Black Ice” and “Royal Pine”. In one can of Febreeze, though only 3 ingredients are listed on the can, the Environmental Working Group disclosed 89.

4 Common Air Fresheners Chemicals

1. Fragrance

Cheesy product names like ‘Cool Linen’, ‘Tropical Breeze’ and ‘Beautiful Sunset’ attempt to capture our scent memories, but companies have to recreate those scents artificially – and fragrance is often how they do it.

Unfortunately, ‘fragrance’ is an umbrella term and can include many, many chemicals that are mixed together, usually to mask the smell of the other gross-tastic toxins in the product. And the kicker? Those individual chemicals don’t have to be listed on the label, making it challenging for us consumers to actually figure out what we’re smelling or slathering on our skin.

How fragrance harms our health: Fragrance is linked to allergies, asthma and other respiratory concerns, hormone disruptions and may be linked to reproductive issues.

2. Formaldehyde

Formaldehyde is a chemical used in many household products and building materials. It’s also used as a fungicide, disinfectant and preservative in medical labs.

How formaldehyde harms our health: Immediate reactions might include skin irritations, coughing, burning in the eyes, nose and throat, or nausea. But the long-term effects can be much more grave. The Environmental Protection Agency says that chronic exposure can be linked to allergic contact dermatitis, respiratory lesions and even cancer. More specifically, the National Cancer Institute outlines studies where researchers have found links between formaldehyde and leukemia.

3. BHT

Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is an additive found in a wide variety of processed foods, but it’s also used in cosmetics, cleaning products and in petroleum products (um, do you want to eat your jet fuel?).

How BHT harms our health: The David Suzuki Foundation outlines a wide range of effects BHT can have on us. It can potentially damage our livers and kidneys. It can mimic the effects of estrogen and inhibit male sex hormones. And it can promote the growth of tumours.

4. Acetaldehyde

While this compound is found naturally in nature and is produced by the body, it is also used synthetically in perfumes and dyes, as a preservative in fruit and fish, and as a solvent in the rubber, tanning and paper industries.

How acetaldehyde harms our health: This ingredient, according to the Environmental Working Group, is connected to allergies, asthma, cancer and skin and respiratory irritation, plus it may cause problems to our reproductive systems.

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Non-Toxic Air Freshener Alternatives

Of course, as I said, no wants to sit or drive around in a stink pit. There are amazing natural options that won’t give you cancer, or impair the reproductive development of your unborn child.

  • Start where odour starts: Find the source of the odour. Air fresheners don’t destroy odours, they just cover them up by messing with our sense of smell. Discover what is making your environment so stinky – dirty laundry, a messy sink, a household pet that rolled around in the mud? – and clean it up (using non-toxic cleaners, of course).
  • Crank open a window. If something is smelly, use nature’s air freshener – actual fresh air! You’ll be surprised at how a real breeze – not a fake ‘Tropical Breeze’ –  can improve odours.
  • Essential oils. I love, love love essential oils. Many of them are naturally anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. Pop your favourite into a diffuser and let that goodness circulate in your home instead. If you’re in a car, simple adding a few dabs in discreet places like on the dashboard, under the seats where they won’t make direct contact with clothing, or on the roof can be very helpful. Bonus: you can even use oils like peppermint, bergamot or lavender, which will freshen the air while also warding off motion sickness. Other awesome oil options would include white fir, pine, cedar, or even lemongrass.
  • DIY Sprayable Air Freshener: As you’ll often find in yoga studios, you can make your own natural disinfectant surface or air spray. Just mix a few drops of your favourite essential oil with water in a spray bottle. Shake before spraying. All good!
  • Kick It Old School with Baking Soda: Use a good ‘ol box of baking soda. Seriously. It’s nature’s deodorizer. Place some baking soda in a dish and leave it out. Sodium bicarbonate has the natural ability to pull odours out of the air.
  • Clean: Yes. Cleaning with a duster, a vacuum, some cloths and a bottle of white vinegar and a rag will also effectively do the trick in most cases.

As for Uber, Taxis and Other Enclosed Public Spaces

Just as it’s no longer legal to smoke in public places, air fresheners and other fragrances should be part of this restriction. As a customer, we shouldn’t have to endure this kind of toxic exposure, simply as a gift-with-purchase of using the service. Sure, if you want to buy a perfume, you will walk into a perfume store and you will inhale the chemicals – but you’re buying a perfume, so that’s what you chose. Getting a ride in car shouldn’t have to involve the same unrelated consequence.

When it comes to taxis and ride sharing programs, if we, as the customer, are hiring this service and we can ask to have the radio, heat or air conditioning turned up, down or off, and choose if we want the windows opened or closed – shouldn’t we also have the right to a fragrance-free ride?

As for my ride with Mohammed to my acupuncture appointment last week, I debated for the first half of the ride, and then finally said something. I explained what these air fresheners could to do to men’s health, bringing down testosterone levels, imbalancing estrogen levels, and the damage to the lungs and brain. He clearly wants to ensure his passengers are having the most ideal experience.

He took down his Uber branded air freshener and said he would mentioned it to the company. In case he doesn’t, perhaps you could?

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  1. So on board with this, and it’s not just Uber. I say it all the time–fragrance is as bad (worse) than smoke and should be banned accordingly. Unlike smoke, it is engineered to stick to skin and clothing, and you can’t get it off. Then you’re stuck with the smell until you can get to a shower/washing machine. It’s awful. I’ve been requesting fragrance free lately (rental cars, drivers, hotel rooms, etc) and have been surprised how receptive people are to this and I usually hear something like, “I am the same way, it makes me ill.” So hopefully the tide is turning with this one.

  2. Yes! Meghan I couldn’t have said it better myself!! For years now I’ve been wanting to launch a scent campaign for this exact reason. I have not consented to inhale someone else’s toxic fragrance! So far I have made up some cards to pass around and I created a FB page (Sense about Scent) which I haven’t launched yet…but please let me know if you have any ideas for collaboration or how to get the word out there!

  3. Not enjoying the extensive plastic landfill and unnecessary water usage UBER rides generate. Nor the chemical lollies or toxic fragrance. However, love the cultural insights and lessons of UBER drivers, cleanliness and maintenance of the cars. I am still helping the environment by walking an hour a day, catching public transport and a few UBERs compared to driving my own car and the expenses attached.

  4. I am totally on board. I’m sitting in an uber now, we just passed the 5 minutes mark which is my airfreshner tolerance level before a headache starts. I am a chemist and I am going to figure out a non assaulting product to clean air without these gross nausea headache inducing scents.

  5. Ive had big issues with taxis and being in them for 4 hours a day and finally he takes the airfreshner down but i get another driver for a day and omg he had 2 of them up suffering from COPD and they wonder why apart from smoking it isnt helping him either so ive told my boss but theres nothing can be done apart from me telling them i feel this is really bad cause theres so many children with issues to start with and the tixins arnt going to help it should be band in all public transport if its toxic can anyone help me on this problem id like to get them band from all public transport for everyone suffering with problems even the taxis should be educated on it cause mine thinks hes had haye fever for lsst 2 years and doesnt believe me wen i say u cant get hayefever in winter and then when i have him take the air freshner for the whole week no sniffling yet he doesnt believe his nise is burning and bleeding from this he thinks its hayfever these need to be band ppl making money as they make people sick when will people wake up its driving me crazy grrrr

  6. This is an interesting article. I think its a colorful post. Thank you for sharing the way of describe everything about air freshener. Thank you for the post.

  7. Thankyou ! I never understand how anyone can tolerate breathing in these toxic and abusive smells. “Strawberry” does not that smell the way I’m painfully enduring it now, while sitting in this car that proudly mounts a “strawberry scented tree.”
    I have asthma and it triggers breathing difficulty for me every time!
    Like napalm, these take toxic “air fresheners” should be banned.

  8. I can’t take taxis or Ubers for this reason and it is very inconvenient. I very much agree that it’s not right to force these unhealthy chemicals into the lungs of people without their consent, and I also agree that simply opening the window or cleaning regularly are better ways to get rid of foul odors.
    But I am horrified at the suggestion to use EOs instead. As much as those of us who react to synthetic fragrance, or want to protect our health, have a right to not be exposed to air freshener, people with allergies (which can be far more serious than just itchy eyes), asthma, migraines, or scent sensitivity due to chemo, pregnancy or autism, have a right to not have EOs forced on them.
    Let’s promote clean safe air for everyone’s benefit.

  9. I agree with banning the use of “air fresheners” not only in UBER vehicles, but everywhere.

    However, I am dismayed that you recommend the use of essential oils. These oils are toxic to many people, including me. They may not contain phthalates, but they are very concentrated sources of volatile organic compounds.

    Just as you prefer not to be doused with your Uber driver’s air freshener, I need not to inhale any fragrances, and that includes not inhaling essential oils.

  10. Why have any fragrances in the cab? Essential Oils are just as bad as any of the other cover-ups! Last August a person with EO on their shirt sent my wife into anaphylactic shock and required five EPI Pen injections before reaching the hospital! Is this really necessary? Just keep the car clean and be fragrance free!

  11. I have had another anaphylactic shock after being in a taxi with air fresheners.

    I have phoned many firms and they have all said they use these air fresheners !
    I have had to use an epi pen on each occasion. Each time the shock gets worse.
    It is very scary.
    Why are these air fresheners allowed?
    The ingredients are awful.
    More needs to be done about this.
    I am awaiting allergy at Addenbrooks but think I can now pinpoint the triggers.

  12. Thank you for your informative post on air toxifiers. I plan to contact Transport for London (UK) with regards to so-called air fresheners being used by Black Cabs, Uber, ViaVan and other cab services, as TfL set the charter for how these cab companies operate. Do you have any letters you’ve sent to Uber (or other companies) so that I don’t have to reinvent the wheel?

  13. My very first Uber ride ever was a cardboard tree nightmare! This guy had one in every cubby in the car and no less than 6 hanging off the rearview mirror. It made no sense because the car was immaculate, and I thought I would pass out from trying not to breath for the 30 minute drive from the airport to my destination!

  14. Why do people keep pushing essentials oils? I have MCS and they make me as ill as perfumes. We have been brained washed into buying things that are not good for us and must wake up. Just think of all the stuff that goes back into our water and I sure do not want to be drinking oils as well as any other chemicals. Maybe because of the fertilizers and pesticides we have used in our ground for so many years is making more of our products toxic. The only way I can live now because of FRAGRANCES is to purchase products that say FRAGRA NCE FREE….if we all did this maybe then our water supply would last longer than they plan and we would see less cancers. We also should be considerate of those around us since those toxins do not just hurt you but all those near you.

  15. Thank you for this post.

    I just took a Lyft from the airport to my home, 30 mins or so in the car.
    The stench from the air fresheners in the driver’s car made me throw up when I got home. Barely made it inside my home and hugging that porcelain bowl. Spent another 15 minutes throwing uo.
    I’m so annoyed. Lyft refunded me the ride, but I don’t feel like it’s enough.

  16. I have noticed that chemical smells have gotten out of control just in the last three years, with a real marketing push that seemed to start with that months-long-lasting Gain scent and Febreeze teaming up with every product under the sun. Now Uber and taxi rides are intolerable; my neighbours’ disgusting laundry sheets smell is constantly wafting into my apartment; I’m dizzy from the smell of hair products that take five days to wash out after a trip to the hairdressers. Just the other day my mechanic ruined my car by spraying some long-lasting “fresh-scent” deodorant through my AC system without asking me. (I didn’t even know that was a thing!) Whenever I complain about these products, I’m told I’m “sensitive.” It’s infuriating. I’m constantly dumbfounded that these toxic chemicals are legal in the first place and that nobody is talking on a large scale about the damage they are doing to our health and environment, especially in this age of activism. How ’bout it Greta?

  17. Does anyone know how long these tree hanging air freshener last once taken out? I bought a car and although it is now removed and I’ve steam cleaned, vacuumed, vinegared, did baking soda etc, it lingers and is causing me asthma attacks. I am scared it will be there forever and I will have to sell the car. Help!

  18. I too have had several bad experiences taking Ubers heavily scented with air fresheners, and I refuse to ride in one now. And the emergency vet I take my pets to is now pumping in really strong air fresheners all through their building, and my cat came home smelling strongly of it, which took several days to go away (after a sponge bath even…poor thing, but it had to be done).

    The more people that either call and or write letters to the ride services, and other places, the better! And thank you for writing about it, as the more people that are aware the better…even someone not sensitive to fragrances shouldn’t want to be exposed to those kind of toxins.

  19. I learned many things from this article, but there is something I must point out, most chemicals given to us barely affect most of us and BHT is even used in medicine, just because it is in something toxic doesn’t mean it itself is toxic.

  20. Hi Meghan,

    Thanks for this insightful post. I’m wondering what you’d say about this brand:

    “Sex Wax brand by Mr. Zog” air freshener?

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