Are air fresheners safe?

The vast majority of people will have bought an air freshener of some sort for their home or car, or even for their workplace. I know I have, with an air freshener currently sat on a shelf in my bathroom. They’re pretty common features of the indoors. In fact, last year, 69% of British people surveyed used some sort of air freshener. The types of air fresheners range widely from aerosols, plug in devices, scented candles, to diffusers. We’re spoilt for choice!

And why not? We all want our spaces to smell nice, fresh, and clean. However, one thing that more and more of us are now thinking about when it comes to air fresheners is – are they actually safe for us to use? Should we have them in our homes, cars, or workplaces?

Small amounts are usually not dangerous, but as we’re usually exposed to air fresheners for prolonged periods of time, we’ve taken a look at whether they’re safe or not.

Article in Summary – Air fresheners can cause serious health effects – such as skin reactions, headaches, and dizziness – and significantly contribute to indoor air pollution. However, these concerns are related to long-term exposure to air fresheners. But as we do tend to be exposed to them for prolonged periods of time, air fresheners are probably best to be avoided.

Firstly, what do air fresheners actually do?

Air fresheners introduce a fragrance into the air of an indoor space. The scent is released as droplets (which then becomes vapour), and diffuses into the air to mask the smell of other odours or to introduce a specific scent into the space.

Well, what’s in air fresheners?

Air fresheners contain ingredients that release a scent. But they also include chemicals that suspend or bind that scent to the liquid or gel, those that then disperse the scent, and those that preserve the product.

Research has found that some of their ingredients are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are chemicals that turn into a vapour or gas at room temperature, and some VOCs can be quite toxic to both us and our surrounding environment. Especially when considering how long we’re exposed to these types of products. A number of studies have been conducted on VOCs, and the majority have found that all types of air fresheners have the potential to emit high concentrations of VOCs.

Some of the most common hazardous VOCs found in air fresheners are:

  • Acetone
  • Ethanol
  • d-limonene
  • Pinene
  • Acetate

However, it isn’t just what’s in air fresheners, but how its ingredients can then react with the ozone in the air around us. These are known as secondary pollutants, and are also a cause for concern. Secondary pollutants include: formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, acetone, picric acid, and methyl vinyl ketone.

How do they affect us and our environment?

Air fresheners significantly contribute to indoor air pollution. A research project in the European Union found that the air fresheners they examined emitted pollutants (some which are listed above) that vastly exceeded the recommended limits of exposure outlined by the World Health Organisation.

And it isn’t just the indoor air quality that is affected. Emissions by air fresheners can also move into the outdoors. These emissions have been found to contribute to photochemical smog.

Long term exposure to VOCs may cause health effects such as:

  • Allergic skin reactions
  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Headaches, loss of coordination, and nausea
  • Damage to liver, kidney, and central nervous system

What are the alternatives?

A few things can be done to ensure your space smells nice and pleasant:

  • If there’s a bad smell you want to mask, identify and isolate the source instead.
  • Open your windows to bring in new and fresh air.
  • Make sure your appliances are well ventilated – especially food ones!
  • Regularly clean your space to avoid any bad smells in the first place.
  • Make your own scents – these can be things likr DIY oil scents or a spice pot.
  • Invest in house plants – these will improve indoor air quality.

If indoor air quality is a serious concern for you, then it may be worth also considering air sterilisers. These are devices that use a technology which creates UV light, ozone, and negatively-charged ions.  These all exist in the environment already, so are safe, and are actually quite powerful methods of disinfection. They eliminate bacteria, viruses, mould, and can break down unwanted chemicals and smells.

Having an air steriliser can really help in cleaning the air around you, and goes towards reducing the likelihood and risk of COVID-19 being and staying present.

You can find out more about air sterilisers and how they work in our guide we put out recently.

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