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Are Air Fresheners and Deodorizers Safe?

Are Air Fresheners and Home Fragrances Safe?

By Laura Bourland Rise Writer
Aug 14, 2020

Air fresheners and deodorizers have the power to relax the mind with calming natural scents like lavender, or sometimes even transport us back to vacations with tantalizing scents like Hawaiian Breeze. There's no argument that scent can influence our emotions, but what is it that we breathe in with that irresistible smell? Is it safe?

Available in various forms—from sprays and plug-ins to candles and incense—scented air fresheners are an easy impulse buy at the checkout counter and a popular gift. A survey, conducted by Anne Steinemannat at the University of Melbourne in Australia, found that a stunning 72.8% of Americans use air fresheners or air deodorizers at least once a week. 

While we all love a fresh, sweet-smelling home, it's essential to pay attention to the air fresheners you bring into your home. Not all are created equal, and some may actively pollute the air with unhealthy ingredients. 

The Problem With Scents: VOCs

You go to great lengths to ensure you have a healthy home. You buy (or even grow) organic vegetables, choose VOC-free paints for your walls, and source local materials for new construction and home remodels. However, you may be undoing all those sustainable improvements with your air freshener habit. At their basic level, air fresheners are chemical "fragrances" contained in a solvent (like isopropyl alcohol). As the solvent evaporates, the scent is released as volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

And it's not just air fresheners and deodorizers either! Scents are added to many household items. These include laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, disinfectants, soap, hand sanitizers, lotion, and dozens of other products commonly found in the home. Environmental Health Perspectives has studied and discovered more than 100 VOCs in these everyday home and beauty products. Some of them are classified as toxic or hazardous under federal law. 

Even air fresheners labeled as green, natural, non-toxic, unscented, and organic may contain VOCs hidden from labels. In addition to the direct impact on your health, some VOCs react with ozone. This reaction creates secondary pollutants, both inside and outside your home. Steinemann's study has shown that over half of Americans are exposed to air fresheners and deodorizers used by others at least once a week.

Sadly, the VOCs emitted from an air freshener can be absorbed into your walls and furniture, sticking around long after switching to a more sustainable and health-conscious scent. Still, the Consumer Product Safety Commission does not currently require manufacturers to list all ingredients on product labels. Many air fresheners contain VOCs, including limonene, ethanol, acetone, and alpha and beta-pinene, but are listed as "fragrance" on the label. You can help improve consumer awareness by writing your Congressperson about the Accurate Labels Act currently under review.

healthy living

Are Air Fresheners Bad for Your Health?

The chemicals used to create and dissipate those sweet smells are often comprised of ingredients that emit VOCs. Complaints have arisen related to children experiencing seizures, diarrhea, and earache from exposure to conventional air fresheners. There have also been several cases of adults fainting from inhaling fragrant air. 

Are Air Fresheners Safe For Children and Pets?

Families with young children or pets need to choose the right type of air freshener—or no air freshener at all. Products like evaporating fragrance beads and reed diffusers are easy to swallow in quantities large enough to cause serious medical problems. The most common health complaints associated with air fresheners are headaches, breathing difficulties, dermatitis, and neurological problems.

Find and Eliminate the Source of Bad Smells

Keeping your home clean with VOC-free cleaners will reduce unpleasant odors and freshen the air with pure, natural scents. When you notice an unpleasant smell, find the source, and remove it immediately. Taking out the trash can have a profound impact on indoor air. Clean the area with good old cleaning basics like vinegar, baking soda, and lemon juice rather than those VOC-filled cleaning products. To remove odor from carpets and furniture, simply sprinkle with baking soda, let sit 10 minutes and then vacuum thoroughly. 

No scent is better and cleaner than good old fresh air. Whenever possible, throw open those windows and let Mother Nature cleanse and replenish your inside air. Proper ventilation, as well as air filtration, throughout the home, should be checked regularly to allow air to recycle. Products like ERVs and HRVs are made to refresh inside air even on frigid winter days. Allergist Claudia Miller explains, "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."

What Is the Safest Air Freshener to Use?

If you must have a scent, there are many ways to more safely introduce new fragrances to your home without those harmful VOCs. Essential oils, VOC free candles, incense, flowers, and herbs are easy and natural ways to freshen up the air in your home.

Essential Oil Air Freshener Spray

Essential Oils

Essential oils are deliciously fragrant and comprised of 100% pure, naturally occurring oils, typically harvested from plants. Essential oils can be diffused in a simple clay diffuser to release flowery and earthy scents throughout the home. They can also be added to homemade candles and sprays. Be sure to choose real, 100% natural essential oils—but go easy with them; too much of a good thing can become an irritant.

How Do You Make Your Own Essential Oil Air Freshener Spray?

To make air freshener spray at home, choose your favorite essential oil or natural extract (vanilla and lavender are popular).

  1. Heat one cup of water in a saucepan.
  2. Add ¼ cup baking soda and stir to dissolve.
  3. Remove from heat. Add a few drops of natural extract or essential oil. Stir to combine and let cool 2-3 hours.
  4. Using a funnel, pour the liquid into a spray bottle.
Roll Your Own Beeswax Candles
Beeswax Candles. Photo Credit: Glory Bee


Candles can have wonderfully relaxing scents, but they come with their own complications. In addition to the VOCs from synthetic fragrances, some inexpensive candle wax may also contain VOCs. Wicks with a metal core are especially dangerous, as they may be lead-based. 

Choose candles made from 100% unbleached beeswax or 100% soy wax and avoid those with metal wicks and unnatural coloring—most conventional candles made of paraffin wax, a petroleum derivative. 


Incense is a wonderfully quick method for changing the air's scent, but they can contain VOCs too. Meditation temples in Taiwan have been tracking the increased levels of VOCs in indoor air from incense burning and have begun transitioning to locally harvested incense. If you enjoy incense, take the time to choose naturally scented, local or fair trade incense sticks.

Flowers and Herbs

Flowers and Herbs

Flowers make for a beautiful centerpiece and also carry a fragrant scent. Treat yourself to a bouquet of flowers, grow your own or add aromatic indoor plants to your decor. Even growing lemon basil, clipping some stems, and putting it in a vase of water can be an excellent addition to any room.

Herb sachets and potpourri are additional natural means for freshening their air. Stuff transparent net bags with dried flower petals, herbs, or wood chips. You can place sachets in clothing drawers, cabinets, and around the home to keep things smelling clean and fresh.

baking cookies

Scents From the Kitchen

Of course, what smells better than baking cookies? Fill your home with the mouthwatering smell of chocolate chip cookies or freshly ground coffee wafting up the stairs. 

Cooking dinner in a slow cooker is another way to make the house smell good all day long and limit kitchen messes. Beverages, like apple cider, can also be made and kept warm in a slow cooker, releasing sweet smells for chilly autumn days and dinner parties.

Even if you're not much of a cook, you can whip up some lovely scents in the kitchen. Just fill a saucepan with water, and some spices and herbs and let it simmer on the stovetop.  

Bottom Line: The Best Air Fresheners are Natural

Air fresheners may smell delightful, but many do still contain toxic chemicals and emit harmful VOCs. If you must have that burst of citrus scent, look for sustainably produced air fresheners or consider natural methods for sweetening the air. Things like essential oils and natural, 100% beeswax and soy candles are equally easy to find. They will release those intoxicating scents without making you sick!

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2020-12-04T15:35:15+0000
Laura Bourland

Article by:

Laura Bourland

Laura grew up in the California suburbs, far removed from environmentalism, but nature always has a way. She uprooted her life in 2015, moving to the countryside of Washington to live a more sustainable and simple life on 12 acres. She and her fiancee are learning on the job as they attempt everything from gardening and natural pest control to eco-friendly building and home improvement.