5 Reasons to Avoid Air Fresheners

by guest blogger Cassidy Randall, director of outreach for Women’s Voices for the Earth

Have you ever wondered what’s in those myriad air fresheners that make your home smell like a tropical vacation or a woodsy cabin surrounded by wildflowers? It’s certainly not roses… Here are five reasons we think you should avoid air fresheners altogether.

1. Secret Ingredients

Don’t pick up your favorite air freshener and try to check the label for the ingredients. You won’t find any.

That’s because most companies keep fragrance ingredients a secret, dubbing them “confidential business information.” This scent secrecy is practiced across industries—cleaning products, personal care products, cosmetics, to name a few—but this problem becomes even more egregious when it comes to air fresheners, in which fragrance can make up 70 to 80 percent of the overall composition of the product. That means we have no information on the vast majority of chemicals we’re spraying in our homes.

I bet you’re thinking, Wait, seriously? Isn’t there some law that requires companies to tell us what’s in their products? The answer is no. In addition to the fragrance secrecy that’s practiced across industries, there’s no law that requires cleaning-product companies (which make air fresheners) to list any of the ingredients in their products—which means that companies can legally keep toxic chemicals a secret from you. We know, we think it’s ridiculous too—and we’re working on fixing that!

2. Fragrance Chemicals

In 2010, for the first time, the International Fragrance Association released a master list of more than 3,100 chemicals that are used by most manufacturers. Chemicals on that list include carcinogens like p-dichlorobenzene and styrene oxide; endocrine disruptors like galaxolide and tonalide; reproductive toxicants like phthalates; problematic disinfectants like triclosan and ammonium quaternary compounds; and numerous allergens.

A fragrance can be made up of more than 100 chemicals—and could include any of those harmful chemicals.

At Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), we were curious which of these chemicals might be hiding out in some brand-name air fresheners. So, in 2011, we independently tested some Glade products. Test results revealed synthetic musks and allergens. Test results also revealed the presence of phthalates, which the company had committed to phase out two years before. SC Johnson, the makers of Glade, claimed this was a contamination issue, but we have no confirmation that this issue has been resolved. We also tested Febreze and AirWick, which both came back positive for high levels of allergens.

Here’s the thing: The lab was only specifically testing for musks, phthalates, and allergens because we asked them to. Unfortunately, we don’t have the money to walk into a lab and say, “Tell us everything that’s in this fragrance.”  (Sure, companies deconstruct other companies’ scents all the time, but we don’t have that kind of budget.) In essence, that means that any of the thousands of ingredients we know are commonly used in fragrance could also make up a Febreze, AirWick, or Glade scent.

3. Reproductive Toxins

Studies are increasingly showing that chemicals in fragrance are harming our health, particularly the health of women and children.

  • One study of pregnant women showed a link between the use of air fresheners and aerosol sprays and an increase in headaches and depression in the mothers, as well as ear infections and diarrhea in their babies.
  • Certain hormone-disrupting chemicals found in fragrance can have significant lifelong effects on reproductive health and development; this is true for galaxolide and tonalide (detected in human blood, breast milk, and even in newborns) and phthalates (linked to reproductive harm in baby boys).
  • Women are two to three times more likely than men to suffer from fragrance allergies. We also become sensitized earlier than men, at ages 20 to 29, versus ages 50 to 59 in men.
  • Girls have higher sensitization rates to fragrance allergens than boys and studies show increasing diagnoses of allergic contact dermatitis and excema in children.
  • Research indicates that the more we use fragranced products, the higher the levels of fragrance chemicals in our bodies.

4. Unnecessary Exposure

Any step we can take to reduce our exposure to unknown toxic chemicals is a good step—and air fresheners represent an unnecessary exposure to toxic chemicals. For example, we use air freshener because something in the room smells bad. If we can identify the smell and eliminate or prevent it, we don’t even need air freshener. Check out WVE’s tips for reducing odors around the home.

There are also lots of nontoxic ways to add a particular scent to your home without using synthetic chemicals. Setting out a bouquet of fresh or dried flowers can add a floral scent, and simmering herbs or spices on the stove can allow you to tailor the scent you want. You can use seasonal alternatives like pinecones, pine needles, or cinnamon, if you like.

5. Safety Issues

This one’s directed to those of us that want to enjoy fragrance without worrying about our health.

WVE is working to convince Glade to disclose the ingredients in the brand’s fragrances because we believe that we have a right to know what’s in the products we’re bringing into our homes, spraying in the air that we breathe, landing on the surfaces that we touch, and settling into the dust at our feet.

Women make almost 85 percent of consumer decisions, which is a huge amount of economic power to make change. Because we’re the ones keeping companies in business, they have a responsibility to listen to our concerns and act on them.

Join our Glade: Stop Keeping Toxic Secrets campaign to help us expose fragrance secrets, once and for all!


Cassidy Randall is the director of outreach and engagement for Women’s Voices for the Earth. She has an M.S. from the University of Montana in Environmental Studies, and a B.A. in American Literature from UCLA. She is the author of Fighting for the Dream: Voices from a New Generation of Maya Women. In her free time, Cassidy likes skiing snowy slopes, paddling fast rivers, and hiking through Montana’s wilderness.


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13 Responses to 5 Reasons to Avoid Air Fresheners

  1. Kristen Percival May 25, 2013 at 8:34 am #

    What about Scensty?

  2. Amber May 29, 2013 at 1:50 pm #

    Scentsy uses paraffin wax. The fragrances comes from both natural and synthetic oils. Their wax is phthalate free but some bars do contain low levels of DEP. Since Scentsy bars are not burned, simply warmed, they claim the byproducts produced by burning DEP are not present. The Layers line (which is the body products) do not contain parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde donors, diethanolamine, triethanolamine, or glycols, or any other known toxins (all info per the Scentsy website). As a Scentsy consultant and someone who is transitioning to a more natural, non-toxic, organic lifestyle this has been a concern of mine. Hope this info helps.

  3. Linda June 3, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

    I find that I react to Scentsy just as much as to other air fresheners. They all make me short of breath,and close my throat.I don’t understand why people need air fresheners anyway, lemon and thyme work great.

  4. Kat June 5, 2013 at 9:56 am #

    Wha about frebreeze & Airwicks? I hate to throw out all those newly air fragrances that I haven’t got t use yet?!

  5. social media July 11, 2013 at 7:10 am #

    Hello there! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a collection of volunteers and starting a new project in
    a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us
    useful information to work on. You have done a outstanding job!

  6. Lorraine November 24, 2013 at 1:24 am #

    If you want the wonderful fragrances in your homes, diffuse all natural essential oils. Diffusing pure essential oils are not only safe, but can be beneficial to your mind and body wellness.

  7. ke377 July 10, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    Sentsy is making me ill…. I am working in an environment of which it is permitted and don’t want to have to say anything, and it might not be so bad, if it weren’t so over-powering/strong – the odor fills several areas. I also read several articicles which suggested and went to their website and thought from what I read they/Sentsy pitch the “secret” incredient “tune” – regardless of what they “claim” to have in it.

    Seems to me in a day and age of which some are pointing fingers at every day gardening products and saying some believe they “cause” assorted disease related learning disabilities and disturbances, etc. I wouldn’t want to have anything questionable around my children….. or to be the “work place” who could be held liable if someone with asthma falls over from their throat closing up, because suddenly the odor from a Scent or Scentsy happen to create an allergic reaction.

  8. Mabel October 8, 2014 at 8:39 pm #

    Nice blog right here! Also your website so much up very
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  9. Chris December 16, 2014 at 11:13 pm #

    I own a cleaning company and my clients are always inquiring about masking odors with manufactured chemicals.

    I tell them all the same thing. And you pretty much covered it here. They’re possibly toxic!

    Granted all chemicals aren’t bad. But when it comes to cleaning I believe wholly in white vinegar and very hot steam. Sure I use some cleaning solutions on tough stuff but I make sure I know exactly what’s in them and that they’re safe for us and our pets.

    One thing that I didn’t see covered was ozone generators. They’re fairly inexpensive nowadays and used in hospitals and large buildings air systems. They destroy the living organisms like mold and the likes that can cause odors. When properly used they’re very beneficial health wise.

    If I have a client with a very bad odor I will clean their carpets then run an ozone generator for a couple hours, then come back and get it. Obviously I don’t do it with pets or people in the home.

    They always comment about how fresh the air smells afterwards.

    Keep up the great blogging!

  10. bubbles January 19, 2015 at 7:37 pm #

    Paraffin Wax is A KNOWN CARCINOGEN people.. so scentsy or however you spell it is just as bad..

    i use essential oils.. but only from brands that do GSM testing. (Aromaland, DoTerra, and Young Living)

    I put them in a warmer, or diffuser.. I also use them for cleaning everything.. well the bathroom and kitchen

    for room sprays i use cheap vodka, and essential oils.. for fabric sprays i use water and essential oils…

    i am a licensed esthetician and massage therapist in L.A.. I threw out all of my paraffin equipment back in the early 90’s .. i thought that was old information.. LOL

    stay away from Paraffin.. its gross..

  11. Dent February 12, 2017 at 3:26 am #

    Hi Cassidy,
    This is a nice sharing about ignore air freshener. I agree with you and your thinking. We should take care about the points where we used air freshener.

  12. Pat March 3, 2017 at 5:06 pm #

    For those recommending diffusing essential oils, please be careful if you have pets, especially cats. Most essential oils are toxic to cats. Please do research before using any air freshening products around cats, including essential oils. I wouldn’t even simmer any citrus fruits on the stove, since citrus is toxic to cats. I know citrus oils will cause liver damage in cats, so I wouldn’t take any chances by having them breathe that in (even though it’s fine for humans).

    If you have a cat and find you need an air freshener, try heating vanilla in a cup. Vanilla is non-toxic for cats. Just put a bit of REAL vanilla extract in an old coffee cup that you no longer use, and put it in your toaster oven at around 250-300 degrees Fahrenheit and let it warm for about an hour. Your house will smell wonderful all day (unless you hate the smell of vanilla).

  13. Kimberley Legaspi August 29, 2019 at 4:41 am #

    Stick to high quality essential oils. They dont me have symptoms, they nourish my body. Doterra is who i use. Contact paul or deborah brackley and tell them kimmy sent you.

    Or you could use young living.

    Two good options. I love my essential oils. Scentsy snd all others cause emergencies for me.

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