Air Fresheners -- Why They Really Stink

Air Fresheners -- Why They Really Stink

What do fish, broccoli and our pets have in common? We may love all of them (or at least two out of three) but they can leave our homes smelling. . .well . . .funky. Or worse.

When we waken to the stale aroma of last night’s dinner, or catch a whiff of the litter box, what do we do? Chances are, we grab a can of air freshener (if we don’t already have the plug-in or automatic variety) or light a scented candle, and pretty soon we’re delighting in the scent of “Summer Breeze” or “Peach Cobbler” or even “Girl Scout Cookies Chocolate Peanut Butter” (a Yankee Candle favorite).  Problem solved!

Or not.

In fact, we have created a bigger problem, one that will affect the health of our entire family, including our pets. How is this possible?

The danger lies in the fact that air fresheners almost certainly contain harmful chemicals. Whether we and our pets inhale them, ingest them, or absorb them through our skin, these chemicals can cause health problems. For most pets, serious symptoms may not show up for some time; in the case of birds, however, exposure can have immediate and often deadly consequences.

Those of us who are diligent about reading labels need to know that there are over 7,000 chemical ingredients that we won't even see on a label, because manufacturers can simply list them as “fragrance.” Add to that the fact that only about 20% of chemicals have been tested for safety anyway, and it becomes clear that we should think twice about perfuming the air in our homes.

How can scents so sweet be so deadly?

Air fresheners can contain a variety of potentially harmful chemicals.  More than 95 percent of these chemicals are derived from petrochemicals, which include a host of toxins. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) – an international environmental organization – has studied what they call the “hidden hazards of air fresheners.” They found that a whopping 86% of the products they tested contained some type of phthalate, a family of dangerous chemicals. The offenders even included products labeled as "all natural" or "unscented." Phthalates (pronounced thal-ates) are classified as hormone-disruptors which means that they interfere with the production, release and delivery of hormones throughout the body. The resulting chaos can produce reproductive abnormalities (e.g. infertility) and birth defects. They have also been linked to allergic symptoms, asthma, breast cancer, diabetes and obesity.  Numerous studies have yielded disturbing proof of the dangers of phthalates. Not only can seemingly tiny amounts cause serious health problems; but phthalates are literally everywhere. They soften vinyl and lubricate cosmetics. They’re in insect repellents and pet toys, nail polish and your car’s steering wheel, even meats, cheese and dairy products.

And, of course, phthalates are in air fresheners, sometimes at alarming levels. NRDC's study revealed that Walgreens' Scented Bouquet Air Freshener contained a staggering 73 times what is already considered a high level of phthalates. Fortunately, Walgreens removed those products from their shelves, and the manufacturer has since reformulated that product line without phthalates.

If you think it’s time to get phthalates out of your home, eliminating air fresheners is a great place to start. Look for safe, natural alternatives below.

Fragrances – friend or foe?

Sadly, it isn’t just air fresheners that are the problem. Any product with a fragrance can endanger us and our pets, and we have far too many of them in our homes. (Remember that hundreds of synthetic chemicals could be hidden behind that one ingredient labeled as “fragrance.”) Even the seemingly innocuous scented candle is a culprit; but cleaning products are the worst offenders, along with laundry detergents, fabric softeners and dryer sheets.

“But wait a minute,” you say. “I don’t shampoo my dog with Mr. Clean nor do I rub my cat with dryer sheets! How can these things affect them??”

Our pets are harmed by chemical fragrances when they inhale the fumes or when they get the chemicals on their fur or skin (we will talk about our feathered pets in a moment). We all know cleaning products give off fumes, even when tightly sealed in their packaging (just walk down the cleaning aisle of your local supermarket!). We also know that our pets sometimes lick surfaces, love to rub up against our pant legs, snuggle with us, and – very familiar to us cat owners – lie for hours on top of a pile of clean laundry. The very chemicals that clean our homes and make our clothes smell so (artificially) fresh are the same toxins that end up in your pet’s lungs or on their fur, where they are then licked off or breathed in. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested 43 chemicals common to household products and found that dogs have higher levels of these toxins in their bodies than humans. As pet parents, this should concern us!

Sadly, your pet could be developing serious health problems without exhibiting any symptoms; but if your pet is sneezing, itching or suffering from nasal or eye discharge, you may have toxins in the air. Try ditching your household cleaners, laundry detergents and softeners. If the symptoms go away, you know you found the culprits.  If you decide to see a veterinarian,  I would recommend a holistic or integrative vet, as they are more apt to shun antibiotics and steroids in favor of detoxification and immune system support.

HEALTHY HINT:  Dual-purpose PurSpray Pet Care is an effective treatment for skin, eyes and ears, of course, but it's also a powerful general cleaner.  Our key ingredient kills bacteria in seconds, yet it's 100%  natural and non-toxic.  If you're looking for a fragrance-free cleaner for pet toys, litter boxes, crates, and cages, and to clean up those inevitable accidents and slobberings, dual-purpose PurSpray Pet Care will do the trick. 

Fragrances and feathered friends

Remember the canary in the mine? If the canary keeled over, the miners knew it was time to scramble to the surface. That worked because birds in general are particularly sensitive to toxic fumes.  Be sure you protect your feathered friend by avoiding the following:

  • Scented candles
  • Carpet deodorizers
  • Potpourri
  • Incense
  • Plug-ins
  • Essential oils
  • Perfume
  • Cleaning products
  • Fumes from non-stick cookware

Sweet Success -- deodorizing your home naturally

Thankfully, there are alternatives to air fresheners and room deodorizers. You will find lots of ideas online that are all safe and natural for your entire family. Here's just a sampling.  Do note the cautions for parents of birds.

  • When shopping for a laundry product, look for "fragrance free" on the label. "Unscented" is not enough!
  • Avoid all forms of air fresheners -- spray, plug-in, automatic -- and scented candles.
  • Fresh air is free! In nice weather, open the windows.
  • Plants are natural air purifiers. While they may not provide an immediate deodorizing effect, parlor palms, English ivy and spider plants will improve air quality over time and beautify your home as a bonus. NASA’s Clean Air Study includes a convenient chart of the best air-purifying plants.
  • Sounds odd, but it’s true -- leftover coffee grounds will absorb unpleasant odors in your fridge, microwave or cabinets. Rodale News suggests putting dried grounds in a (clean) old sock to hang in your closet or pantry. And Farmer's Almanac says they can even freshen the air in your car (place grounds in a covered plastic container with holes punched in the lid).
  • Another way to remedy a smelly microwave: boil two parts water with one part vinegar, right in your microwave, of course.
  • Vinegar can also help get rid of the smell of burnt food and other kitchen odors. Add half a cup of vinegar to a quart of water and allow it to simmer on the stove for a few minutes.
  • There are all kinds of potpourris you can simmer on your stove or in your crockpot (if you don’t have a bird!). Ingredients as simple as a couple of cinnamon sticks and a handful of cloves in two or three cups of water will do the trick; but Rodale News has a fancier version if you're interested.
  • Stinky garbage disposal? Feed it some leftover lemon or orange rinds, or dump half a cup of salt down the drain, and turn it on. The salt also helps to loosen caked-on food.
  • Scented candles are out, but beeswax candles are in. Rodale News says they actually clean the air by producing negative ions. Who knew? Some beeswax candles come scented with essential oils, safe for pets and people -- except for birds!
  • Well, this one beats all in my book. Vodka. Yup. You can spray it as is or (if you don’t have a bird) add 20 to 30 drops of an essential oil or two.
  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, get rid of your toxic cleaning supplies! EWG’s online “Guide to Healthy Cleaning” gives safety ratings for products by type and brand; but if you want to make your own, Rodale News will give you some basic recipes for homemade cleaning products. Women’s Voices for the Earth has recipes, too, including a natural alternative to laundry detergent. It’s worth getting on the email list for all three of these websites!

The EPA tells us that the air in our homes is far more polluted than the air outside. There are lots of simple ways to detox our homes, and getting rid of air fresheners and other scented products is a step in the right direction.

Go ahead and get started! And enjoy the naturally fresh air in your home!

SOURCES for this article:

Anderson, Ava. “Five ‘Must-Knows’ on the Dangers of Synthetic Fragrance.” February 10, 2014.

Boyles, Margaret. “Natural Ways to Tame Bad Smells.” July 10, 2011.

Jackson, Sara. “The Stink About Air Fresheners With Animals.” August 11, 2014.

Scheer, Roddy, and Doug Moss. "Avoid Harsh Chemicals in Commercial Air Fresheners with Homemade Alternatives." September 9, 2012.

Scranton, Alexandra. “Alternatives to Toxic Air Freshener.

Zerbe, Leah. “What Is a ‘Hormone Disruptor’ Anyway?” September 29, 2014.

“NASA Clean Air Study.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. January 7, 2015.