(originally published April 2007, last updated December 2013)
I admit it; I was an air freshener abuser – big time. My cleaning cupboard had more air freshener varieties than you can poke a stick at. But in fooling my nose, I was also poisoning myself and the wider environment. There are certainly greener ways to keep nasty smells at bay.
The majority of air fresheners you buy in the supermarket do not destroy odors, but simply mask them. They create a coating on your nasal membranes that fool your brain into thinking that the smell has gone. As for those air fresheners that claim to kill bacteria, our bacteria paranoia is leading us to kill good bacteria while creating strains of drug resistant bad bacteria. While anti-bacterial air fresheners have their place, they should really be limited to hospital environments in most cases.
Air fresheners – chemical cocktails
Many commercially air fresheners contain a cocktail of toxic chemicals that aren’t healthy for us or the environment. Some of the chemicals you may find:
Formaldehyde – known carcinogen
Phenol – skin and nervous system irritant
Petroleum distillates such as butane and propane
Methylformamide – Organ system toxicity, cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity
Butanoic acid – Neurotoxicity, Endocrine disruption, Organ system toxicity
Nitro- and polycyclic musks – linked to cancer, hormone disruption
.. and the list goes on.
I’ve read that up to 3000 synthetic chemical ingredients are used by the air freshener industry.
One of the other problems of these air fresheners is toxic chemicals accumulate in carpet over time, which is particularly of concern to parents with young children. Being rather sticky, the chemicals also wind up on our shoes and feet to be taken into the outside environment where they wind up in soil.
Added to all that, there’s the non-recyclable or reusable packaging of these products – millions of spray cans and plastic bottles hitting our landfills each year; not to mention the production of chemical ingredients and the packaging.
A recent trend in air fresheners are the 24/7 products that spray automatically every X minutes – whether it’s needed or not. Based on the chemical cocktail described above, I feel these are terrible products that should be pulled from the market.
Something else you should know about air fresheners is that we tend to build up a tolerance to them. We get used to the smell and start using more to get that same olfactory “kick”. If you really feel the need to use these products, try rotating the fragrances you use regularly.
The whole air freshener product life-cycle is an environmental nightmare.
Green commercial air fresheners
Thankfully, some manufacturers have been responding to consumer concerns regarding the health and environmental issues associated with these products and commercial “green” air fresheners can be purchased.
A favourite of mine for the bathroom is Orange Power’s Lime And Orange (available in Australia, not sure about elsewhere). Quite reasonably priced, it contains water, alcohol, cold pressed orange oil and lime oil – and that’s it. It’s also packaged in a reusable atomizer bottle, which is recyclable.
Still, be wary of some of the “green” commercial products – a common trick companies play is to say something along the lines of “contains natural pine scent”, which it may well do – but what about the other ingredients? Check the labels and if the label is unclear, contact the company for a complete ingredient list.
Alternatively, you can try search for the product’s MSDS online. An MSDS is a Materials Safety Data Sheet. These *usually* contain more information than what you’ll find listed on a product’s packaging and may also include toxicological and environmental data.
Run a search on Google like so:
Where “product” is the name of the air freshener.
Armed with that information, you can then also use online databases such as Skin Deep to find out the potential effects of the chemicals.
Green home-brewed alternatives
Here are a few tips for greener ways to help keep your home smelling fresh. Of course, be cautious of how you use some of these ideas if you have young children or pets scurrying around the house.
– A simple one, but improving air circulation outside to inside will do wonders. Open windows when you can.
– 1 to 2 teaspoons natural vanilla extract placed in small containers around your home
– Pot pourri made from lavender, roses or whatever scented plants and flowers you may have in your garden.
– Use baking soda to soak up acidic odors; also great for ash trays
– Baking soda can also be used as a spray – one teaspoon dissolved in cup of water and then sprayed as a fine mist.
– Use vinegar to neutralize alkaline odors. Yes, vinegar is a little smelly itself to start off with, but the initial pong quickly fades.
– A couple of drops of essential oil in an atomizer/mister full of water sprayed around (bear in mind this only masks the smell rather than neutralizing it)
– A couple of drops of essential oil on a cotton ball place in inconspicuous places around a room
– Placing citrus fruit or cinnamon in a pot with water and simmer gently (rather energy resource intensive though)
– If you have extraction fans in the kitchen or toilet, ensure the screens are kept clean. If you haven’t cleaned yours for a while, try it out and I guarantee the difference will amaze you.
– Treating the cause rather than the symptom is always a preferred strategy. For example, pet bedding can create an awful stink and while it may not be viable to wash it every week, simply putting it out in the sun regularly and giving it a good shake will help. The sun is an important factor as sunlight kills some of the stink-causing bacteria.