Nothing smells quite as good as a new car. But after months of spills, sweat, mud, and everything else your family can throw at it, the smell is gone, and a funky musk has taken its place. It seems logical that masking the odors — even with your standard overpowering pine-and-plastic air freshener — is the best course of action. Think again. Offending odors aside (gross), air fresheners can harm your kids.
“Air fresheners are not designed to clean or disinfect the air, but they do add potentially hazardous pollutants to the air we breathe,” says Anne Steinemann, Ph.D., of the University of Melbourne in Australia. In 2007, the Natural Resources Defense Council tested 14 air fresheners for the presence of phthalates — chemicals that, in great concentrations, can cause hormonal abnormalities, birth defects, and reproductive problems. While this test isn’t peer reviewed science, it’s a good reminder that parents should take pause when it comes to adding chemicals to the air their kids breathe.
Car air fresheners rely on chemicals to create their scent. They don’t get rid of a smell, but mask it, using organic scents — think, oil from an orange skin — as well as phthalates and other volatile organic compounds. These include formaldehyde, which can cause skin irritation and nausea, and benzene, which can cause headaches and dizziness, among a host of other issues.
Air fresheners can also interact with other chemicals in the air to create even more pollutants. In a study published in Building and Environment, Steinemann (the lead author) notes that “primary emissions such as terpenes can readily react with ozone to generate secondary pollutants such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde,” essentially producing more potential poison in the air.
So what’s a parent to do? The short answer: skip the everyday air freshener and find an all-natural alternative. The best way is to make your own, but we did take the time to look into around and find the seven safest — and best smelling — air fresheners you can buy. They’re (mostly) chemical-free, and will make your car smell great.
All-Natural Car Scent #1: Moso 200-Gram Natural Air Purifying Bag
Activated charcoal helps remove toxins from the air and leaves your car smelling fresher than you’d think. Since it’s VOC-free, it’s safe to use around kids. It won’t hang from your rearview mirror, so place it on the dash for a soon-to-be odor-free car ride.
All-Natural Car Scent #2: PURRGO
Another activated charcoal choice, the Purrgo eliminates odors rather than masks them and lasts for over 365 days. It’s completely allergy and asthma friendly as well.
All-Natural Car Scent #3: Aura Cacia Lavender Aroma
Give this spray a spritz when you need to freshen up your wagon. It contains mostly water and lavender oil, so it’ll smell like a lovely garden, plus mice and bugs hate it—an added bonus.
All-Natural Car Scent #4: My Choice Natural Car Air Freshener
Another choice made from all essential oils instead of VOCs, these fresheners plug in for a pleasant blast of vanilla, pine, mandardin, lavender, and more. Don’t forget to replenish the packs every so often.
All-Natural Car Scent #5: Citrus Magic
Though it has trace amounts of phthalates, it’s the least offensive among the NRDC’s top offenders, with only 0.25 parts-per-million of the bad stuff. It’s made from citrus oils and helps eliminate the stale odor of cars, replacing it with refreshing citrus.
All-Natural Car Scent #6: Natural Life More Of What Makes You Happy
Cutesy, sure, but it hangs on the dash and gives off the scent of jasmine to hide away all those nasty scents. Like the last few, it’s made with mostly essential oils as opposed to volatile chemicals. Oh, and it comes with a helpful reminder right on the front.
All-Natural Car Scent #7: GreenAir AromaWave Essential Oil Diffuser
Plug this guy in, drop in a little essential oil of choice, and enjoy a natural aromatherapy that’ll last a day trip. It’ll fit in any car charger and is easy to refill—even when you’re stuck in traffic.
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