There’s a reason that car air fresheners exist. 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 safest — and best smelling — air fresheners you can buy. They’re (mostly) chemical-free, and will make your car smell great.
Your car will smell like sea breeze with this smart portable air freshener and diffuser.
The MoodoGo plugs into any USB power supply, which means you can power it from your laptop if you so wish. But a car makes the most sense because, according to the AAA, Americans collectively spent 70 billion hours behind the wheel over the course of a year. That’s a lot of hours, people. They might as well be as inoffensive as possible. You choose the scent you want, which comes in a Keurig-like capsule. Insert the capsule into the MoodoGo and you’re off to the races. Each capsule lasts roughly 45 days. Rotate the dial to increase or decrease the intensity of the smell based on your space and how much it already stinks. All done.
These air fresheners can go anywhere, but they're particularly useful in your car, where they last 60 days.
You can choose whatever scent you like (we happen to approve of lavender) and know that these air fresheners are made without phthalates or artificial colors. They do include plant-derived essential oils and cellulose as a binding ingredient.
This air freshener packs a major punch. It's an activated charcoal odor eliminator that is made from 100 percent activated bamboo charcoal and covers 90 square feet of space.
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.
PURGGO is made with 100 percent bamboo charcoal that naturally absorbs odor, instead of covering up one smell with another.
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.
Another air freshening powerhouse, this one filters bacteria and allergens in your air.
This air freshener doesn’t release anything into the air. Instead, it uses carbon activated bamboo air purifiers to clean the air and remove odors by filtering and trapping smells.
If you prefer a more neutral tone, get this air freshener, which comes in a fragrance free, chemical free, non-toxic bag to remove allergens and pollutants.
This charcoal air freshener purifies up to 275 square feet of air and lasts up to two years.
The citrus oils in this spray kill nasty odors on contact.
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.
Every product on Fatherly is independently selected by our editors, writers, and experts. If you click a link on our site and buy something, we may earn an affiliate commission.