Horrific discoveries: oh, so THAT’S what’s in air freshener

Posted by

If you’re new here, welcome! You’ll probably also like our post about getting rid of common household smells naturally — like the ever-stank litter box. Crtl + click to open it in the next tab.

Bee-OtchYou ever find yourself completely surprised about the ingredients of a household product? Like maybe you’re watching one of those really weird Febreeze commercials in which women are apparently having a flameless candle-centric party and you think, “Well THAT’s weird.” And then your mind wanders over to, “What’s IN all that stuff, anyway?”

We should all know more about the ingredients in these products so we can make educated purchases, so when this thought struck me I dug around a little. I’d a hunch that air fresheners weren’t all sunshine and daisies, but I was genuinely disturbed at some of the ingredients.

The basic gist is that there are real nasties in most of the products used to mask or eliminate odors — we’re talking aerosol sprays, those cone-shaped jobbies, or some of the Glade Plug-in types. Via Wikipedia, emphasis mine:

Many air fresheners employ carcinogens, volatile organic compounds and known toxins such as phthalate esters in their formulas. A Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study of 13 common household air fresheners found that most of the surveyed products contain chemicals that can aggravate asthma and affect reproductive development.

The study assessed scented sprays, gels, and plug-in air fresheners. Independent lab testing confirmed the presence of phthalates, or hormone-disrupting chemicals that may pose a particular health risk to babies and young children, in 12 of the 14 productsβ€”including those marked ‘all natural.’ None of the products had these chemicals listed on their labels.

There isn’t anything illegal about this, but those pretty, flower-encrusted idyllic meadows on the cans definitely don’t give you the same warning as, say, the packaging of (probably more dangerous) industrial cleaners.

I’m sure you moms know that many doctors don’t recommend exposing baby to aerosol sprays, but that was news to me. These products have also been documented to douse us with carcinogens.


I don’t really use air fresheners, but my husband does. My mom does. Given the number of air freshener and room sprays available in the grocery aisles, they’re clearly popular. What can we use to refresh a room that’s more natural, less icky, and way less sinus-grating?

There were good starter alternatives suggested in Ariel’s post on making your bathroom smell less like poop. Dale taught us how to make a natural lavender mint linen spray, too. But what else you got?

Personally, I’m not terribly practiced at handling smells. I’m more apt to let a room STANK until someone else thinks, “Hey, I can probably fix that!” But when I do want to clear up a smell — kitty litter, especially — I’m a sucker for straight baking soda or charcoal.

Responses from the comments so far

RC said:

A clean house will smell clean. If something smells then it’s probably time for me to empty out the compost or garbage or clean the floors or do some laundry or open the windows. I don’t need my house to smell of something else to smell fresh – no smell is the “smell” I go for in my home.

Audrey said:

Opening the windows often never hurts, even if it’s only 10 minutes a day.

Melissa T. said:

Here’s what you do: Get a crock pot. Buy a cooking extract of a scent you like such as coconut extract. Buy the biggest cheap extract you can find. Fill crock pot up with water. Pour extract in crock pot- enough so that you can smell the extract in the water about four inches away. Put crock pot lid on. Turn it on high until the lid gets really steamy (or you lift the lid and steam comes rising out.) Tilt lid. Keep it on high or turn it on low. It’s up to you, really.

Littleteacup said:

I add a few drops of lavender oil to the water when I mop the floor or wash the surfaces in my house. It’s a nice, completely natural way to make the house smell clean and fresh.

Lex said:

If you have carpet or area rugs, is to sprinkle a little bit of cinnamon or other spice on the carpet just before you vacuum.


The Airsponge does wonders!

Don’t be shy: add your smell-killing trick to the comments!

Comments on Horrific discoveries: oh, so THAT’S what’s in air freshener

  1. A clean house will smell clean. If something smells then it’s probably time for me to empty out the compost or garbage or clean the floors or do some laundry or open the windows. I don’t need my house to smell of something else to smell fresh – no smell is the “smell” I go for in my home.

    I think of air fresheners for general living space (not bathroom related) are like perfume was to the French aristocrats who wouldn’t shower – you need something to cover a bad smell from not showering so you wear perfume. If you shower then you won’t smell bad – thus you won’t need any perfume.

    • True fax, though a little scent of something fresh doesn’t hurt.

      I open windows if it’s warm enough–sometimes the best air freshener is fresh air. If it’s too cold out to open a window, I either light incense (though my roommate complains that it makes it smell like a “hippie” lives here. It’s not bad smelling, honest!) or a candle.

      • Absolutely: opening the windows often never hurts, even if it’s only 10 minutes a day. Plus, if you never ever open your windows, the air inside your house might become much more unhealthy than the air outside.
        I also second RC’s comment, as keeping my flat clean has always done the trick for me when it comes to scent!

      • I can’t do incense or anything that has a super strong scent. Super smelly stuff gives me NASTY headaches. Frankly, slightly smelly stuff that lingers too long gives me headaches too. I can only do “fresh” scents (like soap or citrus) in small doses. And if I’m dosing my pad in a scent its probably overdue for me to run the swiffer/vacuum/clean the cat box.

    • I wish that it was that simple for me, but I live in an apartment building that doesn’t always smell nice. I can clean the crap out of my place, but when the people down the hall make some kind of nasty fish, my place smells like it. And since I live on the first floor of the building, all the people who go outside to smoke are right outside my window, so spring freshness isn’t so fresh. Sometimes you need a little something extra.

      • Here’s what you do: Get a crock pot. Buy a cooking extract of a scent you like such as coconut extract. Buy the biggest cheap extract you can find. Fill crock pot up with water. Pour extract in crock pot- enough so that you can smell the extract in the water about four inches away. Put crock pot lid on. Turn it on high until the lid gets really steamy (or you lift the lid and steam comes rising out.) Tilt lid. Keep it on high or turn it on low. It’s up to you, really.

        I swear, this makes my house smell awesome. I’ve used very cheap powdered cinnamon in the fall and that’s very powerful. Just keep an eye on it and when the water gets low, just add more water. After about the third water refill, you might have to add more of the extract and since it’s just of mixture of water and stuff you eat, you won’t be breathing in junk from the aerosol cans.

        • I was going to suggest something like this, but it’s less involved:

          I used to just throw a cup or two of water into a saucepan with a teaspoon or so of vanilla extract. Boil it for 20 minutes, then ditch it. Makes it smell like you just baked some cookies.

          • I just do it this way because I can cook the mixture all day in the crock pot without fuss instead of reheating it when I want it to smell better.

  2. I get migraines from chemical-based air fresheners and perfumes, so generally no smell is generally best for me. My favorite thing to make a house smell particularly good is cookies, and popcorn will cover up the smell of anything else. A vase of fresh flowers is also good, as is the scent of a bathroom right after someone showers (as long as it’s not with Axe or something).

  3. I add a few drops of lavender oil to the water when I mop the floor or wash the surfaces in my house. It’s a nice, completely natural way to make the house smell clean and fresh.

    • Ah, the ongoing battle. Covered litter box, Feline Pine litter (no clay, no perfume, and doesn’t track), and scoop the poops every day. Right after they poop, it still smells like poop, not much you can do about that. πŸ™‚

        • When I lived with a guy who had cats, we got a Cat Genie, and it did wonders for that cat stank, because it washes the granules and flushes the waste every time it’s used. Seems like the common factor here is ‘get rid of the poo every single day.’

      • In regard to the Pine cat litter, a lot of cats won’t go on this litter. I found out the hard way. My vet said it’s because the pine shavings stay wet and some cats don’t like climbing on into a box that gets their little feet wet. Makes sense, no one likes wet feet. So – just a warning. If you do change your cat’s litter, do it a little at a time – mixed with the clay stuff – so they can get used to it.
        For our cat litter smell we use a small hot-oil burner and use lavender oil. Lavender is a clean, astringent smell that’s very good for overpowering cat litter. And all you need is a tea candle and something ceramic to put the oil on.

        • I am teaching my cats to use the toilet. They are doing well so far but have not finished the process because we have a 18 year old cat that is a little slow. Google potty train your cat.

    • I use Yesterday’s News kitty litter… it’s made by Purina (which, in and of itself completely shocks me), but it’s made out of compressed newspaper pellets– so it’s basically just paper, and absorbs quite efficiently.

      I’ve never had any issues with litter smells, and I buy YN in “unscented”. Also, make sure that you’re scooping the litter out every day.

    • If cat-poop smell is a problem, give a different food a try. I buy super expensive Cat food because when we got a cat we were in a very enclosed space. I needed the best way to control smell and learned that high-quality foods make less smelly poop. So I bought one without corn and with chicken as a top ingredient. It has an overall better ratio of better-for-cats ingredients than others. Cats are often allergic to corn and it’s not easy for them to digest. Beef isn’t as good for cats as chicken — think about what your housecat would catch: birds or cows?

      Nelly’s poop still smells. But I’ve smelled other cats’ poop. Hers is like lilacs in comparison. Plus: shiny coat

      • Cat, I totally agree. I feed my cats a mix of raw chicken and grain-free canned food (Wellness brand). It really does it keep the smell of their feces to a minimum: my other cat-owning friends (while cat-sitting my cats) have commented on how healthy my cats’ litter-box leavings seem, compared to their cats’.

    • I used to have more problems with odor before I changed my cat’s box — previously, I used a Booda dome, one with a built-in charcoal filter, but my kitty actually stopped using it and started using the bathtub instead (I think she started disliking going into a dome).
      As a replacement, I bought a plastic bin, about half the size of those under-bed ones they sell at stores like Target or Bed Bath & Beyond. It’s quite a bit larger than the average litter box, but it seems to deal better with odor. And the cat uses it, which is excellent. For litter, I use unscented Arm & Hammer Super Scoop, and sometimes supplement that with more baking soda.
      Now, the only time it smells like a cat box is immediately after she poops in it.

    • Toilet-train your cat. May sound crazy but it is way healthier for your cat (litter contains all sorts of dangerous chemicals and it’s bad for them to be inhaling and ingesting all that dust from it) and for you (no tracking of germs and litter/litter dust). Way easier to clean up, too! Google it, you’d be surprised at the different techniques. πŸ™‚

      • Note though that this doesn’t work for all cats. We tried with ours, but one of them decided that he’d rather poop on the bathmat than in the potty. :/

    • Feed your cat raw! http://www.rawfedcats.org

      I have 4 cats and 4 litter boxes in a 2bdrm apt, we clean the litter boxes 1-2/ week and rarely is there any oder. Covered litter boxes help, but remember that your cat still has to deal with the smell each time they “go.” Also, using a natural smelling litter made from corn, wheat, or pine should help.

      • I’m lucky to have an extra closet so we turned it into sammy’s room. It has a little stool where we put his food and a crawl space in back for his poop box. He’s got an obsessive need to cover his poop so we toss junk mail in his room and he shreds it to cover his poo with later. Don’t know if this will help anyone. I guess I just wanted to brag.

    • Vanilla extract works wonders and little goes a long ways. I have a bunch of cute candle holders scattered through out the house with cotton balls in them, and every few weeks I either add some more vanilla extract or wash them out real good and start all over. This covers up most stuff. And a huge perk is the house wont smell very strongly of vanilla. You can smell it some but it just really elmiantes oders of all kinds (cat litter, ciagrettes, stinky shoes, musty house, burnt food,)

      One more thing to help is to boil some fresh rosemary sprigs, a tbsp or 2 of vanilla extract, and a fresh lemon in a pot of water this can act a whole house deodorizer.

    • Get a big litter box and use lots of litter to fill it (20-30cm). Cats are rather cleanly and they will dig and cover their droppings, if they can and if they have the space to do so. When the Tribbles first moved in we just filled the litter box a little so that the floor was covered (5cm maybe), and we had a stink problem that magically disappeared ever since we use more litter.

      Oh, and use good litter. We love bentonite clay litter like Golden Grey (can’t use pine due to an allergy) and we scoop at least once a day.

  4. Thank you for writing this! Honestly, Febreeze and plug-ins are, in my books, what we’ll look back on and wonder “what were we thinking??” or “that explains a lot.”

    We use the open window technique for our house. With two young boys, I just don’t feel comfortable with artificial air fresheners or anything extra in the air.

      • DDT, not DEET. I’m sorry for being overly nit-picky, and they ARE very easy to mix up. To be fair to the substances in question, DEET is an insect repellent with a surprisingly good track record of not causing medical problems, and DDT is a pesticide that is very effective at killing bugs, lingering in the fat cells of animals (including humans), weakening the shells of birds’ eggs, raising rates of breast cancer, lowering sperm counts, and impairing neurological development in humans and other animals.

  5. I’m apparently easily agitated by ANY smell. Flowers even drive my nose nuts after a minute or two. I can make do with a few scents, but I never know what will irritate my norsticles and what won’t.
    Do those super converts-carbon-dioxide-into-oxygen houseplants help convert-smells-into-not-smells? I’ve always wondered.

    • I doubt it.

      Plants convert CO2 by a specific chemical reaction (called photosynthesis) which is kind of like breathing. If they do take in other chemicals at all they probably release them straight back into the air like you do with most of the gases you breathe in.

    • Have you tried an air sponge? A few years back, there was a fire in the parking garage in my apartment building. My car was fine, as the fire was on another floor, but it smelt of burning car, afterwards.


      An Air Sponge worked wonders on that. Also got rid of the “new car smell” when I got a new car.

  6. What’s really bugging me these days are dog farts. Our dog is getting older, and like most aging creatures, his system isn’t as efficient as it used to be…so, working from home, I’m subjected to frequent daily bursts of dog fart. Incense covers it up but it’s still there, lurking beneath the surface; occasionally I resort to Febreeze when it just gets overwhelming.
    I’m not the decision maker on what he eats (he came with my husband, who had worked out over years what he can eat that won’t give him the runs etc) so that might not be an option to change.
    Any help on this (superstinky) front would be appreciated πŸ™‚

    • We have the same problem, except my dog cannot claim age – she’s only 3 and has the worst smelling bum ever. Not only that, as a female, she releases a “musk” once every month or so (yes, she is spayed) which permeates the whole room. I’ve tried Febreze (I know, I know, nasty chemicals) but it just smells like a Febreze dog fart. I would also appreciate any advice on nasty dog bums!

      • Oh, that’s the worst! That’s caused by their anal glands, which are located to either side of the rectum under the skin. I don’t know the reasons for the sudden stank dumping, but both our male dog and our female do it occasionally. It does happen when they are badly startled or upset–our male excreted his in my car once when we left him inside it (in the winter) to go into a museum. I don’t think the odor ever really left.

        A vet or a groomer will “express” the glands manually, which will help for weeks. Good luck.

        • It probably is the anal glands. He’s farting to try to release some…”intestinal pressure”. Any groomer or vet can professionally release the pressure so he won’t fart so much, and when he does, it won’t be as stinky.

          My dog REEKED when we first got him. After the vet dispelled the anal gland, it made a HUGE difference!

          • As a former vet tech… yes anal glands produce the stinkiest animals in the world… they stop stinking some time after they create the stinkiest vet tech in the world 8(

        • Expressing anal glands is actually really easy to learn to do yourself, too (if icky). One of our dogs needed it at least once a month, so my mom just had the vet teach her.

          Also, Amasea, I see that you’re not in charge of the food, but I would say try to get your husband to change the dog’s food. If you change the food in increments so he gets used to the new food slowly, it’s unlikely to give him intestinal problems. He may do better on a food formulated for senior dogs. Also, most dogs foods contain corn, and most dogs are allergic to corn. Our current dog had horrible gas and skin problems until we switched to corn free food, so that may help.

    • Gee, and my comment was going to be “don’t feed table scraps” but it sounds like the poor guy has a sensitive system if some stuff gives him the runs! Have you talked to your vet to see if there’s something you can give him to help his digestion?

      As far as dealing with the smell, lighting a match and blowing it out can help. πŸ™‚ Good luck!

  7. I’m like many others who’ve responded – I will get a headache with a lot of smells, especially artificially-induced ones. But I have to be careful of essential oils too, because I’m allergic to so many flowers. I’d rather a house smell like nothing than a pleasant smell that has me running for the door in 5 minutes.

    • ooooh, this would work for me! i LOVE the smell of raw garlic. recently one of my friends decided to teach herself to cook, and called me to ask how to get the smell of chopped garlic off her hands. she said she’d tried everything she could think of, and it had been hours, and they still smelled. and my reaction was “why would you want to get RID of the smell of garlic!” it had never occurred to me to try, lol πŸ™‚ (i realize this is probably very odd…)

      • For the record, rubbing your hands on stainless steel gets rid of garlic smell. I saw a little round object at HomeGoods made just for this purpose. I should have bought it, but rubbing my hands around my stainless saucepan seems to work okay. I had issues with garlic hands even after washing with soap and water because I had to rub my eye and it didn’t feel very pleasant.

    • This is funny because my sweetie brought home the Meyers basil scented dish soap once and the fragrance in it made me gag, repeatedly and hard. I had to actually take it out of the house because even when the cap was closed, I could smell it. A few days ago I went into a bathroom where they had the basil scented hand soap and I had to plug my nose the whole time I was in there. It’s the weirdest thing!

      • I use the basil counter spray. It comes concentrated in a big bottle. You can add as much water as you like. I use 1/4 c of cleaner to a spray bottle of water. One of the concentrate bottles lasts me 4 months or so.

  8. Nag Champa all the way here, I live with 4 boys and an old black lab who love to fart….

    Otherwise, essential oils in all cleaning water and frequent cleaning. Said boys takes daily turns cleaning the bathroom to keep pee spray stink down πŸ™‚

  9. I can’t open windows (due to severe asthma – lets in too many pollens and dust) and am allergic to houseplants. I’ve found that simmering cinnamon on the stovetop really helps. I buy the huge canisters of cinnamon at Costco and simmer away. Just have to remember not to let the pot boil down because burnt, crusty cinnamon is a nasty smell!

    • YES!!! Thanks for reminding me! Mmmmmmm- I love the smell of cinnamon; brings me back to my childhood. The use of cinnamon is strong in Mexican food culture. When I was growing up, I would spend many weekends with my great-grandmother and she would make Te de Canela (cinnamon tea) ALL the time; such a comforting smell to me. So not only does it smell good but it also tastes delicious. Double win!

      • I was just going to suggest, if you’re working with cinnamon anyway then you should make Canela tea! nom nom! It’s just water and cinnamon sticks! then you add some milk and sugar when you drink it! So yummy! Or you could make arroz con leche! that’s just boiled rice, add some milk, sugar, and cinnamon sticks. Such a yummy breakfast! Both of these will make your house smell delicious, and they taste delicious!

  10. I agree with what was said above that fragrance is only there to cover up bad smells, and you really just need to deal with bad smells in the first place – then ADD scent as necessary to get the smell to where you want it.

    I keep a spritzer bottle of vinegar under the sink and spritz it on EVERYTHING- to wipe off bathroom surfaces, spray down the bathtub/shower curtain, into the toilet bowl, to clean food spills off the kitchen counters, spritz it into the cat box when I do the occasional totally empty it out and rinse, and pretty much everything else.

    It smells- well- like vinegar at first, but the odor goes away quickly and it actually acts as a DEODORIZER once the vinegar smell dissipates. And more importantly, it kills 99% of bacteria, and 80% of mold and viruses, and mold and mildew and bacteria are what makes things smell bad.
    They are also right about matches being the #1 deodorizer for recently-used-bathroom scent. I let it burn down all the way.

    Then to add fragrance that I like, I either burn scented candles, bring in fresh flowers, and/or spritz with a homemade essential oil spray – water + vodka (acts as emulsifier for water + oil) + a teaspoon or two of essential oils you like. There are tons of recipes on the interwebs.

  11. Before I vacuum I take an old salt shaker, fill it with baking soda, and use a chopstick to mash/mix in 8-10 drops of essential oil. Lately I’ve used sweet orange oil and also added a pinch of ground cloves. Then I use the mixture as a carpet freshener, shaking it all over the house and letting it sit on the carpet for 10-15 minutes before vacuuming it up. It doesn’t last toooo too long, but long enough to give the room a pleasant scent for a couple hours (handy if guests are coming over and I want to impress). It also makes the vacuum smells less like, well, a vacuum.

  12. I’m a big fan of essential oils; I change them out according to the mood I’m in, or want to be in. I do agree with everyone else, though, that the best solution is to keep things clean; the other best bet is to open windows across from each other to create a cross-room draft, and get some fresh air in!

    • I’m a huge fan of this. A few drops of lavender oil and/or vanilla, and your house smells “Designer” (or if you’re me, comforting and de-stressing), and you can be pretty sure you aren’t getting cancer, which is nice.

      Even if your house is clean, a little aromatherapy now and then is still nice!

  13. I’ve had many battles with the people who keep putting in plug in, spray, or other air “fresheners” in the ladies’ room at the office. As soon as I walk in and the chemicals hit me, I have trouble breathing. I had to resort to throwing them in the garbage at times, because they refuse to listen to me.

  14. I really like using those clay ceramic rings and just a few drops of essential oils suspended in a base oil (like from the body shop) to help my office smell less “ferrety”. Opening the windows and getting a good cross ventilation going + potted daffodils are my favorite spring “freshener”. In most rooms though – keeping things clean and unmoldy is the best bet for no smells, good or otherwise πŸ™‚

  15. We have an air purifier that was given to us by a friend. You can set the square footage of the house on it and just let it run. We use this more to combat my husbands allergies then battle smells, but it may help with those, too. It does have a smell of it’s own, however. Normally, it’s the kind of thing where you just smell it when you walk into the house after being gone a while and then you adjust and forget about it. But when I first got pregnant I had to turn it off because I could smell it all the time and it was making me sick.

    So … more of an anti allergy tool than an anti smell tool, but it still seemed like a good thread to mention it in. It’s made a huge difference for the husband (he has cat allergies and we have a long haired cat :-/)

    • This is brilliant, thank you! πŸ™‚ I have both a short and a long haired cat and am allergic to cats as well; my housemate has a dog, too, that I’m allergic to, and I have 5 birds….

  16. I am very, very sensitive to perfume smells so I’m very picky about what I can use to neutralize smells. I find lighting a match works very well. I also use http://www.orangemate.com/ this stuff work great but just use a tiny bit, most people use too much. No dog here, I have cats and am a big fan of “World’s Best” scoopable cat litter. It’s made out of corn. The multi cat version is the best for no dust/longest lasting. It has a pleasant corn flake smell not irritating (to my nose) clay dust, crazy expensive but worth it. Thanks for all of the ideas,I’m going to try cleaning with a spritzer bottle of vinegar.

  17. I open the windows to freshen the room, take out the trash, that kind of thing, but if it gets really bad then I use one of these tricks. 1)obtain some essential oil and put a dab of it on the lightbulbs in your lamps. As they heat up it will disperse the scent through your home.

    2)Bake something or stick half an onion, brushed with olive oil) in the oven at a low-ish temperature for some I-Just-cooked-something-tasty smells.

    • Great trick, but I just wanted to add that you should be sure that the bulb is cool to the touch before putting liquid on it or the cold liquid could cause it to shatter (esp. incandescent bulbs).

    • Does this work with compact fluorescents? They don’t heat up very much, and have the pigtail shape instead of that wide globe that the old incandescents had…

  18. my go-to is definitely open the windows!

    i have also found kitty litter to be an essential old-house staple, despite not having cats.

    old ash in the broken fireplace smelling like pee when the rain leaks past the flue cover? kitty litter in the fireplace.
    windows leaking and worried about mold from what the towels can’t get? kitty litter now, sweep up tomorrow.
    disgusting stain in beautiful hardwood from previous owner’s dog of 45 years? kitty litter under the rug to *fully* dry every smidge up so that the stain will take next time around.

    so, that’s all gross old house stuff, and maybe not every-day problems for most folks, but it’s been awesome for me. turns out, kitty litter’s job is to suck up liquid and cover up nasty smells. it’s pretty cheap, too.

Read more comments

Join the Conversation