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

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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 products—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. My grandmother boils sliced lemons in plain water whenever she wants a better smelling kitchen. I like it too, it doesn’t stay around long, but for someone like me with perfume allergies, it’s great to do before company comes. (Or after)

  2. right before company comes, I like to drop slices of limes or ornages in the garbage disposal and flick it on for a minute. It makes it smell not like old moldy food!

  3. For the bathroom, we use a match and then flush that down the toilet. Best thing ever.

    Since I’ve been pregnant, my super power became to be the Super Sniffer, which is the lamest power in the world. I started noticing a nasty random odor coming from our heater (we live in an apartment that shares a heater with the conjoining one next to ours, well two heaters butted to one another so we smell what they smell). Well we thought their dog peed on it and no Lysol or fabreeze would take it away. Plus, being Super Sniffer now, those sorts of sprays really bother me (even perfume does, but not body splashes because those are lighter).

    Anyways, I cleaned it. The matienance man cleaned our side and theirs. Nothing seemed to work. Then I decided to try something new and we put some coffee beans in a little bag near my computer and up in the kitchen. I’m going to get some more to put near the heater. So far we haven’t had a problem.

    Why coffee beans? When I used to work at Bath & Body Works, we used to smell coffee beans to neutralize ours and the customer’s noses so they could smell other fragrances and not get a headache. Plus coffee smells so good and we are not coffee drinkers, so I get to smell what I love and not random odors.

    For the kitchen, I do use lemons, limes and oranges down the drain to get rid of that the nastiness too. I haven’t tried boiling them though. But it always leaves that fresh smell and it’s so much cheeper (especially when you have a lime in the fridge that isn’t good anymore to eat, but still smells good).

    I also hear that baking soda is a good deoterizor and gets rid of those unwanted bugs that come in from the windows. I bought some to sprinkle on our carpets and since we have a great vacuum, going to vacuum it up and see if that helps a bit. (In the future, when we get our a bigger place, where ever it may be, we will have hard floors).

    • I am surprised it took THIS long for somebody to mention the odor-neutralizing powers of the coffee bean! We LOVE coffee, and my loved ones already think I’m bat-shit insane about the stuff, so keeping little flower pots/ trinket boxes full of coffee beans really isn’t out of the ordinary. I just take care to buy new stuff every so often.

  4. We’ve avoided using anything with chemicals or fragrance ever since I came across some information suggesting it was unhealthy for babies… that was 5+ years ago, and if I told people about fragrance/phthalates, they looked at me like I was wearing a tin foil helmet. I’m glad it has come around to be talked about more; hopefully consumer choices will drive the market to make more stuff that is less toxic but still effective.

    We use the following things for practically everything:

    1. Vinegar for laundry smells. My husband brings home a sweat soaked, stinky gi from jujitsu and we cloth diaper, so we have a LOT of smelly laundry. There isn’t much vinegar and sun-drying won’t take care of.

    2. Eucalyptus oil diluted in a sprayer of water. We use this for general spritzing where the house just has a funk to it.

    3. Baking soda and vinegar for really hard to clean stuff.

    Then I use dish soap for things like mopping the floor and getting rings out of the tub. There are a lot of supposedly green/healthy choices for dish soap. I get frustrated in general, though, with feeling like things are either hidden in labels or left off the label. So I do all this planning and choosing but who knows what sneaks in here and there…

  5. 1. Keep your windows open as much as possible.
    2. Make your own scented sprays – mix some clear alcohol (like vodka – you could use medical alcohol, not sure which way the alcohol scent evaporates faster) with a few drops of your favorite essential oil and put it into a spray bottle. Some people suggesting doing the same with water and shaking the bottle every time before you spray, which might be an even better solution, health-wise…

  6. Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab (BPAL)! Their trading post sells room scents, or you can use their perfume oils to scent a room.

    With the exception of their honey scents, everything that comes from BPAL is vegan (per their FAQ page, which also lists their safety process, common ingredients, etc.). These are essential oils.

    Plus, who *doesn’t* want someone to say ohh, your room smells great, what IS that and you can reply “Oh, that’s Saloon #10!”

    Regular site for oils: http://www.blackphoenixalchemylab.com

    Room sprays: http://www.blackphoenixtradingpost.com/atmosphere.html

    Their shop description in general: Welcome to the Lab! We specialize in formulating body and household blends with a dark, romantic Gothic tone. Our scents run the aesthetic gamut of magickal, pagan and mythological blends, Renaissance, Medieval and Victorian formulas, and horror / Gothic-themed scents. By utilizing our knowledge of homeopathy and aromatherapy, the conceptual theories of hermetic alchemy, and the aesthetic artistry of perfumery, we have mastered the art of encapsulating allegorical ideas into singular olfactory experiences. We are the first of our kind, and have over fifteen years of practical experience in the field. Our expertise shows.

    *I am not affiliated with BPAL. I just love their stuff!

  7. Okay, so here’s my awkward scent problem I would love some advice on:
    I just started roller derby, and the only thing I ever use those sprays on is to Febreeze my skate-bag/everything in my skate-bag with Sports Strength stuff. I know I can wash my pads after practices and that will help, but they can take a long time to dry and you can’t just toss them in the dryer, so I can’t do that after EVERY practice. Honestly the febreeze just makes it smell like sweat AND febreeze anyway. Any suggestions?

    • For me, water, baking soda and a few drops of lavender oil in a spray bottle. Shake it up, apply liberally. I also use this a “Fabric Freshener”, sometimes (though you may want to use less baking soda for that purpose).

      • This probably works, but dryer sheets are SO bad for you. Even if they don’t make your lungs immediately stop working, like they do mine.

        Don’t store sports gear packed away. Take them out of your gear bag as soon as you get home, and let them air dry and air out. Preferably not in the house.

    • The only thing that has ever worked for my volleyball pads and such has been putting them in a plastic bag first once they’re hot and sweaty to keep my bag from reeking.

      As far as cleaning, I just rinsed all the plastic things in the hottest water I could stand and then wiped with anti-bacterial wipes.

  8. I use Swan Creek Candle Co’s Candles and Diffusers. You can order them online(http://www.swancreekcandle.com/), but I live right by one of their stores so I’m constantly there. I’ve quizzed them about what’s in their candles and they’ve checked out clean.
    I also have a cat in a small space, and the woman who works at the store advised me that lemon grass is a great odor eliminating scent. I bought the essential oil for my reed diffuser and Wha-La! No more cat smell.
    I work at a bulk foods store so I’ll also buy smell good foods/herbs and ect like dried whole clove and lavender and leave it in bowls around the house. It’s smells good and looks pretty too!

  9. I actually found Wildroot when I was looking for natural lavender water to take care of my (insanely sensitive and allergic) skin, but I’ve found that a lot of their other hydrosols make great room fresheners (especially the white sage).
    Best of all, all of the herbs sourced are either organically-grown, or ethically wildcrafted.

  10. My favorite quick fix? Peel an orange! The release of orange oil into the air smells HEAVENLY and always perks me up.

    I have a sensitive sniffer too. I find that apple-scented and citrus-scented products, “natural” or mainstream generally tend to be okay, as I think it is more expensive to make an artificial citrus or apple scent than it is to extract it from the real thing.

    Opening windows, washing with distilled white vinegar, baking soda, etc. all help. Ditto cooking anything with a heavenly smell, like baking bread or making hot apple cider.

    Whenever something stinks in our house it is usually the trash (take it out!) something slowly decaying in the fridge (throw it out!) or stinky bath towels (wash them!). We do not have any pets, so I can offer no advice on that front.

  11. I generally think that if there’s a nasty smell around, there’s a source to it, and I can get rid of said source. Luckily our bathroom has an amazing fan, so any proof of pooping is gone before you can say “Hey, what’s that smell?”.

    I get massive headaches from most perfumes and prefer to keep them out of my life, but not so with products from Lush. I keep one of their soaps in the kitchen and one (okay, several) in the bathroom and they just keep surprising me with their lovely smell. There are so many great things about Lush: they minimize packaging, use only natural and safe synthetic ingredients and many of their products are vegan. And, no, I don’t work for them, this is just how Lush fans are ^^

    • People ask me if I work for them all the time 🙂 It’s just hard not to gush for hours! I’ve posted about them before on the “make your own laundry soap” post, but basically I suffered for years from awful eczema-like dry spots all over my body which no dermatologist could treat or cure, and which completely and totally disappeared when I cut out all chemical cosmetic products and switched strictly to Lush. They’re magic. I carry my own soap in one of their travel tins everywhere I go. And their newest product is… candles! Although it would be rather expensive to scent your house that way (they’re $25 a pop). But I am interested to see if they’ll expand that line to warming oils, etc…

  12. I use incense from Jumiper Ridge. Their stuff is all natural and smells heavenly – like a campfire with resinous woods in it, not like a truck stop bathroom. And they gather the stuff sustainably from the plants in the wild. If you’ve ever been camping in the desserts or mountains than this is very much a comfort smell.


  13. a few halved lemons left around the house gets rid of new paint smell, I’m sure it would work for other smells too. also, a small dish of bi-carb soda left in the fridge will keep that smelling fresh, and again, I’m sure it works in other parts of the house.

    lemon essence (next to the vanilla essence, usually in the cake decorating aisle at your local supermarket) is great for getting stains out of counter-tops and goop from the backs of sticky labels off of anything, and leaves a very fresh smell when you’re done…

    also another trick i read somewhere is to keep a cloth dampened with lemon essence, eucalyptus oil, or lavender oil (or whatever you like i guess) near your front door, and to wipe that around the door frame before you open the door to a guest, so the first thing they smell when they enter the house is a lovely fresh scent of whatever.

  14. For those with air purifiers, be careful because many release ozone into the air. If you recall, ozone is the crap experts are trying to REMOVE from the air outside, so why would we want it inside?

    I’m a big nut when it comes to cleaning, and so after all is said and done and I want my apartment to smell like a little bit something extra and don’t plan on baking, I fire up my Scentsy wax melter thing that my husband gave me for Yule. I usually stick to scents like pumpkin pie, scents that make me crave goodies. I even use Yankee Candle wafers in it, and absolutely love the one that smells like maple pancakes.

    I also am a fan of taking my wet laundry and hanging it all over my living room to dry with the windows open. It dries over night, but for days my apartment will smell like fresh laundry, and it saves me $1.75 for a load in the dryer! 😀

  15. Air fresheners are truly hideous. Then again, so it 99% of all scented things in stores.

    One of my mommies is very, VERY allergic to nearly all artificial scents, including incenses (plus tobacco and marijuana smoke…). As in, if she can’t get away from it, she will have a life-threatening asthma attack. I had something similar for several years (though mine was much milder) too. So we got very used to no scents. Fragrances will still give me a headache.

    The only incense she or I use is Nippon Kodo, and I use that only when I want the scent.

    Honestly? We just open the windows. And/or clean up the source of the smell. 🙂

  16. Open windows, lots of baking soda in the fridge, freezer, and laundry hampers…
    I live in a really dry climate; on the driest days, I’ll heat a pot of water on low and add some of my favorite smell-good herbs and spices: mint and sage, or cinnamon sticks and cloves, or lavender… just let it simmer on low low heat for as long as you are in the kitchen!
    In the bathroom, I still love my Indian soapstone candle diffuser – essential oils are expensive, but they last FOREVER. I also have Aura Cacia air freshening spritzes : http://www.auracacia.com/dspCatPct.php?ct=anpcairfresh&p=p&i=y – a light spray on the bedroom sheets is a nice touch too.
    I avoid incense, I’m suspicious about breathing in the smoke.

  17. I clean with white vinegar diluted with hot water, and maybe add a few drops of lavender or eucalyptus oil to it. But the vinegar is the important part: yeah, it smells like vinegar while you’re cleaning, but as it dries, it neutralizes any odors around the house and leaves the place smelling like…nothing! It’s awesome.

  18. A handy hint for allergy sufferers (and pet owners…hell..everyone actually!) is to suck a damp, used tea bag or two up into your vacuum! The properties in black tea kill dust mites both in the bag and when they are shot into the air. Really helps reduce that snuffly nose feeling you get when vacuuming. Plus not only do you get to start the horrid task of cleaning with a nice hot cuppa but the smell of tea is wonderful!

  19. always an open window and some incense–burning or not!
    ALSO I like ‘green’ products for cleaning, as chemical smells hurt my lungs and sinuses….and I know we are not supposed to advertise/promote products, etc….BUT I don’t work for them, and am only interested in sharing because I FINALLY FOUND A ‘GREEN’ CLEANING PRODUCT THAT WORKS!!!! It’s called Basic H and it’s from a company that’s bee around since your grandma was raising babies! It’s called Shaklee and most of their products are actually surprisingly very awesome. ;)best thing of all…you can drink the concentrate and you’ll be fine….though it doesn’t taste too great by any means! BUT that means you can leave the cleaner under the sink and if the dogs/kids/drunk neighbor get into it NO PROBLEM! check it out 😉

  20. Beeswax candles are where it’s at for me. When lit, they emit negative ions which act as little weights for anything floating in the air; once attached to pollutants or allergens, they drop to the floor. I find this works to get rid of smells too, and it’s a nice alternative to opening a window when it’s -10C or worse out (yes, I’m Canadian). Added bonus is the actual smell of the melting beeswax: yum!

    Just the other day, I confess to yelling at my tv screen during a Febreeze commercial, because they were selling the whole ‘open a window’ concept as ludicrous. Apparently opening a window to dispell an odour leads to a windstorm in your kitchen and bad hair before guests arrive.

  21. I’m allergic to all kinds of fresheners and whenever I go to a friend’s house and they’re on I get sneezing fits until I remember to ask them to turn them off. Also allergic to scented oils for burning. I usually burn incense but my hubby complains a residual smoke smell stays in the cloths.
    The cinnamon / vanilla / coconut ideas by Melissa T. and Brittney are great: since they’re food products, they probably won’t set out allergies. Thanks, girls!

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