I've never been a fan of air fresheners in cars. Here in Canada, in the winter, I use ride-sharing programs a lot more than my bike, which means I'm often sitting in the back of taxis, with the windows up, the heat on and a swinging "air freshening" pine tree hanging from the driver's rearview mirror.
Air freshener isn't actually freshening anything at all. Air fresheners work by spraying a whole bunch of chemicals that simply mask the smelly air, while creating a toxic cocktail that potentially seeps into our lungs and skin.
Here are four of the chemicals to watch out for in any of your home or car air fresheners:
Fragrance is an umbrella term and can include many, many chemicals that are mixed together, usually to mask the smell of the other toxins in the product. And the kicker? Those individual chemicals don't have to be listed on the label, making it challenging for us consumers to actually figure out what we're smelling or slathering on our skin.
How fragrance harms your health: According to the Environmental Working Group, fragrance is linked to allergies, asthma and other respiratory concerns, hormone disruptions and may be linked to reproductive issues.
Formaldehyde is a chemical used in many household products and building materials. It's also used as a fungicide, disinfectant and preservative in medical labs.
How formaldehyde harms your health: Immediate reactions might include skin irritations, coughing, burning in the eyes, nose and throat, or nausea. But the long-term effects can be much more grave. The Environmental Protection Agency says that chronic exposure can be linked to allergic contact dermatitis, respiratory lesions and even cancer. More specifically, the National Cancer Institute outlines studies where researchers have found links between formaldehyde and leukemia.
Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is an additive found in a wide variety of processed foods, but it's also used in cosmetics, cleaning products and in petroleum products (um, do you want to eat your jet fuel?).
How BHT harms your health: The David Suzuki Foundation outlines a wide range of effects BHT can have on us. It can potentially damage the liver and kidneys. It can mimic the effects of estrogen and inhibit male sex hormones, and it can promote the growth of tumors.
While this compound is found in nature and is produced by the body, it's also used synthetically in perfumes and dyes, as a preservative in fruit and fish, and as a solvent in the rubber, tanning and paper industries.
How acetaldehyde harms your health: This ingredient, according to the EWG, is connected to allergies, asthma, cancer and skin and respiratory irritation, plus it may cause problems to our reproductive systems.
Nontoxic Air Freshener Alternatives
Of course, as I said, no wants to sit or drive around in a stink pit. There are amazing natural options that won't give you cancer, or impair the reproductive development of your unborn child. Here are just a few:
1. Start where odor starts.
Discover what's making your environment so stinky — dirty laundry, a messy sink, a household pet that rolled around in the mud — and clean it up (using nontoxic cleaners, of course).
2. Crank open a window.
If something is smelly, use nature's air freshener — actual fresh air! You'll be surprised at how a real breeze — not a fake 'Tropical Breeze' can improve odors.
3. Use essential oils.
Many of them are naturally antifungal and anti-bacterial. Pop your favorite into a diffuser and let that goodness circulate in your home instead. If you'e in a car, simple adding a few dabs in discreet places like on the dash, under the seats where they won't make direct contact with clothing, or on the roof can be very helpful. Bonus, you can even use oils like peppermint, bergamot or lavender which will freshen the air while also warding off motion sickness. Other awesome oil options would include white fir, pine, cedar, or even lemon grass.
4. Make your own sprayable air freshener:
As you'll often find in yoga studios, you can make your own natural disinfectant surface or air spray. Just add a few drops of your favorite essential oil, mix with water in a spray bottle. Shake before spraying. All good!
5. Get down with baking soda.
Use a good old box of baking soda. Seriously. Place some baking soda in a dish and leave it out. Sodium bicarbonate has the natural ability to pull odors out of the air.
Yes. Cleaning with a duster, a vacuum, some cloths and a bottle of white vinegar and a rag will also effectively do the trick in most cases.
Just as it's no longer legal to smoke in public places, air fresheners and other fragrances should be restricted. Getting a ride in car shouldn't have to involve the same unrelated consequence. And when it comes to taxis and ride-sharing programs, shouldn't we, as customers, have the right to a fragrance-free ride?