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We Asked The Experts: How Do Air Fresheners Actually Work?

February 03, 2021
mbg Brand and Integrated Marketing
Image by Hannah Schwob
February 03, 2021

We've all been spending a lot more time at home, and, as a result, we've learned a lot about our personal spaces. For example, it turns out that the more time you spend in a space, the smellier it seems to become. From cooking to at-home workouts, and kids to pets, the most joyous parts of life at home leave unwanted odors lingering.

The go-to solution for lingering odors is an air freshener. But, as individuals who are laser-focused on well-being, we wanted to know—how do air fresheners actually work? Sure, they kill odors, create ambience in a room, and smell wonderful, but how do they actually work? And how can we be sure they're safe?

Rather than playing a guessing game (not our style), we decided to ask the expert. And what we discovered was nothing short of fascinating.

Image by Hannah Schwob

What is an air freshener?

First, let's understand the universe of air fresheners. You're probably most familiar with sprays and plug-ins—but there's actually a huge variety of products, each designed with specific use cases in mind. 

Air sprays are the most versatile in the bunch and can be used anywhere odors are lingering in the air. Fabric sprays are best used on hard-to-wash fabrics such as stuffed toys, bedding, couches, or some clothing. Plugins are a perfect option for high-traffic rooms that are in need of continuous odor elimination. And car vent clips, well, they're best for cars, of course! Febreze has extended this lineup with products like candles, wax melts, and the SMALL SPACES continuous non-energized air freshener for closets, entryways, or bathrooms.

No matter which product type you're choosing, air fresheners typically include odor-eliminating ingredients and fragrances, plus technology, to distribute these ingredients into the space.

Febreze AIR LIGHT Bamboo

Febreze LIGHT Air Effects Bamboo gently removes odors with just a hint of misty bamboo scent. You won’t find any dyes or heavy perfumes, either. That’s because this spray gently cleans away odors from the air without ’em.

How do air fresheners actually work?

You spray, plug, or press a button, and the next minute the offending odor in your home has been replaced by a delightful scent. Magic, right? Not quite...

A good air freshener is about much more than the fragrance. "We know that the scent that's being left behind and the ambience that it creates is a big reason that people use the air freshener category. But the other side of that is odor elimination." Morgan Brashear, Febreze senior scientist, explains, "Look for an air freshener that actually has ingredients in there purposefully designed to eliminate odors. For Febreze, we have four powerhouse odor-elimination technologies that we've formulated into the product that don't just mask the odors; they actually do trap them, neutralize them, eliminate them." 

Here's where we get into the science of these key ingredients in Febreze. "The first odor eliminator is cyclodextrin—it is a starch ring derived from corn and potatoes, and it is shaped like a doughnut. What it does is actually trap odors in the center of the doughnut and locks them away so you cannot smell them anymore. It is used in Febreze for the purpose of odor elimination, but it is used in a lot of different industries for a lot of different purposes."

Another odor-elimination technology Febreze utilizes is a lot more familiar to the average person—citric acid. Yep, the very same that is found in lemons and other citrus fruits. "It's going to be your pH neutralizer," Brashear explains, "so it's going to bring odors to a pH of 7, which is the pH of water and doesn't smell. You might be familiar with this concept if you've ever eaten a particularly fishy meal and squeezed a lemon on it to neutralize the fishy taste. That's the same thing citric acid does to odors in our products."

The result? No more fishy smell floating around your home.

What are air fresheners made of, and are there any ingredients that should be avoided?

People are often surprised to discover that Febreze's formulations are actually water-based!

In fact, Brashear shares, "You'll see with our new Febreze LIGHT line, we've made the middle of the label completely transparent, allowing you to see the water-based formula firsthand."

Image by Hannah Schwob

When it comes to getting the product into the air, Febreze sprays use a 100% natural nitrogen propellant rather than a flammable propellant like butane or propane. Nitrogen is a natural part of the air we breathe and provides a safer way to dispense a fine mist into the air without VOCs.

Febreze's first, second, and third priorities are your safety, so every single ingredient is tested and determined to be safe for use in the home, including around kids and pets. This means they have a comprehensive "no, no, no" list of ingredients that includes things like formaldehyde, phthalates, and more.

As for the "yes, yes, yes" list? Search the Smart Label website for your favorite product to find out what's inside before you buy.

How do I choose a fragrance that will support my well-being?

It turns out, there's more to fragrances than meets the nose.

First, consider how much fragrance you're looking for. Brashear shares, "We know that consumers fall on a spectrum of what kind of scent intensity they want or that they feel they are able to handle. So, for the people who want the very bold fragrances, we have our Unstoppables collection, people who just want normal levels of freshness we have our entire base lineup, and for the folks that want or need a very light fragrance because of sensitivities or preferences, we have our new Febreze LIGHT collection. It still has all of our odor elimination technology, which means you don't need to rely on a heavy scent to address odors in the home."

When it comes to the fragrance itself, there's no one-size-fits-all answer. Scent is highly personal—it plays a critical role in the human experience, and memories of fragrances are longer-lasting and more detailed than memories created from other senses.

Start by considering where you're going to use the fragrance and how you want to feel in that space. Whether it's the Febreze LIGHT Sea Spray to remind you of a childhood spent by the beach, a holiday scent that makes an appearance every December, or lavender to promote calm, your fragrance choices can take you back to a happy place, set the scene, or even help to reduce stress.    

Febreze LIGHT PLUG Lavender

Start eliminating odors and soothing your soul with the scent of Febreze LIGHT PLUG Lavender. Refresh your favorite rooms and enjoy this herbal scent without any heavy perfumes.

Febreze also offers the more traditional floral and fruity fragrances, as well as rotating seasonal fragrances around fall and holidays. And if you're looking for something unique, Brashear's personal favorite comes from the recently launched Origins collection with Wood, Forest, and Ocean. "The Wood fragrance is hands-down one of my favorite scents because it has that really rich oud undertone, which just smells so luxurious to me."

How are ingredients tested for safety?

If you're concerned about the ingredients in your air freshener, look for brands that undergo rigorous safety testing and are transparent about ingredients. At Febreze, Brashear told us, there's an entire subcategory of the organization called the Global Product Stewardship who conducts this testing.

"Their priority is to assess every single ingredient on an individual level and then at a product level. That includes how the individual ingredient reacts in different situations but also how all of those ingredients react when they're blended together. And they don't just look at it from a single point of view." This means every ingredient is tested in the context of its concentration in the product, how the product is used, how the body is exposed to it, and dozens of other scenarios based on deep consumer use understanding.

Image by Hannah Schwob

In addition, Febreze recognizes that a lot of air freshener users are also pet owners and a lot of them ask important questions like, "Is Febreze safe for pets?" Therefore, they have a group of on-staff veterinary toxicologists that review all Febreze products for the safety of pets. "There are additional routes of exposure for pets, they might walk across it and get it on their paws, which have a different sensitivity to human skin, they might lick it, they might roll around in it—all of those things need to be taken into consideration."

Interestingly, this testing is just as important for nature-derived ingredients as it is for human-made molecules. Febreze sources fragrance ingredients directly from nature when it makes the most sense, but that simply isn't always the case.

"There is an idea that natural is always better, but there are lots of situations where there are naturally occurring allergens or toxins that you would never want to put into a product. So, whether it's sourced from nature, whether it's created by people, every ingredient goes through the same process of safety testing."

The final word.

Compost, cooking, body odor, bathrooms—it's inevitable that malodors (the fancy name for stinky smells) are going to creep into our homes and, unfortunately, they can be responsible for increased feelings of depression, fatigue, or even stress-related ailments like headaches.

Look for an air freshener that uses odor elimination technologies, a water-based formula, and a 100% natural propellant. The people at Febreze put safety first, so you can feel good about getting rid of bad smells. And remember, there's a world of options, so choose a fragrance that sets the right mood, and find a fragrance intensity level that suits you and your family.

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