Dangers of plug-in air fresheners

Plug-in air fresheners have become a popular home accessory, with scents ranging from warm apple pie to fresh spring berries. According to Nature's Resource Defense Council (NRDC), around 75 per cent of American homes use some form of air fresheners, racking up more than a billion dollars of revenue for the industry.

But in recent years, plug-in air fresheners have come under attack from many health and environmental agencies.


The Endowment for Medical Research has suggested "air fresheners" should be called "air pollutants." Many brands contain known toxic chemicals. A 2002 EPA study testing plug-in air fresheners found that the fragrance chemicals in these products react with common indoor air pollutants to produce serious health hazards. Air freshener chemicals have been implicated in cancer, neurological damage, reproductive and developmental disorders. They can also aggravate or trigger asthma attacks.

Harmful Chemicals

According to the Global Campaign for Recognition of Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, these harmful chemicals have been found in air fresheners:

Benzyl alcohol: "causes respiratory problems, nausea and vomiting, a depressed central nervous system and a drop in blood pressure."

Camphor: "currently on the EPA's Hazardous Waste List ... readily absorbed through bodily tissue... irritation of the eyes, skin, nose and throat ... dizziness, confusion, nausea, twitching muscles and convulsions ... avoid inhalation of vapours"

Dichlorobenzene: "extremely toxic, a central nervous system depressant, kidney and liver poison. One of the chlorinated hydrocarbons that is long-lasting in the environment and stored in body fat. Banned in California."

Ethanol: "derived from petroleum and is carcinogenic ... toxic to the skin, respiratory, cardiovascular, developmental, endocrine, neurological and gastrointestinal systems."

Formaldehyde: "toxic if inhaled, poisonous if swallowed. skin and eye irritant."


If you are still adamant about purchasing plug-in air fresheners, use caution. Read the labels to ensure the product does not contain harmful chemicals. Ventilate the room as much as possible. Be extra sensitive to the amount of air freshener you are using around small children.


The NRDC suggests that you first try to reduce bad home odours by attacking the source, rather than masking the problem. Identify and remove bad odours. Keep windows open as much as possible. If troubling odours persist, invest in an air purifier with activated carbon filtration. As a last resort if you really must experience the scent of an ocean breeze, plan a family outing to the beach. It will be much better for you and the environment.

Healthy Air Freshners

Air fresheners need not be synthetic to produce an appealing and pleasant scent. Try adding orange, lemon or lavender essential oils to cotton balls and place throughout the house. You can also simmer spices like cinnamon and cloves in a small saucepan on the stove. These tips will leave your home smelling fresh and give you peace of mind that no harmful pollutants are being ingested.

An Industry Response

SC Johnson has issued the following statement regarding the use of its plug-in air fresheners: "... When used according to label instructions, in real-life situations, air fresheners are safe. In addition, there is no evidence supporting a significant risk to human health from the use of air fresheners under normal conditions."

The company went on to assert: "Rigorous scientific evaluations are conducted to ensure that our products meet all applicable safety standards."