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Air toxifiers - Oops, I mean air fresheners


Every day millions of people use air fresheners in their homes and workplaces to mask smells they don’t like or to just surround themselves with a pleasant odour, but are they doing more harm than good? We all assume air fresheners are safe; they must be because they are on the supermarket shelf, right? Unfortunately I have discovered that is not the case and I am kind of angry. Yet again, I can’t believe the government allows products, many of which include ingredients which have not been fully tested, to be sold to unsuspecting consumers. I figured air fresheners might be harmful when I started researching this article, but what I found is infuriating.

First of all, it is difficult to obtain a list of ingredients for air fresheners. I looked at every, and I mean every, type of product at my local supermarket and not one had any ingredients listed on the packaging or on the product itself, that includes sprays, candles, plug-ins and oils. My next option was to look at websites of the companies which produced these air fresheners. That was almost as fruitless, with the company that makes the Glade products, SC Johnson, having the hide to point you to an ingredients list which has omitted the majority of ingredients. Their ingredients list looks like this: Propellants - Isobutane and Propane, Fragrants -‘will be added soon’, Carriers - Acetone, Isoalkanes. I can assure you that air fresheners have a hell of a lot more ingredients than that.

I still can't believe that we are allowed to buy products which have no ingredients on the packaging and contain substances which have not been properly tested for toxicity.

Another website I visited was Proctor and Gamble who produce Ambi Pur and Febreze products. They had no ingredients so I emailed them and they gave me another website to refer to which did list most ingredients, but only had ‘fragrance’ for the smells-so-nice ingredients. So what is in the fragrance - who knows? If we don’t know what these ingredients are it is likely the goverment organisations supposed to protect us (the consumer) probably don’t either. The last site I visited was for Airwick, made by Reckitt Benchiser which is a great example of greenwashing as the site is a lovely green colour with flowers and product names such as “Vanilla and Soft Cashmere, Frangipani and Mango Paradise”. So, what did I find out about those ingredients that were actually on the websites?

It may be boring to read every chemical, but I’m going to list them all, and by no means would that be all you would find in every airfreshener, some have more and some may have less, but here goes:

Alcohol, hydrogenated caster oil, dialkyl sodium sulfosuccinate, polyarcylate, hydrochloric acid, cyclodextrin, modified polydimethicone, alkanolamine, sodium hydroxide, citric acid, quaternary ammonium chloride, benzisothiazolinone (BIT), methylisothiazolinone (MTI), propylene glycol (alchohol), sorbitan oleate, sodium borate, butane, propane and good old fragrances which could be anything.

I will pick only a handful of chemicals out of the above list to tell you about as they are not all toxic and some have not been sufficiently tested so what do we know?

  • Butane is a neurotoxin, Benzisothiazolinone (BIT) causes contact dermatitis and has been banned for use in cosmetic products.
  • Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) is a group D carcinogen used in pesticides and a known neurotoxin.
  • Propylene glycol is a petroleum derivative which can cause eye and upper respiratory tract irritation and has been shown to decrease fertility and birth weights in rats.
  • Sorbitan oleate is a potential carcinogen used in pesticides; studies have shown it can cause cell mutations. One of the carriers, acetone is used as an industrial solvent and the vapours should be avoided as studies on animals have shown kidney, liver and nerve damage and increased birth defects for chronic exposure.
  • Quaternary ammonium chloride is an allergen which causes reactions when inhaled and if ingested can cause death.

Not only are these ingredients undesirable on their own, when some of them come into contact with ozone they create formaldehyde, a deadly carcinogen. Formaldehyde is also used as a preservative in some air fresheners, although this was not listed as an ingredient on the websites I visited, but it may be in the air freshener you are currently using with many tests carried out over the years, including one done by European consumer’s organization (BEUC) which found formaldehyde in 14 out of 16 scented candles tested, and in all of the electric diffusers tested.

As far as fragrance is concerned I could only glean ingredients from articles and scientific papers that had gathered research on tests done on these types of products. Some of the fragrance ingredients listed are d-limonene, which is a weak animal carcinogen and a-pinene which is a mutagen and both are respiratory irritants at higher concentrations.

These are both found in nature but at very low concentrations, in fact, the air fresheners tested had between 200 and 300 times the concentration as levels found in forests. This, again, is not an exhaustive list of ingredients, and I’m not sure how you could find out without having your own in-house scientist lurking about, because these companies won't tell us - when I sent emails I was referred to websites which don't list these ingredients.

So, here I am, and I still can’t believe that we are allowed to buy products which have no ingredients on the packaging and contain substances which have not been properly tested for toxicity. If you read the small print on air fresheners they do say to not spray near your face, on your food, wash skin if it comes into contact with the product - not exactly calming my nerves. I have had a look at safe products to use and have come across ecologic air fresheners which appear to be made of 100% natural oils and water and can be sourced from Naturally Safe, but when in doubt, open the windows and let some fresh air in, or pick some fresh jasmine flowers for a truly natural, non-toxic fragrance and breathe easy.

For more information:


Dionne Lister was born and raised in Sydney and apart from some minor overseas travel hasn’t moved anywhere else. She met her husband through surfing however has had no time for that lately because of her two young children, kindly bestowed upon her by said husband.

She is sensible and works to earn money, however loves writing in her spare time and wishes, as most creative people do, that she could earn her living from such a past-time. Dionne hopes her articles are informative and entertaining and would love some adoring fan-mail ;-)

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    Fin says:

    This was precisely the answers I'd been searching for. Amazing blog. Incredibly inspirational! Your posts are so helpful and detailed. The links you feature are also very useful too. Thanks a lot :)

    8th December 2011 . 11 years ago
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    Laura says:

    Not to mention that some of these air fresheners are so strong that they nearly knock you over with their pungency! Good article, Dionne. Thank you for the info!

    22nd November 2011 . 12 years ago
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    Kailee says:

    Yup, that'll do it. You have my appercitaoin.

    8th November 2011 . 12 years ago