You’ve likely seen those TV commercials in which someone plugs in an air freshener and is magically transported to a field of flowers, a glistening waterfall, or a pine forest—places that are far from the stresses of one’s day. Although these commercials appear to feature nothing more than a soothing fragrance, there’s a lot more to it.
In actuality, traditional plug-in air fresheners are more than just pleasant scents. Underneath the jasmine flowers or lilies lie chemicals you likely can’t pronounce, ones that can potentially, and unfortunately, harm one’s health or the well-being of their family members.
If you’re looking to do an overhaul on your household products, a good place to start is with non-toxic plug-in air fresheners. Making the switch is pretty darn easy (it’s as simple as swapping one plug-in for another!) and it’s something that you can enjoy in your home every day.
Read on to learn more about the ingredients in standard air fresheners and how can you replace those with ones that are better for you.
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Are Air Fresheners Bad for You?
The short answer? Air fresheners made with toxic chemicals aren’t exactly the best thing to be inhaling in your home. It’s up to every individual person to weigh the risks of anything you bring into your living spaces (maybe you just can’t part with your fave Summer Rain-scented plug-in), but luckily, there are plenty of alternatives out there that can be better for your overall health.
Toxins in Air Fresheners
Like many household and personal care products, companies tend to include chemicals in air fresheners that make the manufacturing process easier and are typically less expensive. Although these chemicals are more convenient, they’re not exactly ideal for people who then breathe in the chemicals after using the air fresheners in their homes.
One 2017 study in Building and Environment reported that 20% of the U.S. population has experienced not-so-great health effects from air fresheners.
What Is Indoor Air Pollution?
Air fresheners and plug-ins can cause something called indoor air pollution. Many people don’t know that indoor air pollution can actually be worse than outdoor air pollution! Since, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), we spend around 90% of our lifetime indoors, indoor air quality is an important aspect of our homes to consider.
Traditional air fresheners, personal care items, and cleaning products, each with scents and chemicals, can waft into the air, decreasing air quality and resulting in health problems.
Are Plug-In Air Fresheners Toxic?
Traditional plug-in air fresheners (the ones you’ve likely seen lining grocery store shelves since the 1990s) do contain a fair share of toxic chemicals.
Chemicals of Concern in Air Fresheners
According to MADE SAFE®, the organization that has helmed America’s first nontoxic product seal, traditional air fresheners can include the following less-than-desirable chemicals:
Benzene: Known for its sweet smell, this chemical comes from crude oil, coal, or natural gas.
Formaldehyde: That same liquid used to preserve animals seen in biology classes makes its way into air fresheners and other household products. Also known for its industrial germicide and fungicide properties, the National Cancer Institute lists it as a carcinogen.
Toluene: A chemical produced during gasoline manufacturing, toluene can be used as a solvent and is frequently found in aviation and automotive fuels.
Xylene: This chemical has a sweet scent that naturally occurs in petroleum and coal and can be found in aviation fuel, gasoline, and cigarette smoke.
What Are Phthalates? And VOCs?
Even though they’re often found in plastics and vinyl flooring to increase durability, phthalates are chemicals that can also be discovered in personal care products like soap and shampoo. In air fresheners, phthalates are used to make fragrances last longer.
People use the acronym “VOC” to refer to something that’s a “volatile organic compound.” It’s a blanket term for lots of different types of chemicals that can be easily turned into gas that becomes vapor in the air—this results in that indoor air pollution that isn’t so great for the lungs and heart. VOCs are also harmful to the environment.
One 2011 study in Environmental Health Perspectives tested 25 different home products that included air fresheners and detected an astounding 133 different VOCs. Close to half the products generated at least one of 24 carcinogenic pollutants. You can read more about VOCs here.
Air Freshener Poisoning Symptoms
Air fresheners can bring about a number of health concerns, whether they’re inhaled, make contact with the skin, or are ingested. These poisoning symptoms can either take place over the long-term (when breathed in or touch the skin) or in the short-term (if they’re swallowed). They can include:
- Rash and skin irritation
- Allergy symptoms
- Asthma attacks
- Hormone disruption
- Throat irritation
- Stomach upset
Are Plug-In Air Fresheners Toxic to Pets?
Since these chemicals can be harmful to humans, it should come as no surprise that they can be unsafe for our furry friends, too. In fact, they can be even tougher on their systems since their lungs and other organs are smaller than ours.
Just like us, dogs, cats, and other pets can be susceptible to symptoms like respiratory irritation, lethargy, nausea, and unfortunately, cancer. There’s also the added concern that your pets may try to ingest the liquid in the plug-in, which could sadly result in poisoning.
Should I Give Up My Plug-In Air Fresheners?
If you are moving toward an increasingly less-toxin or toxin-free lifestyle, it can be a wise decision to part with your usual plug-in air fresheners. But don’t fret! Luckily, there are tons of natural alternatives you can turn to that don’t use all those toxic ingredients.
Non-Toxic Air Fresheners: What Are Your Options?
Look beyond traditional store shelves and you’ll likely find a whole world of non-toxic air fresheners online or in natural foods stores. It’s promising that non-toxic options are also starting to be sold by nationwide retailers as well. Plug-in air freshener alternatives could also be called “mini plug-in diffusers” that emit essential oils into the air instead of chemicals.
Are There Any Safe Plug-In Air Fresheners?
Non-toxic plug-in air fresheners are undoubtedly safer to use than ones with toxic ingredients, but even natural air fresheners do come with caveats. For example, if you use a new essential oil that you haven’t used previously, you may experience a reaction anyway if you’re allergic to it. Also, some essential oils aren’t safe to release into the air if you have a pet (i.e., tea tree is poisonous to pets, even when inhaled in the air).
That’s why it’s a smart idea to do your homework before using an essential oil. Find out which ones are best to use around pets (i.e., lavender is usually safe to use around animals), and the second you start to react to a non-toxic air freshener—look for signs like coughing, irritated eyes, headache, and dizziness—unplug it and try a different oil.
5 Of the Best Non-Toxic Plug-In Air Fresheners for Your Home
With their natural mist waterless diffuser, this company turns to nebulizing technology to waft essential oil scents into the air. Plugging into any standard wall plug, you won’t need to fill this one with water over and over again. It’ll cover 100 square feet for up to four weeks.
This company crafts scent refills that fit into a traditional plug-in air freshener that’s on the market but instead only uses natural ingredients. You can even set up a subscription to regularly receive the scent refills, like Eucalyptus, Palo Santo, and Peppermint.
Putting non-toxic ingredients to work, like natural fragrance oils and maltodextrin, an ingredient found in corn that helps release scent, this brand sells “plug hubs” and accompanying “scent pods” in aromatic combos like Lemon Leaf + Thyme and Sea Salt + Aloe.
If you prefer your plug-in air fresheners to act as bonus décor touches in your home, look to Airomé, which purveys plug-in essential oil diffusers that feature decorative accents. Floral detailing? A sea-green succulent? A cute plug-in owl? They’ve got them all! And they’ll release the essential oils of your choice.
With their aromatherapy room diffuser that utilizes refill pads, the essential oils brand provides a way to enjoy their scents round-the-clock. It’s an easy way to create your own plug-in with whichever essential oils you prefer.
The Best Non-Toxic Car Air Fresheners
Everyone loves a nice-smelling car, and you can achieve that fresh scent without using toxic air fresheners.
The beloved essential oils brand also has a car diffuser you can take with you on the road. Plugging into your car’s lighter socket, it’ll warm up your favorite essential oils even when you’re away from home. Think: lavender for rush hour, lemon for an energy burst, and peppermint to relieve headaches.
This cupholder-friendly diffuser can be charged with a USB and will scent your car continuously for up to three hours on battery power or four to five hours when plugged in. It even comes with a Travel Essential Oil Blend that’s colorless in case of spills and provides focus and tummy-soothing properties if you deal with motion sickness.
For a naturally scented, and pretty, way to scent your car, consider this crystal diffuser that attaches right to a vent. Include a few drops of essential oil on the stick, put on a crystal cover, and you’ve got an eye-pleasing way to enjoy essential oil in the car.
Non-Toxic Plug-In Air Freshener Alternative
For a spray air freshener that doesn’t need to be plugged in, consider this natural brand.
These plant-based air fresheners can be spritzed around your home or in your car and don’t carry those chemicals derived from petroleum. Freshen up the air and your fabrics and feel better knowing that this company provides ingredient transparency, ranging from essential oils to hexenyl acetate, found in green tea, to alcohol that’s been naturally fermented from grains.
Choose from scents like Lavender Blossom, Citrus Cedar, Bamboo, and more.
And for more of of our favorite non-toxic air freshener sprays and organic room sprays, check out this article.
It’s true—your home really can still smell fantastic without using toxic plug-ins! Through essential oils or purchasing natural scent blends, you can diffuse non-toxic scents into the air instead of chemicals that have the power to potentially harm you, your family, and even your furry friends.
About the Author
Shelby Deering is a lifestyle writer from Madison, Wisconsin. For the past 16 years, she has contributed to national print magazines and websites, including Naturally, Danny Seo, Healthline, Good Housekeeping, Parade, USA Today, and more. In her own life, she embraces non-toxic, cruelty-free beauty and cleaning products, and when she’s not researching a “clean” shampoo or lotion to add to her daily regimen, you’ll find her walking her corgi, Dolly, running local trails, or discovering treasures at nearby flea markets.