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, and ones that can potentially (and unfortunately) can 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 harmful ingredients in conventional air fresheners and how can you replace those with ones that are better for you.
Table of Contents
- Non-Toxic Plug-In Air Fresheners at a Glance:
- Are Air Fresheners Bad for You?
- Are Plug-In Air Fresheners Toxic?
- Are Conventional Air Fresheners Toxic to Pets?
- Are There Any Safe & Non-Toxic Plug-In Air Fresheners?
- A Quick Note for Chemically-Sensitive Folks
- 5 Of the Best Non-Toxic Plug-In Air Freshener Brands for Your Home
- 5 More Non-Toxic Alternatives to Plug-In Air Fresheners
This guide contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if you choose to make a purchase.
Non-Toxic Plug-In Air Fresheners at a Glance:
- Conventional air fresheners often contain potentially toxic chemicals, including allergens, phthalates (which are endocrine disruptors), BTEX chemicals (which are carcinogenic).
- There are a few great non-toxic plug-in air fresheners and other alternatives on the market that make it easy for you switch to safer scents and improve your indoor air quality.
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 fragranced 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.
This study includes more acute effects like migraine headaches, asthma attacks, mucosal symptoms, infant illness, and breathing difficulties. It doesn’t take into account the potential longterm downstream affects of regularly inhaling endocrine disrupting chemicals, such as infertility or even cancer.
Air Fresheners and Indoor Air Pollution
Air fresheners and plug-ins (like Wallflowers or Glade) can cause 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?
Now let’s talk about the specific chemicals of concern that can be found in traditional plug-in air fresheners.
According to MADE SAFE®, the organization that has helmed America’s first non-toxic 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. It is a known carcinogen. There’s an even higher chance your air freshener may contains benzene if you’re using an aerosol spray. In recent years, lab testing has found benzene contamination in a variety of aerosol spray products, from dry shampoo to deodorant to sunscreen.
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. It is also a known carcinogen.
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. It is often found together with benzene, toluene, and ethylbenzene to group together what’s known as “BTEX” chemicals.
Phthalates: These endocrine-disrupting chemicals are commonly used in air fresheners (as well as other fragranced personal care products like soap and shampoo). In these types of goods, phthalates are commonly used to make fragrances last longer. However, you’ll never see phthalates listed on the ingredient label because they’re (legally) hidden under the term “fragrance.” Phthalates can have many serious downstream effects, including fertility problems, developmental/reproductive issues, and cancer.
Other Allergens and Mystery Ingredients: It’s not just phthalates that can be hidden under the “fragrance loophole,” however. Under U.S. law, there are about 4,000 different chemicals that manufacturers can include in their product under the simple word “fragrance” (or “parfum”).
Many of these ingredients are perfectly safe, while others of them including endocrine disruptors (like phthalates, referenced above), carcinogens, and allergens. This makes it practically impossible for consumers to take control over what they’re consuming.
Other VOCs: People use the acronym “VOC” to refer to “volatile organic compounds.” It’s a blanket term for lots of different types of chemicals that can easily vaporize at room temperature, potentially resulting in more air pollution.
It should be noted that pretty much all air fresheners (even the natural ones) have VOCs in them (that’s even how some of them work, by releasing VOCs into the air). But some VOCs are safe, while others can be toxic. (Those are the ones most people think of when they hear the term “VOC”!)
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 or in the short-term. Some of the more acute symptoms can include:
- Rash and skin irritation
- Allergy symptoms
- Asthma attacks
- Hormone disruption
- Throat irritation
- Stomach upset
Are Conventional 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 low-tox 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 some great non-toxic and natural alternatives you can turn to that don’t use all those sneaky ingredients.
Are There Any Safe & Non-Toxic Plug-In Air Fresheners?
The short answer is: yes!
Look beyond traditional store shelves and you’ll likely find a whole world of natural 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. Many plug-in air freshener alternatives could also be called “mini plug-in diffusers” that emit essential oils into the air instead of chemicals.
Non-toxic pluggable air fresheners are undoubtedly safer to use than ones with toxic ingredients, but even natural air and fabric 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). 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 get medical attention if needed. Next time, consider trying a different oil.
A Quick Note for Chemically-Sensitive Folks
Although the brands below prioritize safe, transparent ingredients and are free from things like phthalates, those who are extremely sensitive to fragrances in general may still fine them to be too strong. Ever since I became ill from mold, I am much more sensitive to fragrances (even non-toxic ones!).
Even though I do use the brands below in my home, fragrances of any kind are still too much for me sometimes, and I have to go completely fragrance-free in my home. I’ve noted which brands offer the ability to customize the strength of the scent!
5 Of the Best Non-Toxic Plug-In Air Freshener Brands for Your Home
Okay, now let’s get to it! Here are our favorite options for non-toxic and eco-friendly air fresheners that prioritize transparent ingredients and natural scents:
1. Scent Fill
Price Range: $5 (one plug-in refill) – $34 (Starter Kit). Save by signing up for a subscription.
Customizable Scent Strength? Yes
This company crafts scent refills that fit into traditional plug-ins that are on the market (such as AirWick). It’s a great alternative to Glade or Air Wick because it’s affordable and basically works the exact same way. And just like with those two brands, you can customize the amount of scent that’s released by twisting the top of the plug-in.
One thing I really like about ScentFill is that they offer both 100% natural scent options as well as safe synthetics. So if you want to stick with completely natural ingredients, you have lots to choose from, including lavender, peppermint, vanilla, juniper woods, and many more.
Or if you’re used to the more unique scents like “Pumpkin Pie,” “Blue Lava,” or “Dryer Fresh,” you can get those, too! But even their synthetic blends are phthalate-free, Prop 65 compliant, certified cruelty-free, and made in the USA.
You can even set up a subscription to regularly receive the scent refills and get a discount.
Price Range: $95-$199 (for the diffuser); $60-$65 (for the fragrance refills). You can save if you sign up for a subscription.
Customizable Scent Strength? Yes
Aera is more of a “luxury” plug-in air freshener. It comes in two sizes: their standard Diffuser (which is the one I have, pictured above on the left) and the smaller Mini Diffuser (on the right). Both are technically “plug-in” air fresheners, but the smaller one is more of your classic “Glade” alternative, whereas the larger one has to actually sit on a countertop or other surface.
These are “smart” diffusers that are very customizable. They even come with an app! You can turn the strength up or down, put them on a schedule, and more.
They have a lot of scents available, and you can sort by type (like citrus, floral, fresh, etc.) or by “mood” (like cozy, refreshed, or energized).
Price Range: $7 (auto-stix refills) – $24 (plug-in refill bundle). Save by signing up for a subscription.
Customizable Scent Strength? No
Putting non-toxic ingredients to work, Enviroscent sells “Plug Hubs” and accompanying “scent pods” in aromatic combos like Lemon Leaf + Thyme, Sea Salt + Aloe, and more. They use ingredients like like natural fragrance oils and maltodextrin, an ingredient found in corn that helps release scent.
Their scent refills come with a little pad that you just slip into the plug-in holder. Even though you can’t customize the scent strength, you can see the strength of each different scent (from one to five) on the product page before purchasing.
Since they’re all made from natural essential oils, these scents tend to be less overpowering than some of the other options.
In addition to transparent labels, Enviroscent also has a long “never list,” which includes things like formaldehyde, phthalates, and more. They’re Leaping Bunny Certified to be cruelty-free as well!
In addition to their plug-ins, they also offer scent diffuser stix and car air fresheners.
Price Range: $11-$15
Customizable Scent Strength? Yes
If you prefer your 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! With their LED lights, they can also double as a night light!
These plug-in diffusers release the essential oils of your choice. The way you can customize the scent strength is by simply choosing how many drops of essential oils you put onto the pad (which goes into the pluggable diffuser).
Since you apply the scents yourself, it’s very customizable both in terms of scents and strength.
Aromé also offers a lot of other diffusers as well, including your standard countertop diffusers, kids’ options, and car diffusers.
5. Aura Cacia
Price Range: $15
Customizable Scent Strength? Yes
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 your favorite essential oil.
Like Aromé, you can customize the strength by simply choosing how many drop of essential oils you put on the refill pad.
5 More Non-Toxic Alternatives to Plug-In Air Fresheners
If you want to go with a plug-in alternative, here are some more great options for keeping your air fresh without toxic chemicals:
A great alternative to Febreze, these plant-based air and fabric fresheners can be spritzed around your home or in your car, and they 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. They release limited edition scents each season, too!
And for more of our favorite non-toxic air freshener spray brands and organic room sprays, check out this article.
2. Non-Toxic Candles
There are no shortage of non-toxic candles on the market these days! Whether you’re looking for a pumpkin-scented candle for fall, a cozy winter candle for the holiday season, or a citronella candle to ward off the mosquitos during the summer months, there’s a non-toxic version for you out there. Made with safe scents and eco-friendly waxes like soy, coconut, beeswax, and even tallow, a candle can be a great alternative to plug-ins.
If you want a spray that will actually work to eliminate bad odors (instead of just cover them up), then you may want to check out Force of Nature.
Yes, it is an all-purpose cleaner and disinfectant, but it can also be sprayed on carpets, fabrics, and other surfaces that can’t be rinsed off in order to neutralize odors.
ATTITUDE’s powdered air purifiers actually work to absorb foul odors from the air using activated carbon, while also releasing light scents from plant-derived fragrance.
Options include Green Apple + Basil, Passion Fruit, Coriander + Olive, Pink Grapefruit, or Lavender + Eucalyptus.
Just open up the box, set it on the counter (or whatever surface needs a refresh!), and let it passively work its magic. You can adjust the level of scent that’s released using the little lever on the top.
ATTITUDE’s products are EWG Verified, vegan, and free from any harmful chemicals like phthalates, formaldehyde, etc.
5. High-Quality Air Filter
The last option for getting rid of smells and improving overall indoor air quality is to use a high-quality air filter. These are going to be a (much) higher investment compared to a simple plug-in air freshener, but they can make a huge difference in the health of everyone living in the home.
A high-quality air filter will help you deal with mold spores, smoke, off-gassing from furniture, and other contaminants that end up in your home.
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 safer alternatives and non-toxic scents into the air instead of chemicals that have the power to potentially harm you, your family, and even your furry friends.
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