Last Updated on May 28, 2022 by The Filtery Staff
Back in 2009, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) did a study on cleaning supplies used in California Schools and found 89 airborne contaminants in Febreze Air Effects.
These contaminants included toxins like acetaldehyde (a carcinogen, irritant, and more) and other aldehydes, BHT (a neurotoxin, endocrine disruptor, and eye & lung irritator), 1,3-dichloro-2-propanol (used in flame retardants and linked to cancer), and more.
Unfortunately, we can’t find that original study online anymore… Is it because Febreze has changed their formulations? Perhaps. That part is unclear, but when so many other fragrance products are filled with carcinogens, allergens, volatile organic compounds, and more… Well, we’re naturally curious about Febreze!
So, that’s why we’re investigating in this famous room and fabric spray in this article.
Is Air Freshener Toxic to Humans?
First things first: Febreze does not actually clean your air. It just covers up “bad” smells with “good” smells and makes it seem cleaner.
The second thing to note here is that there is very little regulation on like air fresheners, candles, and other household cleaning products. Not only are companies legally allowed to hide known toxins in their products (although that is starting to change with recent California legislation!), but there is almost no safety testing required for these types of products and their ingredients.
You can read more about the concerns with air fresheners in general right here.
Is Febreze Toxic?
It’s worth noting that when you look up Febreze products in the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) database of household products, their product scores range from C to F. C is “just okay,” while an F is the worst score a product can get. EWG scores shouldn’t always be taken as gospel, but they do provide a good general idea of a brand or product as a whole.
A first look at the back label of Febreze products tells us a couple of things:
Some of the products advertise things like “No Dyes,” “No Phthalates,” and “No Formaldehyde.” Okay, that’s a good thing! We’re glad to see they at least took out a few of the worst offenders.
But then… Most of the bottles also say things like “don’t spray product in eyes” and “inhaling the contents can be harmful or fatal.” Uhhh… okay??? Let’s keep digging.
Febreze Ingredient Investigation
You probably know Febreze best for its signature linen spray, but the brand now carries a lot of different types of products which come in a variety of different scents. These products include:
- Fabric Sprays
- Air Sprays
- Car Air Fresheners
- Wax Melts
- Unstopables Collaborations (You can read more about whether or not Downy Unstopables are toxic right here.)
- Pet Odor Eliminators
- “Light” Air and Fabric Sprays
- Febreze “Essentials”
- Febreze “Small Spaces”
Since there are SO many different Febreze products, we’re going to start by looking at one of their flagship ones: Febreze Fabric Refresher in Linen & Sky. Below is the spray’s list of ingredients. The ones to which we’ve added *asterisks* are the ones that have been shown to cause health concerns.
This ingredient is A-Okay with us!
Alcohol is used in lots of different products as an antimicrobial, masking agent, viscosity controller, in addition to other functions. It is not considered toxic at these levels and can even help prevent things like mold and bacteria growth.
This ingredient is often used as a stabilizer and masking agent. (Masking agents are used to over up some less-ideal-smelling ingredients.) This ingredient is not considered toxic either.
PEG-60 Hydrogenated Castor Oil*
The first three ingredients look good, but this is where things start to turn. Four out of the five next ingredients listed (with “fragrances” being the exception) are called ethoxylated ingredients. In order to make these types of ingredients, you have to use ethylene oxide (an irritant, carcinogen, and possible endocrine disruptor) and 1,4-dioxane (a carcinogen). Unfortunately, ethoxylated ingredients like PEG have been found to be contaminated with these two toxins.
Anytime you see “PEG,” “PEI,” or ingredients that contain “eth” in them, that usually means it’s been ethoxylated. Realistically, these ingredients are all over the place, and they’re practically impossible to avoid completely. So we recommend just trying to reduce your exposure to them by avoiding them when you can!
See above regarding ethoxylated ingredients.
Oohhh, fragrances. Here at The Filtery, this ingredient drives us a little nuts. Because of what some call the “fragrance loophole,” U.S. law allows companies to hide almost 4,000 different chemicals under the word “fragrance.” Some of these ingredients are safe and non-toxic, while others include phthalates, other endocrine disruptors, carcinogens, VOCs, allergens, and other known toxins. For this reason, we try to avoid the word “fragrance” at all costs (and it’s not easy—this “ingredient” is everywhere!).
To read more about this fragrance loophole, check out this article.
PEG-11 Methyl Ether Dimethicone*
See above regarding ethoxylated ingredients.
See above regarding ethoxylated ingredients.
Unfortunately, there is limited data about this chemical, but there is some suspicion it could be an asthmagen sensitizer, which means it could cause/trigger asthma. This ingredient isn’t as concerning as some of the others, but it’s not a great one either.
Used as a preservative, this ingredient is a known irritant and skin sensitizer (which is something that triggers an immune response and paves the way for future allergies). This along with other isothiazolinones can cause contact dermatitis and/or exacerbate other skin conditions like eczema.
Similar to citric acid (like what’s found in lemons and oranges), this ingredient is considered safe.
A kind of salt, this ingredient is also considered non-toxic.
As you can see, 7 out of the 12 ingredients in Febreze Linen & Sky Fabric Refresher cannot be considered safe, healthy, or non-toxic.
When investigating some of the other products Febreze offers, a lot of them use a very similar-looking ingredient list. There are a few additional ingredients of concern depending on the product, though. For example, Febreze uses paraffin wax, synthetic wax, and “wax blends” in their candles and wax melts. Burning paraffin in your home releases a toxic chemical combination called BTEX and is like burning fossil fuels in your home. You can read more about that here.
Are Febreze “Light” Products Better?
Febreze does have a collection of “Light” products, which they advertise as “light on scent, big on freshness.” These products are targeted toward those customers who find Febreze’s regular products too strong or irritating…
So these should have cleaner ingredients, right?
If you look at the ingredient lists of these “Light” products, they’re very similar to the standard ones. Toxic ingredients include:
- Fragrances (including phthalates, VOCs, and allergens)
- Ethoxylated Ingredients
- Synthetic waxes
- and more
Now, do they use LESS of these ingredients in their “Light” versions than in the standard ones? Possibly! Febreze doesn’t share formulas or ratios that would give us that answer. But if that was the case, then, hey, you could just buy an extra spray bottle, dilute your regular Febreze spray to get the “Light” version, and save some money!
Is Febreze “Essentials” Collection Non-Toxic?
Another one of Febreze’s sub-collections include “Essentials” sprays, which are free from artificial fragrances and use essential oils instead.
While this is certainly BETTER, these sprays still include a list of other problematic ingredients (benzisothiazolinone, ethoxylated ingredients, etc.), so we unfortunately can’t recommend these sprays either.
Okay, So What About the “Fragrance-Free” Spray?
You have to watch out for “unscented” and “fragrance-free” products because they are actually still allowed in include “fragrance” in their formulations. Many of the 4,000 ingredients allowed under the “fragrance loophole” are actually masking agents, which means they cover up the scents of other ingredients in the product. So always make sure you check the label for these types of products!
Febreze’s Fragrance-Free spray actually does not contain “fragrance,” which is a good sign. However, just like with the “Essentials” products, we still can’t call this spray non-toxic since all of those other problematic ingredients are still included.
Does Febreze Contain Formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde has been linked to everything from skin irritation to asthma to cancer. As mentioned earlier, some Febreze products now explicitly state that they’re made without formaldehyde. But even products that don’t contain formaldehyde as an ingredient can contain what are called formaldehyde-releasers. DMDM hydantoin is an example of a formaldehyde-releaser that’s commonly used in shampoo (you can read more about that here).
We searched a number of Febreze products for several different formaldehyde-releasers and didn’t find any. So although we can’t say it with absolute positivity, you probably don’t have to worry about formaldehyde in Febreze.
What About My Pets?! Is Febreze Toxic to Dogs or Cats?
Although it’s not always the case, when something is dangerous to humans, it’s also likely to be dangerous to other animals. The way we see it, the above concerns about human health are also applicable to pets and we therefore cannot call Febreze “non-toxic” for your pets.
On the back of Febreze products, there is a very clear disclaimer that reads: “KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN AND PETS.” Of course, this disclaimer is on a lot of products, and that’s mostly because children and pets don’t always know not to actually ingest the product, which of course poses a much bigger risk to health than breathing in a small amount of Febreze at a time when using it normally. (If your pet actually does drink/ingest any Febreze products, you should call your vet immediately.)
But even when Febreze is used as directed and sprayed normally, babies, children, and pets are often more at risk for negative effects simply because their bodies are smaller.
What is a Safe Alternative to Febreze?
Luckily, there are plenty of brands that are using safer ingredients for their home fragrance products… and we’ve already done the research for you!
- For our recommendations for Febreze plug-in alternatives and car air fresheners, check out this article. (Scent Fill is our favorite for plug-ins.)
- For non-toxic room and linen spray, check out this article. (Grow Fragrance is our favorite for scented sprays and Force of Nature is our pick for an actual odor-eliminator.)
- For non-toxic candles to use instead of Febreze, click here.
Other Non-Toxic Ways to Freshen Your Air
Instead of just covering up the smell in your home, you can truly freshen it up instead! Here are a few simple ways to do that:
Open the windows: According to the EPA, indoor air can actually be MORE polluted than outdoor air, first because of the sheer amount of VOCs and other chemicals in our homes, and second, because of how stagnant indoor air is. So when it’s a nice day out, consider opening up the windows and getting that air flowing!
Use an air purifier: Indoor air pollutants can’t be avoided completely, which is one reason why we almost always recommend getting an air filter/purifier. (This is especially important during times when you can’t really open the windows—like in the winter.) Molekule and Dyson are good brands to consider.
Use an air deodorizer: Using an odor-absorbing product like this one from Attitude can help actually remove bad smells from your air as well.
Use vodka or white vinegar on couches and linens: These are two natural purifiers that you can dilute in a spray bottle and then spray on things like sofas, rugs, clothing, and more. You can even include a few drops of a favorite essential oil if you want!
Keep it clean: VOCs and other contaminants like to make themselves at home in things like dust particles, so simply cleaning your home regularly can help to keep things fresh and reduce the amount of toxins living with you.
Lastly, if air fresheners are a problem in your workplace, you can talk to your boss about implementing a fragrance-free workplace. With so many people experiencing sensitivities to these types of chemicals, scent-free workplaces are becoming much more common!
Conclusion: Is It Bad to Breathe In Too Much Febreze?
Everyone is different. Some people with conditions like asthma, eczema, auto-immune conditions, cancer, multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), and chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS), are more likely to have a negative reaction to even a small amount of Febreze.
Other individuals may not react to Febreze in a negative way (and may even really like the smell!), but because of the carcinogens, VOCs and allergens in Febreze products, it’s not good for anyone to breathe in.
We recommend checking out the articles linked above for our full lists of favorites!
Image Credit: Giorgio Trovato