Scents of Danger: Unveiling the Hidden Health Risks of Air Fresheners

Imagine opening the door to a home filled with the inviting scent of lavender or vanilla, only to realize that this pleasant aroma might mask a hidden danger. Our go-to spray and plug-in products, those little guardians of freshness, could be silently polluting our indoor sanctuary with an array of chemicals like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), phthalates, and synthetic fragrances. This isn’t just about pointing fingers; it’s about uncovering the truth behind the scents we love and the unseen consequences they carry, such as increased cancer risk. Let’s peel back the layers of fragrance and find out what’s really floating in the air of our cozy corners.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)

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VOCs such as limonene, alpha-pinene, and benzene derivatives are widely used in air fresheners due to their ability to readily evaporate and disperse fragrance. However, exposure to VOCs can lead to sensory irritation, respiratory symptoms, and lung dysfunction. Benzene is of particular concern and is classified as a Group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), meaning it is carcinogenic to humans. Long-term exposure to high levels of benzene has been linked to blood disorders, such as leukemia. The carcinogenic potential of VOCs is associated with their ability to cause DNA damage and oxidative stress, leading to mutations and disruptions in normal cellular processes.


Phthalates, used as solvents or to carry fragrance in some air fresheners, are known for their potential endocrine-disrupting properties. Their presence in indoor environments is concerning due to the potential health impacts they may have, including alteration of hormone levels and damage to the reproductive system. Several phthalates have been under scrutiny for their potential as endocrine disruptors and their association with various forms of cancer. For instance, di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) has been categorized as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B) by the IARC, primarily due to evidence linking it to liver cancer in animal studies. The carcinogenic mechanism of phthalates may involve hormonal disruption, oxidative stress, and direct DNA damage, contributing to the development of cancer.

Synthetic Fragrances

While essential oils are natural, many of these commercial products contain synthetic fragrances that contribute to indoor air pollution. Many synthetic fragrances contain compounds that can be carcinogenic. For example, styrene, found in some fragrances, is classified as a possible human carcinogen (Group 2A) by the IARC. The risk arises from the ability of these compounds to be metabolites that can interact with DNA, causing mutations that may lead to cancer. Monitoring and limiting exposure to complex mixtures of synthetic fragrances is critical due to their potential health risks, including cancer.

Aldehydes and Alcohols

Aldehydes and alcohols, used as part of fragrance mixtures or as solvents and stabilizers, can also contribute to indoor air pollution. Formaldehyde, a common aldehyde found in some air fresheners and emitted as a secondary pollutant, is a known carcinogen, and other secondary pollutants that pose health risks. Formaldehyde is classified as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1) by the IARC. It has been linked to nasal and nasopharyngeal cancers. Formaldehyde’s carcinogenicity is attributed to its ability to form DNA adducts, leading to mutations and cancer. Some alcohols used in air fresheners can metabolize into carcinogenic compounds, such as acetaldehyde, further contributing to cancer risk.

Secondary Pollutants

The interaction of air freshener constituents with ozone is a significant concern. Ozone, a naturally occurring strong oxidizer, can react with certain VOCs from air fresheners, leading to secondary organic aerosol (SOA) formation, oxidative products, and ultrafine particles. These secondary pollutants can adversely affect air quality and human health. Formaldehyde, for instance, is a well-known irritant and carcinogenic compound. SOAs and ultrafine particles can penetrate deep into the respiratory system, posing additional health risks.


In wrapping up, it’s time we reconsider our reliance on air fresheners and their kin. These seemingly harmless household staples are, in reality, a cocktail of VOCs, phthalates, and other chemicals, mingling with ozone right under our noses to spawn secondary pollutants like formaldehyde and ultrafine particles. This invisible hazard not only compromises the air we breathe but also poses serious health risks. Let’s take this knowledge as a wake-up call to re-evaluate our indoor air quality choices. By seeking healthier, more natural alternatives to scent our spaces, we can safeguard our health and ensure our homes remain a sanctuary, not a source of unseen dangers.


Kim, S., Hong, S., Bong, C., & Cho, M. (2015). Characterization of air freshener emission: the potential health effects. The Journal of toxicological sciences, 40 5, 535-50 .

Liu, X., Mason, M., Krebs, K., & Sparks, L. (2004). Full-scale chamber investigation and simulation of air freshener emissions in the presence of ozone. Environmental science & technology, 38 10, 2802-12 .

Nørgaard, A. W., Kudal, J. D., Kofoed-Sørensen, V., Koponen, I. K., & Wolkoff, P. (2014). Ozone-initiated VOC and particle emissions from a cleaning agent and an air freshener: risk assessment of acute airway effects. Environment international, 68, 209-218.

Hauser, R., & Calafat, A. M. (2005). Phthalates and human health. Occupational and environmental medicine, 62(11), 806-818.


Protect Your Family from the Hidden Hazards in Air Fresheners (NRDC report)
Chemical In Many Air Fresheners May Reduce Lung Function (NIH report)
Candles and Incense as Potential Sources of Indoor Air Pollution: Market Analysis and Literature Review (EPA report)

April 8, 2024

Categories: Cancer, Categories: Environmental Medicine

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