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Air fresheners have been used to mask unpleasant odors for decades. The first type developed for home use were aerosols. These products are sprayed into the air and create a fine mist of fragrance that lingers. When the use of aerosols became unpopular due to health and environmental concerns, manufacturers responded by reformulating air fresheners as scented oils, reed diffusers, solids, and gels. High-tech versions are heat activated or can automatically spray into the air throughout the day. Even the names of the fragrances have been revamped. Traditional scents such as "rose" or "lemon" have been replaced with more exotic sounding names such as "Tahitian spring mist" or "dewy citrus orchard."
Most air fresheners contain a variety of fragrances and essential oils. Fragrances are chemical compounds that have pleasant odors. Essential oils are naturally occurring oils typically obtained from plants. The oil contains the essence of the plant’s fragrance, hence the term "essential". Examples of essential oils include cinnamon oil, pine oil, and lavender oil.
Liquid air fresheners, such as plug-in refill bottles and reed diffusers, typically contain fragrances and essential oils dissolved in a solvent like isopropyl alcohol, which is also found in rubbing alcohol. The evaporation of the solvent helps carry the fragrance into the air. Solid air fresheners, such as the cone-type products, typically contain the fragrance embedded in wax. Gel products, such as the evaporating beads, allow slow evaporation that prolongs the presence of the fragrance. Aerosols sprays use compressed gas propellants like butane or propane. While many of the spray products are designed to just add fragrance to the air, others help remove odors by using disinfectants, which are chemicals intended to kill bacteria or mold. An example of one of these disinfectants is ethanol, which is also found in alcoholic beverages.
Despite their popularity, there are concerns that these products increase indoor air pollution and pose a health risk, especially with long-term exposure. Air fresheners release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air. A VOC is a type of chemical that turns into a vapor or gas easily at room temperature. Health problems are thought to occur from the chemicals in the air fresheners and from their secondary pollutants. Secondary pollutants are formed when a product’s chemicals combine with the ozone already in the air. Even when these products are used as directed, there are concerns about health problems with repeated exposure. Unintentional injuries have been reported with these products, including burns when flammable air fresheners have been ignited by a nearly flame.
Getting air freshener on the skin can cause some irritation and redness. Typically, the discomfort goes away after washing the area well. Fragrances are known to cause allergic-type skin reactions, so a rash is also possible. Small amounts of air freshener in the eye are expected to cause redness and irritation, but these effects should resolve within an hour after a thorough irrigation with water. Medical evaluation should be obtained if eyes are not back to normal about an hour after irrigation. Briefly inhaling a small amount of a spray air freshener might cause some coughing, choking, or difficulty catching the breath. These effects should get better quickly with fresh air.
Swallowing air freshener can cause toxicity ranging from minor irritation of the mouth to life-threatening effects. Swallowing some of a solid, cone-type air freshener is not likely to cause symptoms from the fragrance because it is imbedded into wax, which limits the amount that can be swallowed. Swallowing a small amount of wax is a choking hazard in young children, but is otherwise not expected to be toxic. Liquid air freshener, when swallowed in small amounts, can cause minor irritation to the mouth, nausea, and vomiting. Swallowing large amounts can cause drowsiness or intoxication. Swallowing spray air freshener can cause similar effects as the liquid types, but they are not typically swallowed in large amounts because it is difficult get a large quantity from a spray nozzle.
Of all the formulations, the evaporating beads and reed diffuser solutions have the greatest risk of serious toxicity when swallowed by children. The beads are more dangerous than other formulations because they are easy to swallow, can be swallowed in large quantities, and contain enough VOCs to cause serious effects. Symptoms can last a long time because the beads slowly dissolve in the intestine causing a prolonged release of the toxic chemicals. The diffuser solutions are dangerous to children because they are packaged with open tops, allowing large amounts of diffuser solution to be swallowed.
If you suspect someone has swallowed, inhaled, or gotten an air freshener product in the eye or on the skin, immediately check the webPOISONCONTROL® online tool for help or call Poison Control at 1-800-222-1222.
Karen D. Dominguez, PharmD
Certified Specialist in Poison Information