Are Electric Air Fresheners Safe?

Electric air fresheners have become increasingly popular over the years for conveniently keeping indoor air smelling fresh. Typically powered by electricity or batteries, these products work by heating and dispersing scented oils, gels, or other fragrances into the air at regular intervals. While electric air fresheners can effectively mask odors in bathrooms, kitchens, and other rooms, concerns have been raised about the potential safety issues associated with using them.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll examine how electric air fresheners work, the possible health and fire risks, safety tips for consumers, and some safer alternatives to consider.

How Do Electric Air Fresheners Work?

Electric air fresheners use electrical current to heat and diffuse oil-based fragrances into the surrounding air. There are a few main types and methods:

  • Plug-in air fresheners have an electrical heating element that warms scented oil contained in a cartridge or wick. The heat helps disperse the fragrance into the air continuously or at intervals.
  • Battery-powered air fresheners use replaceable batteries to run a small fan that blows air through a scent cartridge to spread the fragrance.
  • Air fresheners with built-in fans use an electric fan and vents to circulate and disperse the fragrances around the room.
  • Some models have motion sensors to activate fragrance release when someone enters the room. Others have light sensors to turn on only at night.

No matter the type, all electric air fresheners rely on heating, blowing, or diffusing scented chemicals into the indoor air to mask odors and provide fragrance. The scents typically come from essential oils, synthetic fragrances, or a combination of both.

Potential Safety Risks of Electric Air Fresheners

While air fresheners can make indoor air smell fresher, there are some potential safety issues to consider with electric models:

Fire Hazard

A major concern is the potential fire hazard posed by the heating elements in plug-in air fresheners. Any electrical device that generates heat has the risk of overheating, malfunctioning, or being left on too long.

Several studies and reported incidents have highlighted fire dangers associated specifically with plug-in air fresheners. For example, a 2012 study found over 200 fires in homes linked to air fresheners over a 6-year period. The majority were caused by cord and plug issues.

Leaving air fresheners plugged in 24/7 also heightens the fire risk. The constant electrical current can lead to overheating of the fragrance oils, wicks, or plastic housing. Manufacturers typically warn against leaving plugged in continuously for this reason.

Inhalation Hazards

Another safety issue relates to potential inhalation hazards from air freshener emissions. When heated, fragrance oils and gels release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the surrounding air. VOCs include chemicals like formaldehyde, benzene, and others.

Long-term inhalation exposure to VOCs may be linked to headaches, lung irritation, and other health effects. The risks are highest for babies, children, pregnant women, and pets, who are most vulnerable.

Some studies have found higher concentrations of VOCs in homes that use air fresheners frequently. Especially in smaller, enclosed rooms with poor ventilation, these emissions can build up to problematic levels.

Allergies and Asthma

The fragrances in air fresheners themselves can also provoke allergic reactions and asthma symptoms in some individuals. This is especially true for scented products using synthetic phthalate-based fragrances.

Certain natural essential oils may also trigger headaches, asthma attacks, wheezing, and other problems in those with fragrance sensitivities or respiratory conditions. For example, eucalyptus and peppermint oils can irritate airways.

Hormone Disruption

Research indicates that some chemicals emitted by air fresheners act as endocrine disruptors that influence hormone regulation and development.

For instance, phthalates found in synthetic fragrances have been linked to reproductive and developmental issues. Young children may be most susceptible to these hormone-altering effects.

Toxic Ingredients

In addition to phthalates, some air fresheners contain other potentially toxic ingredients like formaldehyde, benzene, and phenol.

Testing has revealed the presence of these harmful chemicals in certain car, home, and office air freshener brands. When inhaled regularly in confined indoor spaces, they can pose health risks.

Tips for Using Electric Air Fresheners Safely

Despite the potential downsides, many people still opt to use electric air fresheners in their homes to control odors. Here are some tips to minimize the risks when using them:

  • Unplug plug-in air fresheners when not in use rather than leaving them plugged in continuously. Only use for the time needed to deodorize the air.
  • Keep out of reach from children and pets to prevent accidental ingestion or burns. Place up high and out of curious hands.
  • Open windows or run fans while in use and for a period after to circulate fresh air. Avoid overuse in poorly ventilated rooms.
  • Read labels and avoid products listing phthalates, formaldehyde, benzene, and other toxic chemicals in the ingredients.
  • Follow all manufacturer instructions for safe placement, cleaning, cartridge replacement, etc. Discontinue use if issues arise.
  • For people with asthma or allergies, choose unscented or fragrance-free air freshening options instead of scented ones.
  • Test in small doses first if using essential oil air fresheners, and discontinue use if any irritation occurs.
  • Consider safer placement like up high or in corner rather than at nose/face level in breathing zone.

Healthier Alternatives to Electric Air Fresheners

For those concerned about the potential health and fire hazards of electric air fresheners, there are some safer natural options to consider:

  • Open windows and doors to regularly circulate fresh outdoor air inside. This also dilutes and removes odors.
  • Place bowls of baking soda around rooms to help absorb odors naturally without any scent added.
  • Houseplants can purify indoor air by absorbing some pollutants. Some great choices are aloe vera, English ivy, peace lilies.
  • Essential oil diffusers release pure essential oils into the air without heat. They still introduce VOCs, so use cautiously.
  • Simmering stovetop pots with cinnamon sticks, citrus peels, vanilla or other natural scents.
  • Natural deodorizing sprays can be made at home with ingredients like vinegar, lemon juice, essential oils.
  • Rechargeable/battery powered air fresheners avoid fire risks associated with plug-in models. But still emit VOCs.
  • Using motion sensors or timers to minimize how often air fresheners activate can help reduce VOC levels.

Conclusion: Weighing Risks and Benefits

Electric air fresheners provide a convenient way to keep indoor air smelling fresh, but potential fire and health hazards exist. The risks can be minimized by following safety precautions, avoiding overuse, and using more natural options when possible.

For those with asthma, allergies, or sensitivities, completely avoiding scented air fresheners may be the safest approach. Pregnant women and parents of young children should also take caution with air freshener chemicals that may act as hormone disruptors or irritants.

While electric models present some risks, the health effects depend greatly on the individual, product ingredients, usage amount, and ventilation. By educating yourself on the pros and cons, you can make the most informed choice for your home.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are plug-in air fresheners safe to leave plugged in 24/7?

No, it is generally not recommended to leave plug-in air fresheners plugged in continuously 24/7. Doing so can pose a serious fire hazard if the heating element overheats. Leaving plugged in also allows VOC emissions to build up to higher levels over time in a room. It is much safer to only use plug-in air fresheners intermittently as needed.

Do air fresheners really cause asthma attacks?

Yes, air fresheners can trigger asthma attacks and breathing issues in those with asthma or fragrance sensitivities. The fragrances, essential oils, and VOCs emitted into the air can irritate airways. Those with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma should avoid using strongly scented air fresheners or at least open windows for ventilation when in use.

Are battery-powered air fresheners safer than plug-in models?

Generally, yes. Battery-powered air fresheners avoid some of the fire risks associated with plug-in models because there is no electrical heating element. However, battery air fresheners still release VOCs, fragrances, and chemicals into the air which could irritate airways. But without the added concern of fire, they can be a safer option if air freshening is desired.

What household items make safe air fresheners?

Some natural, non-toxic ways to effectively freshen air include opening windows, placing bowls of baking soda around the home, using essential oil diffusers cautiously, simmering herbs like cinnamon or citrus peels, or making DIY deodorizing sprays with ingredients like vinegar. Houseplants also naturally purify indoor air without adding scents.

Are ionic or ozone air purifiers safe?

Potentially not. Ionic air purifiers work by producing ozone gas, a lung irritant at certain concentrations. Lung damage and decreased lung function have been associated with ozone air purifiers when used at high settings or in poorly ventilated rooms. HEPA air purifiers that use physical filtration are generally considered safer than ionic models.

Nora Johnston
Nora Johnston

Hi, my name is Nora. As a busy working mom, I'm always looking for ways to keep my home clean and fresh smelling. With two kids and a husband who works construction, odors can build up quickly in our house. I've tried many different air fresheners over the years with mixed results. I'm pretty sensitive to strong artificial fragrances, so I have to be careful about choosing scents that won't give me a headache. I prefer fresher, lighter scents rather than heavy florals or perfumes. I've had good luck with some essential oil-based fresheners, but some brands seem to lose their scent too quickly. I want an air freshener that will last a while after spraying and effectively neutralize odors rather than just covering them up. Automatic spray air fresheners are nice for high-traffic areas like the bathrooms. But I worry about all the chemicals being released into the air. Lately I've been experimenting with some natural odor absorbers like baking soda, vinegar and charcoal. But it's hard to keep up with replacing them all the time.