Is That New Car Smell Actually Toxic?

Car dashboard.

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New cars are full of exciting features and benefits, including that enticing “new car smell.” While the scent of a new car may seem pleasant, it could be putting your health at risk by exposing you to several harmful chemicals.

This guide will explore where the “new car smell” comes from and how to protect yourself against its origins.

What Causes the “New Car Smell?”

A new car’s scent comes from a mixture of chemicals released or “off-gassed” from several components of the car’s interior. These chemicals are volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Various materials, including flooring, fabrics, plastics, and household items can absorb VOCs.

During the car manufacturing process, VOCs get into different car parts, from the steering wheel to the seat fabric. Over time, the car components slowly release VOCs, though products tend to off-gas the most right after manufacturing. This immediate release of VOCs gives new cars their distinct smell.

While many household products can off-gas VOCs, it is particularly concerning when car parts release these compounds because the small, enclosed vehicle interior creates higher concentrations that could be harmful.

Car dashboard with wood paneling.

Types of VOCs Found in Cars

Auto manufacturers use chemical compounds to create various car parts, such as trimming, carpeting, paints, adhesives, fabrics, rubbers and sealants. Among other uses, these substances keep colors bright, control flexibility, and limit burning. While many chemicals are necessary for manufacturing and harmless in small amounts, others can be dangerous VOCs.

A few toxic chemicals used in vehicles include:

  • Bromine: This chemical is commonly used in flame retardants to make plastics less flammable, but it has been associated with thyroid problems, learning impairment and other health challenges.
  • Lead: Sometimes used as an additive in older plastics, lead has been associated with several adverse physical effects and behavioral changes.
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC): PVC is a common chemical found in interior fabrics and plastics known to cause various health issues and environmental challenges.

Other known carcinogens or allergens, including antimony, chromium, arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and tin are found in cars. Many VOCs can lead to various health issues, including:

  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Allergic reactions
  • Eye, skin and respiratory irritation

High exposure to these chemicals links to severe health issues. While a new car may not carry extreme levels of these dangerous chemicals, it’s best to avoid them as much as possible.

5 Ways to Reduce Exposure to VOCs

As pleasant as the “new car smell” may be, you’ll want to ensure safety for you and your loved ones by reducing your exposure to VOCs as much as possible. A few ways to increase protection include:

1. Improve Ventilation

Since VOCs release in higher amounts the first few months after the car is manufactured, you’ll want to keep your vehicle well-ventilated to help them dissipate quickly. Roll your windows down, open your sunroof and cycle in fresh air rather than recirculating air within the cabin.

2. Maintain the Interior

Keeping your car clean and functioning will improve the air quality within your vehicle. VOCs stick to dust, so run a clean rag over surfaces frequently and consider upgrading your air filters. High-quality air filters will help reduce your exposure to VOCs, so change your filters regularly to ensure they perform properly.

3. Purchase From Responsible Manufacturers

Many auto manufacturers are changing their processes to produce cars free from chemicals like PVC and brominated flame retardants. Look for vehicles with low-VOC interiors to protect yourself and your loved ones from harmful chemicals and irritants.

4. Keep Your Car Cool

Heat speeds up the off-gassing process, increasing the concentration of VOCs in your car. You can preserve your car’s materials and decrease the release of VOCs by parking your car in the shade or garage to keep it cool.

5. Invest in Updates

Instead of buying a new car and increasing exposure to harmful toxins, try adding new features or updates to help your vehicle feel fresh and exciting again. Air fresheners can be a valuable addition, but be cautious of sprays that advertise the “new car smell.” These fragrances can still contain potentially harmful VOCs and airborne irritants.

Stay Safe by Learning About VOCs

Exposure to VOCs is inevitable and often comes with low risk. Still, limiting how often you come in contact with these chemicals can greatly benefit your health. Learning how the products you use every day are made empowers you to protect your health and the environment.

Car dashboard, leather interior.

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