The Chemistry Behind How Febreze Works

Its active ingredient removes odor molecules from the air

This is the three-dimensional structure of beta-cyclodextrin, the active ingredient in Febreze odor eliminator. Edgar181, public domain

Does Febreze remove odors or merely mask them? Here's the chemistry behind how Febreze works, including information about its active ingredient, cyclodextrin, and how the product interacts with odors.

Febreze was invented by Procter & Gamble and introduced in 1996. The active ingredient in Febreze is beta-cyclodextrin, a carbohydrate. Beta-cyclodextrin is an 8-sugar ringed molecule that is formed via an enzymatic conversion of starch, usually from corn.

How Febreze Works

The cyclodextrin molecule resembles a doughnut. When you spray Febreze, the water in the product partially dissolves the odor, allowing it to form a complex inside the "hole" of the cyclodextrin doughnut shape. The stink molecule is still there, but it can't bind to your odor receptors, so you can't smell it. Depending on the type of Febreze you're using, the odor might simply be deactivated or it might be replaced with something nice-smelling, such as a fruity or floral fragrance.

As Febreze dries, more and more of the odor molecules bind to the cyclodextrin, lowering the concentration of the molecules in air and eliminating the odor. If water is added once again, the odor molecules are released, allowing them to be washed away and truly removed.

Some sources state that Febreze also contains zinc chloride, which would help to neutralize sulfur-containing odors (e.g., onions, rotten eggs) and might dull nasal receptor sensitivity to smell, but this compound is not listed in the ingredients, at least in the spray-on products.