What Exactly Is New Car Smell? (Is It Bad for You?)

Chemicals That Cause New Car Smell

Some people love the smell of a new car, while others despise it.
Some people love the smell of a new car, while others despise it. Flynn Larsen / Getty Images

There are two types of people: those who love new car smell and those who hate it. The ones who love it likely buy air fresheners that try to mimic the odor, while those who hate it probably got a headache just remembering the last time they experienced it. Love it or hate it, but do you know what causes it? Here's a look at the chemicals involved and whether they are bad for you.

Chemicals That Cause "New Car Smell"

Each new car has its own perfume, so to speak, depending on the materials used during manufacturing.

What you smell are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are also the culprit if you ever get a weird greasy fog inside your windshield. There may be over 100 chemicals in the mix, including poisonous benzene and formaldehyde. Toxic phthalates are also present inside new cars, but they aren't volatile, so they aren't  part of the characteristic smell.

VOCs are considered air pollutants. They are produced by off-gassing of fumes from plastics and just about every other product made from petroleum. In your car, they come from the foam in the seats, the carpet, the dashboard, solvent, and the glue used to hold everything in place. In your home, you experience the same chemicals from new carpets, varnish, paint, and plastics. People who like the odors typically associate the smell with getting something fresh and new, but that doesn't protect them from the negative effects of inhaling the scent.

How Bad Is It, Really?

It's certainly not good for you, with effects ranging from a headache, nausea, and sore throat  to cancer and immune system disorders. To some extent, the risk depends on where you live. Some countries have fairly stringent regulations governing the amount of toxic chemicals allowed in a new car.

The United States, on the other hand, does not have any air quality laws relating to new car smell, so the levels of chemicals may be much higher in an American-built vehicle.

Is There Anything You Can Do?

Car manufacturers are sensitive to the problem and try to minimize the release of toxic chemicals. After all, a displeased or dead consumer won't buy a new car, right? Both leather and fabric generate VOCs, so you can't really select an interior to minimize the smell. If you get a new car that is unbearably smelly, tell the dealership. Make sure fresh air is available for pregnant women and children, since some of the chemicals can affect development.

Most of the gases responsible for new car smell are produced during the first month or two after the car is made. There isn't anything you can do to prevent it from happening, but you can leave the windows cracked in the vehicle to air it out. Allowing air from the outside rather than recirculating it can minimize negative effects when you need to close up the car because of weather. Keeping the car in a cool garage will help, since chemical reactions occur more quickly when it's hot. If you have to park outside, choose a shady spot or put a sun shade under the windshield.

 Applying stain protectants, on the other hand, can make the smell even worse since the process adds more VOCs to the mix.

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Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "What Exactly Is New Car Smell? (Is It Bad for You?)." ThoughtCo, Jul. 5, 2016, thoughtco.com/what-exactly-is-new-car-smell-604007. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2016, July 5). What Exactly Is New Car Smell? (Is It Bad for You?). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-exactly-is-new-car-smell-604007 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "What Exactly Is New Car Smell? (Is It Bad for You?)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-exactly-is-new-car-smell-604007 (accessed November 19, 2017).