The New-Car Smell: Happy or Hazardous?

Some things in life are mysterious. Like Spam. Or that new-car smell. And while we can’t explain the mysteries behind mystery meat, we can tell you where new cars get their smell.

New-car smell

Ah. Eau de new car. For some, it’s a smell that’s as delicious and indefinable as the feeling of driving off in a brand new automobile. For others, the overpowering scent raises some health and safety concerns.

But what causes that new-car smell exactly? Is it a cologne manufactured by automakers to entice would-be car buyers? How long does it last? Can you get rid of it?

The intoxicating facts about the new-car smell

Well, it turns out that the enticing new-car smell actually comes from the materials used in the car’s interior — paint, upholstery, plastic, adhesives, sealers, etc. These new materials, while pleasing to the eyes, release (or off-gas, if you want the technical term) a cocktail of chemicals such as bromine, chlorine, formaldehyde, and phthalates (we can’t say that last one either).

These carbon-based chemicals, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), can be toxic to human health. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) exposure to VOCs can aggravate allergy and asthma symptoms; cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; and induce headaches. It’s uncertain, however, whether or not the chemicals off-gassed in new cars’ interiors can cause long-term health-effects (or what these health-effects may be) as no published research exists on the subject.

Detox your car

The new-car smell will fade over time and with it the level of potentially harmful chemicals. But if you’d prefer to take matters into your own hands, here are a few tips to detox your car:

  • Air it out. During the first 6 months of ownership, when the new-car smell is strongest, ventilate your car whenever possible. When you drive with your windows open, you allow the accumulated contaminants to circulate (and leave your vehicle), leading to a drop in VOC levels.
  • Seek out shade. Since heat and ultraviolet light can cause VOCs to break down and become airborne, keep your car cool by parking it in the shade, using reflective sun shades, or tinting your windows.
  • Keep your car clean. When researchers tested the level of VOCs in autos (PDF), they collected dust and residue from windshields for their sample — which means that the dust in your car contains many chemicals. Weekly vacuuming and dusting will go a long way toward keeping you and your car healthy.
  • Invest in a good air filter. HEPA air filters with activated charcoal membranes can help reduce your exposure and keep your cabin air fresh and clean.

Then again, if you love that scintillating new-car smell, no need to do anything at all. Keep your windows rolled tight and your heater on for maximized new-car smell enjoyment.

Weigh in. Do you love or loath the new-car smell?

 

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