Just let’s be honest: do you really enjoy the smell of vanilla or maybe you need that little plug-in to cover up the smell of not-so-clean curtains, pet’s lack of toilet manners, another burnt dinner or even worse, stale tobacco smoke?

There are many things that may want you reach for that aerosol spray or a scented candle. But in fact, most air fresheners are making you ill. Studies show that pregnant women and little babies are particularly vulnerable. Here’s why.

There are two most popular types of air fresheners: spray deodorizers, which are squirted into the air, and solid forms, which release scents continuously. Both work by emitting heavily scented chemicals which mask unwanted odors using synthetic perfumes such as musk, and other aromatic hydrocarbons to provide fragrance.

The toxic chemicals released by air fresheners –particularly those with pine, orange and lemon scents – are known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are well-proven toxins, many of which have been linked to a range of diseases and conditions when being inhaled even in low concentrations over a long period of time.

Some of these chemicals include benzene, petroleum-derived chemical, which causes cancer in animals and has been linked to leukemia; xylene, which has been linked to nausea and sick building syndrome, as well as liver and kidney damage; phenol, which can cause kidney, respiratory, neurological and skin problems;   naphthalene, a suspected carcinogen, which has been linked to blood, kidney and liver problems; and formaldehyde, a colorless, unstable gas. Inhaling formaldehyde fumes in even small amounts can cause coughing, a sore throat, and respiratory and eye problems. Formaldehyde has been linked to cancer, particularly in the nasal cavity.

According to University of California-Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, using an air freshener in a child’s room along with an air purifier that creates ozone can result in formaldehyde levels 25 percent higher than the state recommends. Also of concern are terpenes, compounds derived from plant oils that are widely used to give cleaning products and air fresheners their fruity scent.

As irritating as they are on instant contact with your eyes, nose and lungs, these chemical toxins act even worse when they are carried with bloodstream around the body. Most of them have a cumulative effect. Doctors believe that VOCs remain in the body and accumulate in placenta after each exposure to air freshener and this builds up their potency.

This potent cocktail of toxins is especially harmful to newborns. A new study by Brunel University (UK) has connected the use of air fresheners in the home with an increased risk of earache and stomach ache in babies. The study also found that new mothers suffered from more headaches and depression if they heavily relied on commonly available air fresheners to keep air pleasantly scented.

 Another study by Bristol University found that babies frequently exposed to aerosols were one fifth more likely to suffer from stomach disorders, diarrhea and cramps. And a study in Australia concluded that fumes from VOCs found in air freshener could trigger asthma attacks as well as allergic reactions such as watery eyes and skin irritation, lightheadedness and nausea.

  So what should we do to keep our homes smelling like vanilla cookies if we aren’t in mood to bake? Try cleaner versions of air fresheners. Look for non-aerosol canisters and words such as “Biodegradable”, “Plant-based”, “Formulated without synthetic fragrance”, “Hypoallergenic”, “Contains no formaldehyde/phthalates”. Green non-toxic air fresheners are made by Seventh Generation, Miessence and BioLogic (Australia).

You can also buy an all-natural body deodorant (Weleda, for example) in citrus or wild rose scent and generously spray it whenever you feel like (but avoid sage – this herb is known to diminish breast milk supply!) Most natural non-aerosol deodorants are quite concentrated, and a little squirt will last a long time.

You may also try some grandma’s recipes. Put some cloves in a pan of water and simmer it on the stove. Another way to fill your home with a natural fragrance is to simmer four lemons cut into quarters or to bake them in an oven for about 45 minutes. The citric acid can also destroy airborne toxic particles.

For bathroom odors, a simple lit match often does the trick. 

Soy candles are fun and easy to make from loose soy wax chips and pre-made wicks using pregnancy-friendly essential oils such as lavender, vanilla and lemon. If you are not in DIY mood, try a lush candle by The Organic Pharmacy, Dyptique, or an ultra-luxurious candle with essential oils by Costes. For baby’s room, try a candle by California Baby with scents of lavender, lemon or orange – these scents quickly eliminate a soiled nappy odor.

Potpourri

is also a good replacement of toxic air fresheners. Browse your local charity stores, such as Goodwill, take a walk at antique market and pick the lovely “shabby chic” shallow and wide china or crystal vase. Fill it with dried rose petals, pine cones or lavender florets. Pour 5-6 drops of an essential oil blend of your choice and place the vase in your bathroom or kitchen.

Try filling your home with plants, as they can effectively detox the air by absorbing toxic vapors and releasing oxygen back into the atmosphere, which also improves air quality. Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) and rubber tree (Ficus elastic) are especially good. Research by NASA found that a single spider plant could reduce dangerous levels of toxics in a room by 96 per cent in 24 hours. 

Eliminating synthetic air fresheners from your household will go a long way toward reducing your unborn baby exposure to harmful chemicals. You’ll greatly reduce the risk of accidentally poisoning children and pets, too.   

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