A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Do air fresheners work by numbing out your nose?

December 19, 1980

Dear Cecil:

Is it possible you can answer a 20-year-old concern? My high school chemistry teacher told us that Airwick worked by deadening one's olfactory nerves with some mild anesthetic, thereby "eliminating" unpleasant odors, and presumably every other odor, pleasant or not. I notice on the Lysol can that it "actually eliminates odors by neutralizing them." Could this be corporate advertising jargon for "kills your olfactory nerves"? Was my high school chemistry teacher (gasp) right?

Cecil replies:

You got it, Bub. There are three basic ways of getting rid of undesirable odors: masking them with stronger scents, such as the ubiquitous lemon and pine fragrances; chemically dissolving or absorbing them, as with activated charcoal or silica gel; and numbing out your nose, so you can't smell a damn thing. In the old days the air-freshener folks used to make products in the last category using formaldehyde (or its solid version, paraformaldehyde), which, as you may know, is both poisonous and carcinogenic. In 1976, the Monsanto company came up with a somewhat less murderous nasal anesthetic (the precise formulation of which, needless to say, is secret), which has since been incorporated into some air-fresheners along with the usual masking fragrances.

Airwick Industries denies that it makes use of a nasal anesthetic, saying that its products employ a combination of masking fragrances and "odor counteractants" instead. Curiously, however, the similar-sounding term "malodor counteractant," as used in the scientific journals, is usually a code word for nasal anesthetic, so you can draw your own conclusions. The numbing effect is temporary and not thought to be harmful in itself, but who knows. Lysol spray disinfectant supposedly works by killing airborne microorganisms that cause odor as well as by masking, although it's debatable how effective the disinfecting part is. If you want my advice, open the window, or else learn to live with a little stench. Never killed anybody.

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