True Cellular Formulas Team - June 5, 2023

Behind the New Car Smell

Health Risks and How to Mitigate Them

Behind the New Car Smell

It's no secret that a new car's aroma is part of the allure. The "new car smell" is familiar and often comforting, but did you know that this distinctive scent could be potentially harmful to your health? Off-gassing Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), along with other hazardous chemicals from new cars, have been linked to several health issues, including the risk of cancer. 

Understanding this connection, California has implemented Proposition 65, requiring businesses to provide warnings about significant exposures to these harmful chemicals. This blog post aims to shed light on these risks and suggest effective strategies to mitigate the impact on our health.

Understanding the Problem

  • Off-Gassing VOCs

Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, are gases that are emitted from certain solids or liquids. In the context of new cars, VOCs off-gas from various components like the upholstery, dashboard, carpeting, and even the steering wheel. The new car smell is actually a mixture of these VOCs. Some of the most common VOCs found in cars include benzene, toluene, and formaldehyde, which are known to have adverse health effects.[1]

  • Chemicals in Cars

In addition to VOCs, new cars contain other harmful chemicals, such as flame retardants, plasticizers, and heavy metals. These chemicals can be found in the car's seat covers, plastic parts, and even the air conditioning system, posing potential health risks.[2-3]

  • Cancer Risks and Proposition 65

California's Proposition 65, also known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, requires warnings for exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. Many chemicals found in new cars fall under this regulation, thus linking new car interiors to potential cancer risks.[4]

The Health Impact of That New Car Smell

Short-Term Effects

Exposure to VOCs and other harmful chemicals found in new cars can lead to several short-term health effects. These range from simple discomfort such as throat, eye, and nose irritation, headaches, and dizziness, to more serious conditions such as nausea and vomiting.[5] For people with pre-existing conditions such as asthma or allergies, the effects can be particularly severe, leading to exacerbated symptoms and breathing difficulties.[6]

Long-Term Effects

Prolonged exposure to these chemicals poses more serious risks. Over time, consistent inhalation of VOCs and other carcinogenic substances can lead to chronic respiratory issues, liver and kidney damage, and neurological problems.[7] Perhaps most concerning is the heightened risk of developing cancer. For example, benzene, a common VOC found in new cars, is a known human carcinogen and long-term exposure can lead to leukemia and other blood cell cancers.[8] Recognizing these potential hazards is the first step in mitigating the long-term health impacts associated with new car interiors.

Solutions to Reduce Toxic Load from New Cars

Off-Gassing Measures

One of the first steps you can take to mitigate the toxic load from your new car is to allow it to off-gas. Park the car in a well-ventilated area or under the sun, and keep the windows down as much as possible. Warm temperatures expedite the off-gassing process, helping to remove a substantial portion of the VOCs before you start using the car regularly.

Activated Carbon Filters

In addition to off-gassing, using activated carbon filters can further reduce the toxic load. Activated carbon, also known as activated charcoal, can effectively absorb VOCs and other harmful chemicals, filtering them out before they reach the cabin. These filters can be installed in the car's ventilation system or used as standalone air purifiers in the car.[9]

Absorb Chemicals

Introduce non-hazardous absorbing substances like baking soda or zeolite within the vehicle to draw in the chemical smells. It's crucial to regularly change or rejuvenate these materials to prevent the smells from being reintroduced into the vehicle.

Buying the Car Early and Letting it Sit

Purchasing your new car well in advance of when you actually need it can also help. This allows ample time for off-gassing to occur, reducing the VOC concentration by the time you start using the car. During this period, regular ventilation of the car, coupled with the use of activated carbon filters, can aid in the removal of harmful compounds.

The Importance of Regular Maintenance and Ventilation

Regular car maintenance, such as cleaning and vacuuming, can remove toxic particles that have settled over time. Ventilation is also vital. Even after initial off-gassing, chemicals can still be released over time. Therefore, it's important to drive with windows down when possible, or use the ventilation system to bring in fresh air and reduce the concentration of toxins inside the car. These practical measures, together with the above-mentioned strategies, can significantly reduce the health risks associated with new car interiors.

Buying a Used Car as an Alternative

Choosing a lightly used car over a new one can be an effective way to reduce exposure to harmful VOCs and chemicals. By the time a car has been in use for a few years, much of the initial off-gassing has already taken place. The concentration of VOCs is typically significantly lower in used cars, making them a healthier choice in this regard.

When buying a used car, it's important to ask about the vehicle's history, including any cleaning and maintenance products used, as these could introduce additional chemicals. It's also wise to have a mechanic inspect the car, both for safety reasons and to ensure the ventilation system is working effectively.

To further reduce any residual toxic load, consider cleaning the car with eco-friendly products and employing the same strategies suggested for new cars: allow the car to air out frequently, use activated carbon filters, and maintain good ventilation while driving.

Although buying a used car may not give you the allure of that new car smell, it's a step towards healthier air quality within the vehicle, potentially saving you from the short and long-term health effects linked to the harmful substances found in new cars.


The appeal of a new car, with its shiny exterior and fresh-off-the-factory scent, can be enticing. However, it's crucial to be aware that the chemicals contributing to that unique aroma could pose a health risk. Short-term exposure can cause discomfort and exacerbate certain conditions, while long-term exposure may even lead to cancer. Thankfully, strategies such as allowing your car to off-gas, using activated carbon filters, and ensuring regular ventilation can help reduce these risks. Alternatively, purchasing a lightly used car can significantly lower exposure to these harmful chemicals. Ultimately, the choice is yours. Make it an informed one.

  1. Guo, Ruihua et al. “Evaluation of Typical Volatile Organic Compounds Levels in New Vehicles under Static and Driving Conditions.” International journal of environmental research and public health vol. 19,12 7048. 9 Jun. 2022, doi:10.3390/ijerph19127048
  2. Maximoff, Sergey N. “Performance Evaluation of Activated Carbon Sorbents for Indoor Air Purification during Normal and Wildfire Events.” Science Direct, 
  3. “February 2022: Study Invite: Are There Flame Retardants in Your Car?” Green Science Policy Institute,
  4. Reddam, Aalekhya, and David C. Volz. “Inhalation of Two Prop 65-Listed Chemicals within Vehicles May Be Associated with Increased Cancer Risk.” Environment International, vol. 149, 2021, p. 106402, doi:10.1016/j.envint.2021.106402. 
  5. “Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency,
  6. Nurmatov, Ulugbek B., et al. “Volatile Organic Compounds and Risk of Asthma and Allergy: A Systematic Review.” European Respiratory Review, vol. 24, no. 135, 2015, pp. 92–101, doi:10.1183/09059180.00000714.
  7. Batterman, Stuart et al. “Personal exposure to mixtures of volatile organic compounds: modeling and further analysis of the RIOPA data.” Research report (Health Effects Institute) ,181 (2014): 3-63.
  8. “Benzene and Cancer Risk.” American Cancer Society,
  9. Maximoff, Sergey N. “Performance Evaluation of Activated Carbon Sorbents for Indoor Air Purification during Normal and Wildfire Events.” Science Direct,

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