True Cellular Formulas Team - March 17, 2023

Why You Need to Ditch Candles, Incense,
Plug-Ins, and Air Fresheners...

Are There Better Options?

What makes a good-smelling home? The answer to this question will vary from person to person, but most answers will undoubtedly come with a healthy dose of added toxicity. Today we explore how people introduce scents into their homes at the cost of their long-term health. Are there better options? Find out below!

The Problem with Air ‘Fresheners’ and other Home Scents

The word fresheners in the concept of air fresheners is a great paradox. We get the illusion that the air in our homes (or cars) smells fresher because it has a (perhaps) more pleasant scent, but is it really fresh? The illusion of health is a major problem within the health industry in that so many people engage with behaviors and tools that do the opposite of their true intention.

When it comes to air fresheners and home scents, essentially, every single one is simply adding more toxins into the air on top of whatever musty, stagnant, or smelly scents you’re trying to cover up in the first place. So although many brands claim to purify the air of bad odor and bacteria, the reality is that they’re just trying to cover them up at the cost of your health.

Studies have reported associations between air particulate matter (especially fine particles) and several acute health effects, including mortality, hospital admissions, respiratory symptoms, and lung dysfunction.[1-2]

To better understand the problem with different types of fresheners and fragrances, let’s break them down by type.

Air Freshener Sprays and PlugIn

Whether we’re talking about aerosol room sprays, time-operated mist dispenders, or wall plugins, these are the worst offenders of the bunch. These brands are typically master greenwashers, showing floral images and using words like ‘natural’ to try and mask the fact that they sell endocrine-disrupting synthetic fragrances.

The synthetic fragrances found in conventional air fresheners are full of Organic Volatile Compounds (VOCs) that cause various health effects, including eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches and loss of coordination, nausea, damage to the liver, kidneys, or central nervous system. Some VOCs are also known carcinogens.[3] 

These scents do nothing to clean the air and mask the problem with another problem. Using these products regularly is an assault on your hormonal systems and should be avoided at all costs.


Most people understand that chemical-filled sprays and plugins aren’t good for human health, but did you know candles can be just as problematic? There are different kinds of candles (that come with other sorts of problems), so let’s start with the scented and synthetic ones. 

Scented candles, like synthetic room sprays, emit airborne VOC into the air, which harms human health. The burning process created a chemical storm of the scents and the burning materials used to make the synthetic candle. Most candles are made from paraffin, a waste product of the petroleum industry.[4] The smoke emitted from petroleum combustion contains gases and particles that have toxic effects on our bodies and should not be taken lightly. The combustion products from these candles are similar to those released from a diesel engine. [5]

Traditionally candles were made from all-natural materials, like beeswax. Although beeswax candles are the healthiest choice in candles by far, they aren’t fully off the hook when it comes to air pollution. Beeswax candles give off a pleasant natural fragrance as they burn, but this scent (along with the emissions caused by burning fires) still pollutes the air. This would not be a problem outdoors, but when it comes to burning candles indoors, the emissions do negatively impact the air quality.[5] If you want to burn candles, a great solution is to opt for 100% natural, unscented beeswax candles and to crack open a window nearby to allow the burning emissions to get outside.


When it comes to indoor scents, many people opt for incense as a ‘healthy alternative’... but is it healthier? Unfortunately, it’s not. Whether you’re burning incense for spiritual reasons or because you love the scent, the VOCs emitted from burning incense are particularly nasty.

Studies have linked increased air pollution in China due to incense sticks burning in temples across the country.[6] Incense burning has been shown to significantly elevates the concentrations of formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, xylene, and TVOC. The total concentrations of aldehyde compounds, including formaldehyde, in spaces where incense is burning, were found in amounts dangerous to human health.[7]

Essential Oil Diffusers

Aromatherapy is a popular complementary therapy widely used in many healthcare settings and services, but is it safe? As far as the other listed options go, it’s definitely on the better end of the toxicity spectrum. For starters, it doesn’t emit synthetic fragrances nor burn synthetic scents, petroleum, or any smoke into the air. But when it comes to the impact of essential oil diffusion into the air, no quantitative analysis has been reported up to date because monitoring technology of the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in aroma essential oil is not yet developed.[8]

The studies of VOCs in aromatherapy are not easy to measure, but preliminary investigations suggest that their concentration in room air seems likely to be very low. [9] As such, it is likely a much better option for ‘scenting’ a room. That being said, essential oils are potent extractions. Although made from natural ingredients, they are highly concentrated in levels that are not all that ‘natural’ to our human bodies. Be mindful of the medicinal nature of extracts and concentrations like essential oils.

Another option for a milder exposure to scent using essential oils but not diffusing them is a reed diffuser. These are the glass jars with natural oil, and wooden sticks that absorb the scent and disperse it. They are very subtle and can gently scent smaller rooms (like a bathroom).


Now we’re getting old school. If you’ve heard of potpourri, it may be because your grandparents have a pot sitting in their bathroom. Potpourri is a mixture of dried, naturally fragrant plant materials that provide a gentle natural scent, commonly placed in a decorative bowl. Potpourri is hands down the most natural and least toxic option when it comes to gently scenting a space. Unlike essential oils, potpourri is a natural scent for our human bodies. Using a small pot of dried flowers, like lavender, or rose petals, is a way to freshen up a room without assaulting your body with toxins, smoke, or intense amounts of odor. 

What Really Makes Air Fresh?

When it comes to truly freshening a space, nothing beats clean air. Unlike adding scent, the idea of truly fresh air comes from removing the particles that have made the space smell funky in the first place. You cannot achieve this by just adding in more scents (especially not if the added fragrances are full of toxic VOCs). 

For a list of better options for freshening the air, check out the Good List below.

The Naughty List

  • Febreze
  • Air Wick Scented Oil
  • Citrus Magic
  • Febreze NOTICEables Scented Oil
  • Glade Air Infusions
  • Glade PlugIn Scented Oil
  • Lysol Brand II Disinfectant
  • Oust Air Sanitizer Spray
  • Oust Fan Liquid Refills
  • Ozium Glycol-ized Air Sanitizer
  • Walgreens Air Freshener Spray (had the highest levels of phthalates by far)
  • Walgreens Scented Bouquet Air Freshener

The Good List

  • Potpourri 
  • Air purifying machines
  • Air purifying plants
  • Potpourri pots with dried flowers and herbs
  • Reed diffusers made with essential oils


The paradox of most ‘air fresheners’ is that they worsen the air quality. So when it comes to truly making the air pure, you’re better off opening a window or investing in an air-purifying machine. Better non-toxic options to scent the air include reed diffusers with essential oils or good old-fashioned potpourri.

  1. Pope CA, Dockery DW, Schwartz J. Review of epidemiological evidence of health effects of paniculate air pollution. Inhalation Toxicol. 1995;7:1–18. doi: 10.3109/08958379509014267.
  2. Anderson HR, de Leon AP, Bland JM, et al. Air pollution and daily mortality in London: 1987-92. BMJ. 1996;312:665–669. 
  3. “Volatile Organic Compounds (Vocs).” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 
  4. University, Nova Southeastern. “NSU Newsroom.” Soy Candles VS. Paraffin Candles | NSU Newsroom, 
  5. Olszowski, T., Kłos, A. The Impact of Candle Burning During All Saints’ Day Ceremonies on Ambient Alkyl-Substituted Benzene Concentrations. Bull Environ Contam Toxicol 91, 588–594 (2013).
  6. Salthammer, Tunga et al. “Impact of operating wood-burning fireplace ovens on indoor air quality.” Chemosphere vol. 103 (2014): 205-11. doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2013.11.067
  7. Lin, Ta-Chang et al. “Incense smoke: clinical, structural and molecular effects on airway disease.” Clinical and molecular allergy : CMA vol. 6 3. 25 Apr. 2008, doi:10.1186/1476-7961-6-3
  8. Itoh, Toshio et al. “Examination of VOC Concentration of Aroma Essential Oils and Their Major VOCs Diffused in Room Air.” International journal of environmental research and public healthvol. 19,5 2904. 2 Mar. 2022, doi:10.3390/ijerph19052904

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