We all know what "new car smell" is, right? It's the smell of the interior of, well, a new car. Most people like it and some people like it so much that they buy new-car-smell sprays and air fresheners that make the interiors of their cars smell new until they're old enough to be towed off to the junkyard. But is it possible that new car smell could also make you sick?
A lot of people think so. There have been studies suggesting that at least a few of the chemicals that give a car that fresh-off-the-dealer's-lot odor may be toxic and not all of them go away as the car gets older. But before we can answer the question of whether new car smell is or isn't toxic, we have a more important question to answer: What exactly is new car smell made of, anyway?
That's a tough question to answer. We can start by asking just what it is that we think we're smelling when we climb into a brand new car interior. Some people think it smells like leather, but only luxury car interiors contain much in the way of actual leather and new car smell can even be found in economy cars. Other people think it smells a bit like plastic, but good plastic, not the cheap kind that $1.99 toys are made out of. Some people think it smells like ... well, a whole lot of different chemicals.
That last group is closest to the mark. There really are a whole lot of chemicals making up the interior of a car and some of them release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the car's interior, a process that has the somewhat unpleasant-sounding name "outgassing." It's these VOCs that produce new car smell, though some of them produce no odor at all. Some of these volatile chemicals, like ethyl benzene and formaldehyde, are also found in paints and glues, and they can cause problems like dizziness, headache, allergies or even cancer when inhaled in large enough quantities or for long enough periods of time. Some people have compared inhaling new car smell to glue sniffing or even sick-building syndrome.
But are there enough of these compounds in new car smell to make a fresh car interior truly unhealthy or would they require more exposure than the average driver is likely to get to them? The best way to find out is -- you guessed it -- to do a scientific study. Let's talk about a couple of the studies that have been done and what they've found out.