Everybody loves that new car smell. Not only is it pleasurable to the senses, it also serves as a symbol of pride: It states that you’re a new car owner. However, lurking beneath that satisfying scent are a group of harmful chemicals. These substances, if exposed to for extended periods of time, can cause serious health problems.
What exactly is the new car smell?
We all enjoy the new car smell, but where is it coming from? The answer is chemicals. A lot of chemicals.
There is a plethora of chemicals found in a car’s interior. A study done by the Ecology Center found that there are more than 200 toxic chemicals in vehicle interiors.
Some of these chemicals are known as volatile organic compounds. These substances are in products used to make car parts. For instance, the VOC bromine is found in brominated flame retardants that are added to plastics to make them less flammable. Chlorine is used in polyvinyl chloride, which is in plastics, windshields, lead and heavy metals.
These car parts emit the toxic chemicals through a process known as off-gassing, in which vapors that were previously absorbed are released into the air. While some VOC’s are odorless, those that are not combine to create that “new car smell.”
What are the dangers of the new car smell?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the VOC’s found in car parts have been associated with a host of health issues, such as allergies, impaired learning, liver toxicity, birth defects and cancer.
Serious health issues, though, require prolonged exposure to these chemicals. And as we all know, the new car smell doesn’t last forever. While these chemicals themselves will remain in your car, the dangerous off-gassing process will reduce over time. Experts say most of it will be over within six months.
But the fact that these chemicals aren’t just in any enclosed space but in an enclosed space that has the ability of reaching very high temperatures is another problem. Heat increases the rate of off-gassing. The high temperatures in a car during warm months can therefore increase the concentration of VOC’s and break down other chemicals into more toxic substances.
The good news is that many manufacturers are beginning to reduce VOC levels in their cars. They are accomplishing this by using different materials, coatings and adhesives in manufacturing. According to the BBC, one such VOC that is being eliminated is the aforementioned polyvinyl chloride. In 2006, it was found in nearly every vehicle interior. By 2012, that number had dropped to 73% with manufacturers stating PVC would decline further. Honda, for one, claims that in 2019, 11 of the 15 Honda and Acura car and light truck models sold in the U.S. or Canada had PVC-free interiors.
Preventing adverse side effects
Since the new car smell isn’t going (completely) away any time soon, there are certain steps you can take to prevent any adverse health effects.
The best advice to avoid any harm from the new car smell is to limit your time spent inside your car, especially early on. Don’t go on long road trips. Don’t sit in your car if you need to kill time. When you are driving, keep your car well ventilated. Keep the windows open if possible.
Also remember that off-gassing gets worse when the car is hot. So always try to park in the shade, and consider using a solar shade and even rolling down your windows if you feel safe doing so.
For all things cars, including driver resources, vehicle buying, maintenance and repair and roadside assistance, visit AAA.com/Automotive.
17 Thoughts on “Is That New Car Smell Dangerous?”
My new 2020 Ford F-150 has a new vehicle odor that is quite offensive to my wife and myself. The odor is similar to a solvent cleaning solution or adhesive in the carpet . Most noticeable and very strong when opening the vehicle doors but still quite evident while driving. Have tried approx 5 different types of carpet cleaner or strong cover scents with no lasting effect. Now have over 2500 miles on vehicle. Have purchased
new ford vehicles for 40 years and have never had this ODOR situation previously.
We purchased a brand new 2018 Sonata at the beginning of 2019 – one of those end-of the-year-getting-rid-of-inventory sales. We did not notice a new car smell. Just had a neutral smell I would describe it. Perhaps because it had been sitting for awhile. But the information in this article is good to know.
Hi Jeanne! Thank you for sharing. So glad you found value in the article. -MM
My 2002 Acura TL never had a new car smell, and that was one of the reasons I bought it. Carmakers were already talking about their efforts to eliminate new car smell and toxic chemicals back then, but new Acuras today smell worse, I’m sorry to say. I remember despising a Ford that my father had when I was a kid, because its intense chemical smell nauseated me. Getting into that car on hot summer days was torture. Some luxury automakers seem to have done a good job eliminating new car smell, but most carmakers seem to think most people don’t care.
Hi Dana! Thank you for your personal account. Stay safe! -MM
Thanks for the alert. Have new Rav4 Hybrid. When my adult son called to ask how I liked new car and the new car smell, I told him I felt a bit carsick driving the car. He laughed. I am prone to car sickness but not when I’m the one driving! Now I know why!
Hi Kate! Glad you found this article helpful, please share! -MM
Well, I can’t help it. I do like the new car smell. But I wonder if high end cars made with more leather and metals and less plastic (yes I know the plastic is still used under the fancy) may be a little safer because even better than the new car smell is the smell of luxurious leather interior, and even better when it is an old Bentley, RR, Jag or Mercedes. 🙂
In the old days (when I grew up) it didn’t seem as much of a problem lots more metal and fabrics rather than plastic were used then and since A/C was something you heard rich people had we all drove around with the windows down allowing a fresh exchange of air.
Hi Marie! Thank you for commenting! Please share to keep the conversation going! -MM
Only in the US …
I bought a brand new 2007 Toyota Avalon and did not drive the car for 6 months until it aired out. My son was 8 years old and there was no way I was going to have him or anyone else breathe in toxic chemicals. Now that my son is 22 years old, I am airing out his 2017 Honda Accord even though he bought it used. My son’s Honda has a chemical smell because the previous owner kept the windows closed all the time and did not air out the car.
Twenty + years ago I bought a new car which so assaulted me with its chemical smells that I could not drive it for three months, even though I had the interior washed out with water and drove with the window open in the winter. It was six months before I could drive the car and breathe comfortably. People thought I was crazy. Reading this article, I feel vindicated. Thank you so much for this report.
Very helpful information. Thanks for this. I have a lot of allergies and don’t need to add more.
Thanks for this important information
Dont even LIKE the smell.
This is helpful information so we know what to do to counter it as much as we can. We purchased our brand new car from the surplus at year end, so it had been sitting in the showroom / lot for many months before we used it. There was only a faint smell of “new car.”
We do roll down the windows to air out the car when we first get in it, then we roll them up when we turn on the A/C or heat. We only turn on the heat to get off the chill and then we turn it off — same thing we do in our house to keep the bills down.
In most locations it is not practical to keep your windows rolled down unless you have your own garage. Aside from a security issue, wildlife and even neighbors’ pets can get into your car, including birds and insects.
New car smell is a migraine trigger for me.