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The Best Car Air Fresheners

After being created in upstate New York, car air fresheners have grown into a billion dollar business.

On average, American drivers spend nearly one hour behind the wheel each day. If you’re going to be anywhere for that long, let alone an enclosed space, you’re going to want to make sure it smells good. That’s a big part of what makes the demand for the best car air fresheners so high and the market for them worth millions of dollars.

The humble car air freshener has a unique origin story that dates back to the 1950s. Since then, the market has grown to include numerous different models and scents. Let’s take a look at some of the best air fresheners available today.

The History of the Car Air Freshener

In 1952, a man named Julius Sämann was living in the northern New York town of Watertown. One day he was having a conversation with his milkman, who complained about the bad smell spoiled milk left in his truck when the drink spilled.

Sämann was a German-Jewish chemist who fled his homeland and settled in upstate New York. There, he spent years studying the Canadian pine forests and extracting the aromatic oils from these trees. To solve his milk truck driver’s problem, Sämann combined the fragment smells of a Canadian pine tree with specialized blotter material and the first car air freshener was born. He gave his new product the shape of its inspiration: a pine tree.

Little Trees, as they’re known today, were an immediate hit and quickly began selling across the country and around the world. The air fresheners are still made in Watertown although the product line has grown quite a bit. Originally there were just three scents: Royal Pine, Spice and Bouquet. Now, there are more than 40 including Cotton Candy, Fresh Shave and New Car Scent.

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The Best Car Air Freshener Types

Like most things that have been around for 70 years, car air fresheners have evolved quite a bit. There are now vent clip-ons, visor attachments, sprays, air purifiers and more.

Cardboard

Cardboard air fresheners, like Little Trees, are made of specialized blotter material that slowly releases the fragrance. They are generally meant to hang from the rearview mirror but you can put them anywhere in the vehicle.

Clip-On

As the name implies, clip-on air fresheners clip on to your car’s air vents. The air then helps circulate the fragrant oils throughout the cabin. They work as long as air is passing through them. With most clip-ons, you can adjust the amount of scent that is released.

The Best Car Air Fresheners

Plug-In

Plug-in air fresheners work in much the same matter as clip-ons except they do not require your car’s air to be on. Instead you plug the device in and it releases the scent itself.

Can

These cans have a fragrant gel or wax inside them. All you have to do is twist the lid to open the built-in vents. You can control the amount of scent being released by adjusting the size of the vent openings.

Spray

These are just like your household deodorizing sprays except specifically designed for your car. They are especially useful if the odor is coming from one particular area in the cabin.

The Best Air Freshener Scents

The most common scents include some version of Apple, Coconut, Lemon, Cherry and the always popular New Car Smell.

According to Little Trees, their best-selling scents are Black Ice, New Car Scent and Caribbean Colada. The company’s more unique fragrances include Fresh Shave, with notes of talcum powder and musk, Rainshine, a mix of dewy florals and earthy greens, and Celebrate!, a blend of vanilla cake and sweet buttercream frosting.

Yankee Candle, another major producer of car air fresheners, has popular scents Red Raspberry, Clean Cotton, Lilac Blossoms and Leather in its lineup.

Do you use air fresheners in your car? What is your favorite scent? Let us know in the comments below.

Comments
  • PATRICIA W.

    I prefer a spice (cinnamon, clove, etc.) scent. I find that most car air fresheners are too strong for the space they’re in. They are overwhelming. My husband complains no matter what scent I get. Not until several weeks of use have passed are they tolerable.

    Reply
  • I prefer a vanilla scent. Usually get the vent clips or under seat sheets made by Jenray.

    Reply
    • Diane-Michele P.

      Me too! All of my vintage cars had the vanilla scent and still do. Old car, carburetor, and vanilla-smells like heaven!

      Reply
  • DOMINIC S.

    Is it safe to breath in these air fresheners? Does it affect your lungs, etc.?

    Reply
  • These are all toxic and unnecessary. The FDA protects the manufacturers who aren’t required to disclose the chemicals used in these products. Just because you can buy it doesn’t mean it’s safe. It’s all about money and brainwashing you into believing you “need” it. Clean doesn’t have a smell.

    Reply
    • Harold T.

      I like Royal pine,it’s about tha nostalgia in the scent. My mom used it in her caddie when I was a kid & I loved that car so there it is scent & memory. I get the super one tear tha whole wrap off & put it in the trunk.

      Reply
    • John G.

      No truer words were spoken. Right on Anne! People are naive not realizing that they are toxic

      Reply
  • We don’t need to keep breathing in a host of chemicals in tight, relatively unventilated space in the car. We don’t know whether these chemicals are safe, especially as regard to lung disease and the susceptibility of COVID-19. Just keep your car clean and remove any old food or other items that can cause bad odors.

    There is no need for these products. We are too concerned about “smells,” Yes, bad odors can be a cause of danger, but we overide the purpose of our sense of small by wanting things to have a different aroma. What is good is not so for everyone.

    Keep your car clean and you won’t have to waste money on potentially dangeroud products.

    Don’t use car “fresheners.”

    Reply
  • ROBERT T.

    Check out the car scent subscription service offered by drift.co
    I use their “wood” product and really enjoy the scent of the month option.

    Reply
  • DONALD C.

    I had one of those liquid filled clip-on style air fresheners in my car and it was really strong. Turns out it leaked. It melted the silver accents on my vent adjuster and took months to tone down. No more of that for me.

    Reply
    • John G.

      Maybe it was a blessing in disguise Donald C. Not healthy for u either

      Reply
  • Abe S.

    The title discusses best car air fresheners. It is not clear what the criteria is for best. Furthermore I agree with some others that one should be concerned about toxicity of these, especially with windows closed. It would be more helpful if the article discussed home made safe alternatives to these commercial products.

    Reply
  • I use a Moso bag which is is an easy way to absorb odors and freshen the air. This fragrance-free, chemical-free odor eliminator uses bamboo charcoal to ionically attract harmful pollutants, odor and excess moisture out of the air. It leaves no order. Been using it for a 6 month….I tried the others but didn’t like having the smell in my car all the time and whether these chemicals are safe.

    Reply
  • As a child my father tried the “PINE TREE” Scent. It would make me dizzy, and nauseous, to the point where I would literally throw up. Needless to say he got rid of it pretty quickly.
    Know what you are inhaling while you are driving. Research the Chemical Content of these products before trying them.
    Some of them come with warnings that say :”Do not allow to come into contact with plastic”
    I learned the hard way. It literally deformed a section of the plastic on my console.
    It makes you wonder what is in these things.
    I have not used any of these car scents for years now.

    Reply
  • You did NOT tell us the best, only what sold the most. Not the same thing at all.

    Reply
  • Love the little trees! I highly doubt they are “toxic” as they have been around for so long with no ill effects to me or my family. Smells bring back memories, and as a child growing up in the 70’s it was fun to go through the car wash in our big green Impala and replace the car tree, which was often the pine scented one to match the green car! My father took the instructions seriously, just taking out a small section of the tree from the plastic each week! Today I do the opposite and expose the whole tree all at once…I even use 3 trees (gasp!) with one from the rear view and two in the back (kids, dogs, it is needed). In the summer I go with pina colada or coconut and in the winter I go with vanilla or cinnamon apple. I get my car washed weekly and swap out the trees about every 2 weeks. Clean DOES have a smell, and it will be whatever little tree I choose after my car wash!

    Reply
  • I’m still waiting for the “BACON” scented air freshener! That would be the biggest seller!

    Reply
  • Kathryn M.

    I agree with “ANNE M” that they are toxic. All air “fresheners” are. All you are doing is adding chemicals to mask the bad smells, not getting rid of the bad smells.

    If you can smell anything at all, it’s not clean. No smell at all is the best!

    Reply
  • Jacqueline

    Cardboard air fresheners give me a headache, they’re too strong. If something smells that bad I’d take care of the source of the smell first. I did have rodents nesting in the engine of my car once, and I put a few drops peppermint essential oil in a spray bottle with water and sprayed my whole car to keep them away and my car smelled amazing. If I had to mask a smell I’d do that again honestly, it smelled fresh and natural, not nauseating.

    Reply
  • Patricia C.

    I like Yankee Candle fresheners and buy them when they’re on sale at their store. My favorite scents are the spicy ones, i.e. pumpkin, cinnamon, clove; and the summery ones like ocean, and summer breeze.

    Reply
  • Katemoltz

    I like DS&Durga, a fragrance company out of New York. Not heavy, not made with scary chemicals. A bit more expensive, but they last for a long time and don’t smell like the bathroom at a gas station.

    Reply
  • Cookie

    I have used name brand fabric softener sheet under the car seats if I didn’t have any air fresheners at the time. Worked great to hold me over

    Reply
  • I was in the market for a used car that needed certain things at a set budget. I found a vehicle. Everything I needed was there, but it’s last owner was a smoker. That tree freshener is staying in my car so I can tolerate the interior and not gag.

    Reply
  • Ohmygosh, I absolutely love Spice by Little Trees…cannot find it anymore and I am really bummed. Maybe I’ll try to make my own…wish me luck!

    Reply
  • Erik S.

    My Dad always used the cologne sample strips that came in magazines as car air fresheners–something I am continuing and the best part is their basically free

    Reply

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