Ask LH: Is ‘New Car Smell’ Dangerous To Your Health?

Ask LH: Is ‘New Car Smell’ Dangerous To Your Health?

Dear Lifehacker, After doing my research and crunching the numbers, I’ve purchased a brand new family car — a Subaru Forester. One factor I didn’t consider is the potential toxicity of the “new car smell”. I can’t find any recent research in this area, but I wanted to know: Are 2016 cars still susceptible to the same problem? Will the new car harm my infant baby? Am I going into overdrive and worrying about a non-issue? Also, if new car smell is dangerous, how can I reduce or eliminate the risks? Thanks, Mr Sniff Test

New car picture from Shutterstock

Dear MST,

“New car smell” is one of the few benefits of forking out thousands of extra dollars on a brand new car as opposed to buying second hand. However, it can also be potentially hazardous to your health.

That distinctive smell is a gaseous byproduct of the plastics, paints and adhesives used in the manufacture of a car’s interior. Known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), these chemicals aren’t designed to be ingested by humans. They include stuff like polyvinyl chloride/PVC, vinyl treatments, latex glue and off-gas caused by metals and upholstery.

You can also expect to find small traces of toxic chemicals such as cyclohexanone, xylene, formaldehyde, toluene, styrene and benzene. And yes, these materials are still present in modern car models.

So do you need to worry? Yes, but only a bit. There’s no concrete evidence linking new car smell to chronic illnesses. However, it has been known to cause disorientation, headaches and irritation — this obviously isn’t something you want to expose a newborn baby to.

Thankfully, most studies agree that the potential dangers of new car smell decrease significantly within a few months of purchase as the VOCs begin to dissipate. If you’re concerned, your best bet is to aerate your car by keeping the windows open (just be sure it’s securely locked in your garage at the time.) During the first few months, you should also drive with open windows on hot days, as higher temperatures cause VOC levels to rise.

If anyone has any additional advice, please let MST know in the comments!

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • In this day and age it seems everything is out to kill you.
    I personally love new car smell but I can understand how some smells sets people off. The slightest whiff of blackcurrant or oranges give me an instant headache and makes me severely nauseous.

    • its not that everything is out to kill you. its just that people are starting to question the truth behind the smoke and mirrors that companies ignore.
      eg when was the last time you saw a radiology clinic with an obvious disclaimer that xrays increase the liklihood of a person getting cancer later in life.
      i actually rang 3 bensons radiolodies plus their head office to ask what my radiation exposure would be for a cat scan. i got 3 different answers, all of which were way off the figure that i had researched and found.

      we are more aware as more research is done and more questions asked. people are finally waking up and saying, hang on, why does X company use X chemical in their processing when its not safe for X, Y and Z. surey that then means its not safe for me. etc etc etc.

        • hey man, believe what you want. but if you are gonna believe everything at face value that gets spoon fed to you, and you wanna tell me i’m the weird one, i’m ok with that.

  • I like the new car smell for about 3 seconds. It’s nice because it reminds you have a new car but to me it’s a horribly chemical smell that makes me feel sick. I don’t like it and I’m honestly not sure why so many people seem to.

  • VOCs happen in houses and offices and can also affect electronics by condensing on contacts as a powder. This is why some components work again when you unplug and reinsert video cards, ICs and circuit boards..
    Best defence for VOCs are apparently indoor plants.
    Not sure how this can help in a motor car. Put a plant in the rear compartment?

  • With an infant, I have a feeling that you want be having to worry about that new car smell for very long!

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