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!


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