Is Febreze Toxic? Our Investigation Into America’s #1 Air Freshener

14 min reading time

Febreze is a household name when it comes to air fresheners and odor eliminators. Introduced by Procter & Gamble in 1996, Febreze has grown into a global brand sold across North America, South America, Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand.

That sweet scent of Febreze seems harmless as it masks odors in your home. But peel back the floral facade, and you’ll uncover startling secrets about this leading air freshener brand.

We took a deep investigative look into the brand, and what we found may make you think twice before spraying.

During our investigation, we found that certain ingredients can pose health risks with overexposure, especially for sensitive groups. Our investigation also revealed certain ingrdients could potentially harm pets and aquatic life. And those floral fragrances? They just mask odors instead of removing them.

Let’s take a closer look at the Febreze line of products and what we uncovered during our investigation and find out the answer to the burning question: is Febreze toxic?

A Closer Look At Febreze’s Ingredients

The brand has a long list of products in their lineup. A look at their website shows over 200+ products across a variety of types and scents. The brand has plug-in fresheners, wax melts, candles, and products meant for cars, fabrics, small rooms and more.

For this reason, the brand has a long list of ingredients used in their products.

To start, let’s begin with the ingredients list they published on their own website and dive deeper.


(Hydroxypropyl) Cyclodextrin

Febreze’s star ingredient. This is a ring-shaped molecule with a hollow water-repelling cavity in the center. The unique shape allows it to trap odor molecules inside its cavity. Trapping the odor molecules makes them less volatile, meaning they don’t evaporate into the air as easily. This reduces how many reach your nose, making the smell less noticeable.

Generally, it is considered safe and non-toxic for use in humans and at typical doses and exposure levels. It’s important to point out that a study published in 2017 examined evidence linking cyclodextrins to hearing loss in patients after intravenous treatment with cyclodextrin-containing drug formulations. Therefore, we should still take care to avoid overexposure.

Diethylene Glycol

Another one of their “odor-trappers”, it acts as a solvent or carrier for the odor-capturing ingredients. Ingestion can lead to severe complications, so its use warrants caution.

According to a 2009 study, clinical effects typically start with gastrointestinal symptoms and then progress to acute kidney injury, metabolic acidosis, and neurological effects. In the application as a solvent in Febreze, exposure and ingestion risk may be low if the products are used as intended.

Sodium Citrate

Sodium citrate is used in Febreze as an “odor neutralizer” by balancing out the pH of foul odors. It’s generally considered safe at typical doses.

It is possible that sodium citrate could cause upper respiratory irritation, so those with sensitivies should keep this in mind when deciding to use Febreze. 

Sodium Maleate

Like sodium citrate, sodium maleate interacts at a molecular level to neutralize the pH of foul odors. With regular domestic use, health effects are not expected to be a concern.

According to a 2022 evaluation statement on maleic acid salts, sodium maleate may cause skin and eye irritation depending on exposure and concentration. Exposure may happen through incidental skin and eye contact or inhaling aerosols.

For the general public, regulated use at lower concentrations in household products is not expected to pose significant health issues. However, exposure should still be minimized as a precaution. Long-term and repeated exposure through dermal, ocular, and inhalation exposure in the workplace places workers at risk of skin sensitization and allergic reactions.

Polyamine Polymer

Polyamine polymer works to bind and trap lingering smells, especially greasy cooking odors. It is one of the key broad odor-eliminating ingredients, along with cyclodextrin. It appears to be relatively safe with low toxicity when used properly, and actually naturally occurs in our own cells.


Alcohol in Febreze is a drying agent to help the solution dry more quickly after spraying. Inhalation of alcohol can cause irritation; however, according to this material safety data sheet, Febreze products contain low alcohol levels at 1-5%, so risks are low if used as directed.

(PEG-60) Hydrogenated Castor Oil

This emulsifier or solubilizing agent is commonly used in personal care, cleaning, and air care products. It helps oil and water mix and not separate in products over time to ensure consistent product performance. It has a low potential for toxicity and irritation when used appropriately in personal care products.

The main concern is the potential presence of ethylene oxide contamination, a known carcinogen, from the manufacturing process. Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are products of condensed ethylene oxide and water.

Does Febreze cause cancer?

According to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, as referenced in this study, impurities during or after mixing compounds such as ethylene oxide and water to make polyethylene glycol, could be a concern. Purification of mixtures before incorporation into cosmetic products during manufacturing is needed to keep these impurities to very minimum levels.

According to the National Cancer Institute, the cancers reported to be associated with ethylene oxide exposure are lymphoma, leukemia, stomach and breast cancers.


Febreze uses nitrogen as a natural propellant to effectively disperse the product into the air. It allows most of the solution to be water, reducing risk. Nitrogen is inert, non-flammable, and makes up 78% of the air we breathe already, so it is generally considered safe. As with any product, intentional misuse, like deliberately concentrating and inhaling the product, could be harmful.

Dialkyl Sodium Sulfosuccinate

Dialkyl sodium sulfosuccinate acts as a dispersing agent and helps spread Febreze around the room. According to this study, it’s considered safe in low concentrations and present cosmetics use practices.

Based on a review referenced in the same study, it may enhance the penetration of other ingredients through the skin. Also, since it is a salt, it is possible it can cause respiratory tract irritation so care should be taken while using Febreze.


Benzisothiazolinone is used as a preservative in Febreze to prevent microbial contamination during product storage and use. Typical exposure levels are considered safe for use in consumer products.

However, it can lead to irritation and sensitization. According to this 2023 study, it can cause contact dermatitis.

Fragrance: The Killer Ingredient

As you might expect from a product like Febreze, chemical fragrance is a main ingredient found in all of their products. At Better Goods, we never recommend products that have chemical fragrance. Here’s why.

The term “fragrance” on product labels can contain a range of potentially harmful chemicals, including known allergens and endocrine disruptors. Certain fragrances contain phthalates, compounds linked to hormonal imbalances which can effect reproductive system development, and even classified as a possible human carcinogen at high levels. It is important to note that out of 9.99 million women, phthalates were not associated with breast cancer incidence. But, continued and repetitive exposure to phthalates could increase the risk of cancer. Phthalates can be absorbed through the skin and detected in urine following use of phthalate-infused products.

This is an ingredient we can all do without, whether in air fresheners or other personal care and household products. They don’t add to the efficacy of the products. In the case of Febreze, the fragrance helps to mask any remaining odors not trapped by the cyclodextrin, but it doesn’t eliminate it.

According to this 2016 study, 34.7% of adults in the USA reported adverse health effects from exposure to fragranced products. For air fresheners and deodorizers specifically, 20.4% reported health problems when exposed. The most common effects were respiratory problems: 9.5%,  mucosal symptoms: 7.6% , migraine headaches: 7.2%, skin problems: 5.7%, asthma attacks” 4.7%, and neurological problems: 3.2%.

Potential Impacts on Human Health

Our use and tolerance for air fresheners will vary, but a good rule of thumb is that people prone to respiratory problems and allergies should steer clear of air fresheners.

Health Risks Associated with VOCs: What You’re Really Breathing In

Some air fresheners can contain compounds called, volatile organic compounds. This encompasses a large group of chemicals, which can include ethanol but depends on th composition of the air freshener. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, long-term inhalation of low levels of VOCs may increase people’s risk of health problems. Common symptoms of exposure to high levels are eye, nose, and throat irritation; nausea and vomiting for acute exposures; and even cancer, liver, kidney, and central nervous system damage for chronic exposures.

Air Fresheners Can Cause Adverse Reactions, Like Triggering Asthma & Allergies

According to a toolkit published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, some chemicals in air fresheners can trigger asthma, allergic reactions, headaches, and contact dermatitis.

Chemical Reactions and Health Implications

Common air freshener chemicals such as limonene can also react with other chemicals, mainly ozone. Although ozone levels should be very low indoors, if windows are left open then levels can increase. The reaction between these two molecules can produce formaldehyde and other pollutants, like ultrafine particles that can be inhaled and are linked to heart and lung disease.

The Immunological Impact of Air Fresheners

Claudia Miller, professor emeritus in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, as mentioned in this article, stated that chemicals in air fresheners could trigger mast cells in the immune system, which can cause allergic reactions and lead to inflammation, illness and higher chemical intolerance after repeated exposures.

Research on Fragranced Products and Health Effects

This study aimed to determine the percentages of people who report adverse effects from exposure to fragranced products in the US population and subpopulations of those with asthma or chemical sensitivity. They conducted two surveys and found that 19% of the general population reported adverse health effects due to air fresheners.

The Misleading Nature of Air Fresheners

As stated previously, air fresheners like Febreze don’t really clean the air indoors; they only mask the smells. Thus, fragrance is a heavy player in air fresheners. Some chemicals in fragrances such as phthalates are endocrine disruptors, interfering with hormones.

Impacts on Our Pets

According to Febreze’s website, their veterinary toxicology experts at ASPCA note that their fabric freshener products are safe for use in households with pets. They caution that, as with any product, it’s essential to follow user instructions.

If pets accidentally come into contact with surfaces still damp from the product, they may experience mild skin irritation or minor upset stomach. Birds should not be in the room when Febreze fresheners or air care products are sprayed.

We looked through online threads to see personal statements from Febreze users and how the product affected their pets.

“I use Febreze often and it seems like he always throws up not long after.”

reddit user u/Capta1nKrunch/

“I sprayed some febreeze in my apartment and I think some of it got into my dogs eye when it settled. It has swollen up a little bit and she is having trouble opening it.”

reddit user u/Kevohs

“It was causing my cat to sneeze a lot so I stopped using them. His sneezing stopped”

REDDIT USER u/caitycaity1126

All this is, of course, anecdotal evidence. Experiences will vary depending on exposure levels, the proximity of the pet to the Febreze when sprayed, and the location of exposure.

To see if Febreze could threaten our animal friends’ health, we looked closer at the ingredients list and checked which could potentially be toxic to them. We found a few.

Diethylene glycol, in particular, is a cause for concern. According to this 2022 study, dogs and cats appear pretty sensitive, with lethality documented at doses under 1 mL per kg body weight. Signs include vomiting, depression, respiratory distress, and seizures, among others. This level of exposure should never occur during the appropriate use of Febreze, as directed.

Another one is fragrance. Michelle Burch, DVM, mentioned in an article that perfumes, when ingested, can cause incoordination, neurological signs, and decreased breaths due to the alcohol content. She explained that for air fresheners specifically, the ingredients may cause toxic symptoms like burns to the mouth, vomiting, and diarrhea if ingested.

In this article, researchers conducted acute toxicity studies for PEG-60 hydrogenated castor oil in various animals. The results showed specific systemic and irritant effects in dogs but it may have been specific to the beagle species.

According to holistic veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney of California, cats have had increased feline asthma due to living in households with air fresheners. The risk of contamination doesn’t come from the air alone; it can also come from the surfaces where air fresheners fall, where a pet might be able to ingest the residue.

Impacts on the Environment

Based on this article, air freshener emissions can also migrate outdoors, affect outdoor air quality, and contribute to photochemical smog which forms over cities. According to the energy education team from the University of Calgary, photochemical smog has many adverse health effects. The chemicals contained within it form molecules that cause eye irritation, and other adverse health effects, when combined with hydrocarbons.

Going back to benzisothiazolinone—according to this study, it can be toxic to aquatic environments and organisms. It prevents the growth and activity of bacteria and algae which is important to prevent infection but it can also harm fish. Therefore, it is essential to control concentrations of benzisothiazolinone in our waters.

Safer, Non-Toxic Alternatives

  • Ventilate – The EPA recommends ventilation instead of air fresheners, which is excellent news because it can be as simple as just opening your windows whenever possible. It’s affordable, accessible, and sustainable! Exhaust fans and air purifiers or filters can help, too.
  • Clean – Eliminating the source of odors is better than simply masking odors with fragrances, so regularly cleaning is also crucial.
  • Essential Oils – Another option to add fragrances indoors would be essential oils but check the ingredients list first. Minimally processed oils are best. Put essential oils in spray bottles to effectively disperse them like an air freshener. However, some essential oils can be risky for pets, so check with a vet first.

It’s tough because the ingredients on the labels are only partially complete. But if you must use commercial and conventional air fresheners, look at the ingredients and ensure that toxic and hazardous chemicals, like VOCs, aren’t listed there. Research goes a long way to ensure we keep our indoor spaces clean and safe.

Some other natural alternatives to air fresheners are beeswax or soy candles, baking soda, activated charcoal, and houseplants, which can help absorb and neutralize odors without adding harmful chemicals.

So, is Febreze Toxic?

Based off of our findings, we would not recommend using Febreze.

Specifically, the fragrance ingredients are problematic as they can contain hidden chemicals like phthalates that may pose health risks. Fragrances in air fresheners also simply mask odors instead of eliminating them. The safety studies on pets show some adverse effects as well, especially if directly ingested.

Additionally, people sensitive to scents and chemicals may experience reactions like asthma attacks or headaches when exposed to Febreze. Those with chemical sensitivities should avoid these types of fragranced products altogether.

And when sprayed, some ingredient residue could make its way into the environment. The broader impacts on outdoor air quality and aquatic life merit consideration.

Ultimately, Febreze relies heavily on masking odors with perfumes rather than neutralizing smells at their source. We believe the wiser solution is to open windows, use fans for proper ventilation, clean regularly to prevent odors, and use safer alternatives like essential oils or baking soda. People and pets will breathe easier without the risks posed by conventional air fresheners.

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