There's perhaps no month as filled with ritual as October. As we make our annual journey across the weeks between summer and winter, there are gardens to put to bed, leaves to leap in, pumpkins to carve, and homes to ready for the coming cold.
For many of us that means sealing windows, adding weatherstripping to doors, and adopting other strategies that tighten our dwellings to better hold their precious warmth. That's a good thing where energy conservation is concerned, but a well-sealed home traps more than heat ― it can trap odors, stale air, and other olfactory nuisances, too.
To mask the smelliness, we often turn to air fresheners. From aerosols and plug-in units to potpourris and scented candles, fragrance products are a $9 billion a year industry. Yet researchers sniffing out the truth about them have found that such products frequently contain more than a pleasant scent.
According to the Children's Health Environmental Coalition, the fragrance products industry relies on over 3,000 different chemical compounds to create its olfactory wonders. These include flammable propellants like butane and propane; terpenes, xylene, benzene, and other volatile organic compounds; petroleum distillates like naphthalene; and chemicals like phenol, cresol, and paradichlorobenzene. Recently, a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation investigation of air fresheners found that nearly a third of the samples tested contained phthalates.
These and other ingredients are combined in air freshener formulas to create products intentionally designed to fill our homes with invisible airborne fumes that linger in the air where they can be repeatedly inhaled. And manufacturers aren't required to tell us exactly what's in the air fresheners we buy. Instead, most hide their ingredients behind generic label terms like "fragrance" and "scent agent." When we use these products, we have no way of knowing what we're really breathing, and in winter's sealed-up homes, our exposure to them can be nearly constant.
For a safer choice, stick to natural air freshening strategies. Here's a list of our favorite ways to deodorize your domicile:
- First, track down and eliminate the sources of any persistent bad odors in your home. Since many foul smells are the result of molds or microbial action, spraying or scrubbing trouble spots like trash cans and compost collectors with undiluted 3% solution of hydrogen peroxide will often remove the foul smells. Vinegar is another useful natural antifungal and antibacterial agent.
- Use natural mineral borax and/or baking soda to deodorize surfaces and other places in your home. Because baking soda removes acid odors and vinegar takes care of alkaline smells, a combination of the two is often all you'll need to deodorize as you clean. Lemon juice is another great deodorizer.
- Open windows and doors for a few moments now and then during winter to replace stale indoor air with a fresh supply from outside.
- If odors persist, make your own air freshening spray by combining 5-10 drops of an essential oil like lavender, lemon, peppermint, bergamot, balsam, eucalyptus, tea tree, or sweet orange in a spray bottle with two cups of water.
- To scent indoor air, place a drop of your favorite essential oil on a light bulb prior to turning it on or add a dozen drops to a bowl of water placed on a radiator. Fragrant dried herbs, cinnamon sticks, or cloves boiled in a pot of water will also release a fresh smell.
- Place a couple of drops of essential oil on your vacuum cleaner's exhaust filter to freshen exiting air. A few drops of lemon juice on your vacuum cleaner bag will do the same trick.
- If you burn candles to scent air make sure yours are made from beeswax or other natural waxes like soy rather than petroleum-based paraffin wax. Choose candles with lead-free wicks and naturally-derived scents. And use them sparingly ― natural candles may be safer but they're still filling your air with small amounts of combustion byproducts.
- Problem situations can sometimes be helped by an air purifier that contains an activated charcoal filter. Don't use devices that generate ozone, which is a hazardous pollutant.