Air fresheners are our go-to whenever the air goes stale, the cats bomb the litter box, or fish dinner doesn’t go as expected. However, the “fresh” fragrance of flowers or linen only lasts so long before the scent creeps back in, and it’s time to respray. So do air fresheners actually work?

Here’s the TL;DR:

Most air fresheners don’t work by actually eliminating unpleasant odors, like vinegar and baking soda do. Instead, air fresheners temporarily mask odors. For example, aerosol air fresheners contain fragrance droplets. Once sprayed, the strong aroma overpowers the unpleasant smell.

In 2017, nearly three in four people surveyed admitted to using air fresheners or deodorizing products weekly. But let’s make one thing clear: they don’t really “work” — at least not how most people think they do. Read on to learn what air fresheners actually do, why they aren’t effective, and how you can freshen your home’s air.

Most Air Fresheners Generally Mask Unwanted Odors

A room will indeed smell good (or at least better) after a few sprays of an air freshener. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve completely “eliminated” the offending odor.

Instead, most air fresheners merely “mask”—or cover up—the bad smell with more pleasant fragrances.

Even more concerning: air-freshening products often rely on tomfoolery (love that word) to convince you they work. A 2012 article in Scientific American links some of this trickery to air fresheners’ “nerve-deadening chemicals.” These chemicals attach to the inside of your nose, blocking your sense of smell. 

spray vs plug vs gel air fresheners

To understand why air fresheners generally aren’t effective odor eliminators and not worth the money, let’s look at how they work:

Aerosol Sprays

Aerosol sprays are your classic spray air fresheners. They’re heavily fragranced liquids that you spray into the air for an immediate fresh scent. Overwhelmingly strong aromas are a blend of synthetic fragrances and essential oils.

An aerosol spray will quickly overpower unpleasant odors with its fine mist. Unfortunately, these sprays don’t usually have odor-neutralizing ingredients. As a result, this common fix is temporary, typically offering only a few hours of relief (or less).


Plug-in air fresheners offer a much longer-lasting, automatic, and steady fragrance. Plugging these devices into an electrical outlet turns their heat elements on, which, in turn, will heat the oil in the small glass/plastic pod. When you heat the pod, the scented oil will evaporate slowly and release the scent.

The average plug-in air freshener refill will offer about 30–90 days of continuous scent (depending on its settings) before you need to replace it.

Gels + Solids

Gels and solids are a popular “set it and forget it” way to remove odors. Inside the container are gelatin beads that slowly release their fragrance via evaporation once exposed to the air. Then, as the beads evaporate, they shrivel up and shrink.

Most gel air fresheners last about 30 days before the gel has nothing left to evaporate, meaning there’s no more fragrance to release.

An Air Freshener’s Ingredients Matter

Most scented air fresheners don’t really “work”; they eliminate scents temporarily but don’t neutralize and absorb bad household odors. However, some do! But it largely depends on the ingredients in the product.

Ingredients scientifically proven to absorb and neutralize unwanted odors include:


Cyclodextrins, a key ingredient in Febreze, are sugar molecules that bind to odor-causing molecules. These molecules make these scents almost undetectable to the human nose by trapping and absorbing them.

To be completely clear: the offending odor doesn’t actually disappear from the room, but you can no longer smell it.

Febreze fabric spray ingredients list including cyclodextrins
Cyclodextrins listed in the ingredients list of Febreze Fabric Spray

Baking Soda

Baking soda is a staple in many home refrigerators because it’s one of the most effective and widely available odor-neutralizers. Sodium bicarbonate (its real name) is a naturally alkaline substance. 

When exposed to acidic odors, such as rotting milk and rancid butter in the fridge, baking soda forces a chemical reaction. It then evolves into salt and water and, thus, eliminates the smell. 


Enzymes are a type of protein tasked with breaking down a specific organic compound or protein (which sounds complicated). Basically, these compounds work by breaking a particular compound into smaller, bite-sized pieces. The bacteria can then destroy these compounds by feeding on them. 

For example, the enzyme called “proteases” is common in laundry detergents because it can easily break down food, grass, and blood stains.

Antibacterial Agents

Some fresheners also contain antibacterial agents. These products are actually a cross between traditional air fresheners and disinfectants and may kill some odor-causing bacteria. Triclosan, for example, breaks through bacteria’s outer shell, allowing its molecules to kill odors.

FYI: Many cleaning companies take a hard stance against harsh ingredients like triclosan.

Now, these agents don’t directly improve the smell of the room. However, they can eliminate the offending scent temporarily. They do this by killing airborne bacteria and volatile organic compounds (or VOCs)—like those from body odor or from using a gas stove.

Some essential oils have antibacterial and antimicrobial agents, making them a reliable alternative. If you want an air freshener that 1) freshens a room’s air and 2) eliminates airborne odors, check the product labels for any of these.

The infographic below shows ten examples of oils with antimicrobial or antibacterial characteristics:

essential oils with antimicrobial or antibacterial properties (infographic)

Air Fresheners Don’t Target the Source of the Odor

The underlying problem with air fresheners is that—unless you address the source of the odor—it’ll continue to come back … and rather quickly. In fact, according to an Aqdot survey, just over four in five Americans said their air freshener’s scent disappears within an hour.

If mildew grows in the tub, it’ll smell vaguely of rotting wood. Any air freshener in the bathroom can mask that smell temporarily (largely depending on the severity of the mildew growth).

Yet, when the lifespan of the air freshener rolls around, the stale smell will eventually “return.” Arguably, though, it never really left.

The same goes for clogged garbage disposals, garbage cans filled with rotting food, and unclean litter boxes. Address the source of the problem, and that lingering smell should resolve itself in due time.

Air Fresheners Can Be Decent Temporary Fixes

Of course, I don’t want to ignore the elephant in the room. Many air fresheners are—in fact—unhealthy. In fact, some of them release 100+ toxic chemicals and may cause health issues like breathing problems and worsened allergies.

aeresol air freshener with potentially dangerous chemicals
Aerosol air freshener ingredient overview

The chemical smells are also a glaring downside.

But if you desperately need a temporary escape from a sh*tty smell (pun fully intended), they’re a reasonable last resort to eliminate unpleasant odors. Scented air fresheners could be a temporary relief after burning dinner or an unexpected diaper blow-out.

How To Freshen Your Home’s Air Without Air Fresheners

If you want to make your home’s air smell better without simply masking the smell or introducing hazardous chemicals, here are three must-try tips:

1. Improve Ventilation + Airflow

A lack of ventilation or airflow in a house essentially traps air (and any lingering odors) in a tight space, such as a closed bedroom or a small closet. The air has nowhere else to go, so there’s a higher concentration of these odor-causing particles within the room.

This makes the bad smell appear even stronger and allows it to remain stagnant.

Open windows and exterior doors allow more fresh air to enter, diluting the bad smell. Of course, you can also increase the airflow within the house by keeping interior doors open whenever possible.

Doing so allows the bad smell molecules to spread throughout your home’s interior, a process known as diffusion (unexpected science lesson!).

2. Use HEPA Air Filters

HEPA (“high-efficiency particulate air”) is a multi-layer and porous air filter designed to improve air quality and—as a bonus—may remove bad smells

HEPA filters trap particles invisible to the naked eye, including:

  • Pet dander
  • Pollen
  • Bacteria
  • Dust
  • Airborne allergens
HEPA air filter for air purifiers

Now, on their own, HEPA filters do not usually eliminate unpleasant odors. So installing a HEPA filter in your air conditioner or air purifier won’t miraculously deodorize your entire home (link takes you to Amazon).

Yet, that changes when these filters contain active carbon filters, like those for air purifiers.

Activated carbon filtersactivated charcoal—contain extremely small pockets within their structure. These holes adsorb bad smells (that’s not a typo, surprisingly). They also increase the surface area of the activated charcoal, allowing more molecules to bind to and eliminate them.

For example, an air purifier with an activated carbon filter will suck in the room’s air and capture the odor molecules within that air. It’ll then release the clean air back into the room.

3. Try All-Natural Odor Absorbers

baking soda, activated charcoal, distilled white vinegar

If you’re a passenger on the anti-air-freshener bandwagon, you could also try all-natural odor absorbers. Natural options are typically healthier and more reliable alternatives. These include baking soda, vinegar, activated charcoal, and some oils (like eucalyptus and lemon).

Final Thoughts

So do air fresheners actually eliminate odors? Well, if you’re trying to eliminate persistent bad odors, air fresheners don’t actually work.

Even air fresheners containing baking soda and cyclodextrins aren’t permanent solutions. They can trap and get rid of odor molecules, but they never address the root cause of the odor.

However, air fresheners work if you only want a continuous nice-smelling scent to beautify your home’s air. I’d argue that you should research these products’ possible health and safety consequences, though.