new car smell

Image: Adobe Stock

Getting a lungful of that great new car smell may not be the right thing to do

One of the joys of buying a new car – that great new car smell – has joined the long list of things that are health hazards.

new car smell

Image: Adobe Stock

As you move along in life, you get to realise that a killjoy is waiting around every corner ready to spread bad news about even the most simple pleasures of life — the smell of a new car.

You can’t bite into a “health bar” and chew contentedly without someone pointing out the dangers that lurk within that chocolatey taste and the dire impact it has had on laboratory rodents.

It can get to be too much, especially when the target of the white lab coat brigade turns out to be that immensely satisfying “new car smell”. What you are smelling, the scientists say, is “off-gassing” or “out-gassing”.

What is the ‘new car smell’?

That smell which provokes this olfactory delight and does more to create a sale than all the salesman’s smooth patter is a hydrocarbon (petroleum-derived chemicals and allergens) that is mixed and released into the air as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.

As the cabin plastics begin to react with the atmosphere, sunlight and heat, they begin to break down on a molecular level and disperse into the air.

It is these microscopic particles that are emitted by a new car’s plastics and synthetic fibres that you inhale and can have an impact on your health (man, these scientists know how to ruin things).

The smell vanishes after about three months when the plastics are cured by heat and cold. Rather than spoil this picture further and point fingers, it is fair at this juncture to say that motor manufacturers have for years been working hard to replace cabin plastics with naturally-derived or recycled materials.

Why get rid of the smell?

As this trend continues, and that great smell is placed at risk, some car builders are taking active steps to rid vehicles of it. Ford is removing the scent on the assembly lines before cars destined for China leave the factory because the Chinese market doesn’t like the smell.

What it shows is just what massive car-buying power can force manufacturers to do.

So, other than experiencing the dizziness, respiratory distress, headaches, eye and skin irritation, and other ills that your new car could visit on you, what — other than donning your COVID-19 mask, gloves and medically-rated Wellington boots — will keep you safe?

The bow-tie army recommends that you:

  • Drive with windows and sunroofs open to allow the VOCs to escape. (Good luck with that in South African cities).
  • Install upgraded (HEPA) air filters in the cabin and make sure that these filters are regularly replaced.
  • Add an air purifier to your car.
  • Shy away from aerosols that promise to return that alluring new smell to your car. The contents of the can could be harmful.


So, here’s the thing. VOCs may be released by everything from steering wheels, dashboards, seats, carpets and other fittings in cars, but they are everywhere.

At home, VOCs are emitted by mattresses, paint, compound wood surfaces, vinyl, upholstery and foam, air freshers and even cooking. The list is endless.

Having looked through the list, I have decided to start living in my car. I think it’s going to lessen my exposure to VOCs and reduce the hazards hiding in my wife’s cooking.