Chemistry of Cars: Is New Car Smell Bad For You? [Video]

On this week’s episode of Chemistry of Cars, TFL’s resident chemist, Charlotte Roadcap, breaks down the chemistry behind new car smell. The goal of this lesson: determine whether or not new car smell can be harmful to your health.

[Photo: Michael Curtis]
Before we can determine whether or not new car smell is bad for you, we must first understand what the smell comes from. New car smell is the off-gassing of various compounds used in the interior of a car. This comes from plastics, molding, carpet, leather and vinyl treatment, upholstery, adhesives, and lubricants all found within the interior of your new car. As your new car’s components settle, they release compounds known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These are specifically carbon containing compounds that can become gaseous, and are often quite reactive. VOCs don’t come from just one molecule, but rather a combination of the different materials in your car’s interior. Hence, why different manufacturers each have their own distinct new car smell.

[Photo: Michael Curtis]
So, is new car smell bad for you? There isn’t really a definitive answer. A study from 2007 found little toxicity under lab conditions. However, without proper ventilation, concentrations of VOCs can be over the recommended limit. In short, VOCs can be bad for you if found in heavy concentration. But the amounts found in most new cars today are totally safe. If you feel concerned about this, your best bet is to just roll down the windows. Allowing your car to ventilate a bit more will ensure that the concentrations within your car are not toxic.

To hear the full explanation, be sure to watch the entire video!