It’s evocative, relaxing, and not very good for you.
If you’ve owned a new car then you know that feeling. There’s a healthy warranty on the vehicle, there’s little danger of expensive noises suddenly make themselves known, and there’s no big service on the horizon. It’s as worry-free and relaxing as motoring gets. There’s no junk rattling around in the trunk yet, and there’s not even a coin on the floor down by the side of the driver’s seat in that area nobody can reach. Perfect.
It also has a unique smell. It’s not necessarily pleasant but, for the rest of your life, it evokes that period of time when a car is perfect. No coffee or soft drinks have been spilled, the floor mats are immaculate, and if you’re a parent, no kids have run amok over the back seats and caused permanent damage yet. It’s a happy smell. Maybe to the point of association with having enough money to choose a brand new car.
It’s no wonder any automotive air freshener manufacturer worth their salt makes a New Car Scent air freshener. But what, exactly, are they trying to replicate?
New car smell is the result of a process known as off-gassing. Off-gassing is all the new plastic and vinyl in your car releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The term VOC may ring a bell because it has been in the media as a subject of environmental studies. What we’re talking about here in layman’s terms are toxic chemicals. They are released by anything newly manufactured using plastics or foams including carpets, sofas, and mattresses as well as things like paint and household cleaners.
Some people can actually feel sick from exposure in a new car or, in my case, have their sense of taste altered for a while. The VOCs are escaping from your seats, carpets, door inserts, and most obviously, your dashboard. If you’ve owned a new car and wondered why the bottom of the windscreen keeps fogging up, that’s from the big plastic dashboard off-gassing.
The good news is that the off-gassing eventually runs its course as the materials finish curing. If you do feel any effect from the process, it can be sped up using heat and ventilation. The environmentally friendly way is to leave the car in the sun with the windows cracked for as long as possible before cleaning all the surfaces with a soft cloth and gentle cleaner.
The non-environmentally friendly way is leave the car running outside and crank the heaters before wiping down. Depending how long and where the car was sitting after manufacture, it may take quite a few sessions.
Manufacturers are aware of the negative impacts of VOCs and, while air freshener companies are trying to replicate the smell, the car makers are trying to drastically reduce it. No doubt, because of the way of the world, they will eventually crack that problem then work on artificially synthesizing the smell themselves because people expect it.