What Causes ‘New Car Smell’?

By Ezra B

The distinct aroma of a new car holds a special place in many people’s hearts, symbolizing the excitement of a significant purchase and the promise of a fresh start. However, the so-called “new car smell” is not just a simple fragrance; it’s a complex blend of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emanating from the materials within the vehicle. This peculiar combination, comprising 50 to 60 VOCs, gives rise to the characteristic odor many associate with a brand-new automobile.

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While the new car smell might evoke feelings of luxury and novelty, its composition isn’t as romantic as its allure. The primary contributors to this scent include chemicals like toluene, ethylbenzene, styrene, xylenes, and trimethylbenzene. Toluene, for example, is a common solvent found in paints and glues, while ethylbenzene, a colorless gas, shares its origins with petroleum and coal tar, hence its gasoline-like odor.

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Styrene, another significant component, is a synthetic chemical used in various vehicle materials, such as rubber, insulation, and carpet backing. Xylenes, known for their sweet fragrance, are prevalent in the rubber and leather industries and among the top chemicals produced in the United States. Finally, trimethylbenzene, an aromatic hydrocarbon with a distinct scent, finds its way into solvents, thinners, and auto fuel additives.

Despite the charm of this new car smell, automobile manufacturers are increasingly working to minimize its presence in their vehicles. The efforts stem from concerns about the potential health implications of prolonged exposure to VOCs. Consequently, carmakers are exploring alternative materials that produce fewer off-gassing odors, promoting a safer and more environmentally friendly driving experience. For instance, adopting soy-based foam seat cushions, which emit fewer VOCs, is a notable step in this direction.

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To mitigate the effects of the VOCs in new cars, it’s recommended to ventilate the vehicle by opening the windows. This simple practice facilitates the influx of fresh air, aiding in the dispersion and breakdown of the volatile compounds. By promoting better air circulation, car occupants can reduce their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals, ensuring a more pleasant and health-conscious driving environment.