MUNDANE MYSTERIES: What Is “New Car Smell” Really?

If you’re anything like me, the smell of a new car is amazing…alluringly appealing, as I like to say. You might not be able to put your finger on exactly what that smell is, but it’s just excitingly enticing. But what is “new car smell” really? And what makes it so distinct that air fresheners & sprays continue to try & replicate it?

Despite its crisp aroma, the smell of a brand-new car is not natural. “New car smell” is actually the result of what’s called “outgassing”, which is the release of various chemical compounds from the plastics, paint, lubricants, sealants, plasticizers, and other materials that were used to make your new ride.

To make cars so that they last, they’re built with materials that allow minimal corrosion, which usually means a plethora of high-performance vinyls & plastics, which are really great at preserving car interiors. Like polyurethane, a tough flexible material that’s resistant to temperature extremes & abrasion from weather, radiation, and most solvents. Then there’s polyethylene terephthalate, better known as polyester, which is used for wiper arms, engine covers, and connector housings. Materials like these, along with lots of others, all contribute to that tantalizing new car smell.

But while the scent might smell divine to many, such as myself, it can be as toxic as it is intoxicating. The volatile organic compounds, or V.O.C.s, that get released from those kinds of materials have high vapor pressures as well as low boiling points, which causes large numbers of molecules to evaporate into the air. As a matter of fact, scientific studies have been conducted to test whether or not those smells are concentrated enough to produce any health risks, whether they be short- or long-term. Some of those volatile chemicals, which are the same ones commonly found in paints & glues, can actually result in dizziness, allergic reactions, headaches, or even cancer if inhaled in large enough quantities for long enough periods of time.

Thankfully, though, most of the VOCs in a new car’s interior dissipate over time & can be released from the car by just rolling down a window & getting some fresh air circulating. So, if you love new car smell as much as I do, just remember: the safest way to enjoy it (just like anything else) is in moderation.

Got a Mundane Mystery you’d like solved? Send me a message via Twitter (@AndyWebbRadio), or shoot me an email at [email protected].

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