What Causes That New Car Smell?

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The smell of a new car is often linked to feelings of excitement, newness, and fresh-out-of-the-box cleanliness. In fact, many people try to recapture the scent once it has faded. But what really causes that new car smell? It’s not as glamorous as the feelings you may associate with it.

Volatile organic compounds

Vehicle interiors contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the materials used to manufacture their parts. This includes materials like rubber, plastic, dyes, upholstery, leather, fabric, carpet, adhesives, and so forth. Other parts that contain VOCs include window sealants, seat covers, dashboards, arm rests, door trim, and most floor coverings. These compounds release a scent otherwise known as “off-gassing,” which is the release or evaporation of the VOCs.

Differing smells

You will notice that the new car smell differs from car to car based on the material used. For example, a vehicle with leather seats will have a different scent than one with fabric seats. This is because they are made of different materials and release different VOCs based on the chemicals used in their makeup.


The chemicals found in VOCs are the same chemicals found in other household products such as nail polish remover, glue, paint remover, carpets, and paint. The list includes materials like formaldehyde, chlorine, ethylbenzene, toluene, petroleum, and alcohol.
There has been worry over the years that the off-gassing of these from a car is dangerous. However, even after much debate, the verdict remains unclear. There is evidence, though, that they may trigger an allergic reaction if you already have an allergy to one of the chemicals.

Future of new car smell

Because of the widespread health debate over the potential hazards associated with the materials, many manufacturers are taking measures to eliminate the chemicals that cause VOCs. For example, one of the main chemicals in current use is polyvinyl chloride, but in recent years its usage has been reduced to as little as 20%.
Some manufacturers are working to install better filtration systems and design more efficient ventilation systems, so that the off-gassing of VOCs is quicker. This, combined with switching to soy-based materials, is assisting in eliminating the new car smell and the chemical process that causes it.
Not everyone is a fan of that new car smell, either. If you fit into this group, there are ways to help eliminate the odor. Give your car a thorough cleaning, including shampooing the carpets and wiping down all the surfaces. Make sure to let everything completely dry before finishing so that you don’t replace the new car scent with a damp car smell. Also, drive with the windows down or run the air conditioning or heat so that it draws in fresh and does not recirculate the interior air.
You can try odor-absorbing methods, such as dryer sheets, baking soda, white vinegar, and charcoal. Place one of these in a non-spill container and replace every few days until the odor has subsided.
While you can help eliminate the odor of VOCs, the only true method is time. Over time, the odor will fade as the chemicals are released. Remember, what causes that new car smell is also the things that make it brand new. With the changing mindset of many manufacturers, that new car scent may soon be a thing of the past.

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