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What Causes a New Car Smell?

By Terrie Brockmann
Updated May 23, 2024
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Even though people call use the phrase the new car smell, it applies to any new vehicle, such as a camper or recreational vehicle, a boat, or an airplane. A 1995 study using a 1995 Lincoln Continental found that a wide variety of chemical compounds cause the odor. As the plastics, adhesives, and other chemicals release trapped gasses, their combined odors cause the new car smell. This outgassing lessens as the vehicle ages, and the study showed that the outgassing reduced significantly after two months. Some people relish the smell, but other people suffer health problems from the released chemical compounds.

The study detected approximately 100 compounds in the interior air of the test car, and more than 50 of the chemical substances were significant in volume. Most of these compounds are a mix of unseen fumes and vapors from solvents and adhesives, plastics, and other materials. Many of the chemicals are volatile organic compounds (VOC), which may cause headaches, throat and eye irritation, and drowsiness. Even though some countries and regions protect their consumers from excessive VOC exposure, the United States does not have regulations controlling VOCs. In American cars, the gases that create the distinctive smell may be up to 128 times greater than Australia's standards allow.

Softeners for plastics, called phthalates, outgas, but some chemists claim that phthalates have only a slight odor and probably do not contribute to the new car scent. Other outgassed chemicals that many health officials consider carcinogens include benzene and formaldehyde. Some companies sell air purifiers for vehicles. Experts suggest that people keep their vehicles as cool as possible because outgassing increases significantly as the temperature rises. Parking in the shade and using a sun-blocking apparatus are two ways to keep a parked car cooler.

Fabrics in a new vehicle contribute to the new car smell. This includes the car seat upholstery, the seat's inner padding, and the carpet. An unseen contributor is the acoustic insulation. Some new products are more unstable than other ones, such as the carpeting.

Even though leather is more organic than vinyl, the tanning process, dyes, and cleaners contribute to the outgassing. Vinyl or other plastics, paints and sealers, and lubricants outgas for many months. Some experts advise that it may be six months before the process noticeably slows. When an owner uses cleaners and other maintenance chemicals, such as leather and vinyl conditioner, they extend the time that a vehicle has the new car smell.

WikiMotors is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon959291 — On Jul 03, 2014

My wife bought me an air freshener that was supposed to smell like a new car smell. I opened it and hung it in my car on the way to work one morning. It smelled all right, not exactly like a new car smell, but pleasant enough. I left my car in the parking lot and went in to work and didn't think about it for the rest of my day.

By ZsaZsa56 — On Jan 17, 2012

My wife bought me an air freshener that was supposed to smell like new car smell. I opened it and hung it in my car on the way to work one morning. It smelled all right, not exactly like new car smell but pleasant enough. I left my car in the parking lot and went in to work and didn't think about it for the rest of my day.

Well when I went out to my car that evening and opened it up I was almost overpowered by the smell. I guess it had just built up in there all day and gone bad somehow. Maybe the air freshener smelled that bad the whole time. I got rid of it immediately and drove home with all the windows down. Unfortunately the smell lingered for weeks. I learned a rough lesson that day.

By whiteplane — On Jan 16, 2012

I love new car smell. I would actually pay extra if they could somehow ensure that my car smelled that way all the time.

Even before I read this article I knew what it was and it does seem kind of silly to love the smell of plastic and glue. But there is something about that smell that just reminds me of success, which I guess I always associate with a new car.

It's like this is mine, it cost a lot of money and no one else has ever owned it before. Everything is brand new. It's a good feeling.

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