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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.