Foreign or domestic, manual or automatic, every vehicle that rolls off the assembly line comes with a standard feature: that new car smell. Many people like it—so much that you can buy “new car smell” in a spray can. Like any familiar scent, the whiff of a new car can tug on our emotions. “It gives you a kind of psychological lift,” says Larry Kramek, a textile test engineer for General Motors. “It’s a smell that tells you you’ve purchased something that is going to last.”
We all know it when we smell it, but what exactly is it? Turns out it’s a chemical cocktail produced by new materials—such as vinyl, adhesives, sealers, and paints—that give off fumes for six months to a year.
A study by scientists at Japan’s Osaka Prefectural Institute of Public Health identified 275 chemicals in car interiors. While some, such as benzene, are known carcinogens, the levels of these compounds found in car interiors have not been conclusively linked to serious illnesses.
According to Jeff Gearhart of the Ecology Center, a Michigan-based environmental nonprofit that issues annual reports on new car smell, some consumers have blamed the car chemicals for problems including headaches and blurred vision. But those claims are difficult to pin on cars, since new car chemicals are also often found in common household items such as sofas, mattresses, and plastic containers. Exposure to potentially harmful compounds is all but unavoidable in daily life.
All the same, to minimize any potential ill effects, experts recommend ventilating a new car by opening doors and windows five minutes before entering, and keeping the car out of the sun, since heat intensifies that new car smell.