What causes a new car smell?

Although we commonly use the phrase “smells like a new car”, it can be applied to any vehicle. This characteristic smell can also be found in a multitude of similarly smelling newly acquired objects. This smell is caused by various chemicals, especially plastics, adhesives and other volatile compounds. Their combination gives the typical “new car” smell. Over time, these gases are depleted and in approximately two months there is almost none left and the new smell disappears. Some people like this smell, while others may experience health problems from contact with the released substances.

Most prominent substances

A 1995 study of a Ford Motor Lincoln Continental found over 100 different compounds in the air inside the car. Of these substances, 50 were in significant volume. Most of these gaseous chemical compounds were invisible vapors from solvents and adhesives, plastics and other materials. Some of these compounds are listed as Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and some of them can produce headache, eye and throat irritation, and drowsiness. In some countries, specific legislation exists to limit consumer exposure to VOCs, including the concentration of these gases in new vehicles when they are offered for sale.

Among the substances that reach the highest concentration are phthalates, some compounds that are used to soften various types of plastics. But phthalates have little odor and probably don’t contribute much to new-car smell. Other volatile chemical compounds found are benzene and formaldehyde, substances for which there are strong indications as carcinogens. To reduce the concentration and exposure to these substances, it is recommended not to expose the car to high temperatures, for example by parking in the shade and using umbrellas. In any case, the interior of a new car must be well ventilated every time we enter.

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Fabrics and fibers also play a role in smelling again. The most important are the upholstery and interior upholstery of the seats and the carpeting of the floor and ceiling. While leather upholstery may seem less odorous than vinyl and other fibers, the products used in the tanning process, as well as leather dyes and cleaners, contribute significantly to the gases released inside.

Vinyl and other plastics, paints, lubricants and sealing agents such as adhesives and silicones emit gases for months. Some experts say it takes at least six months before the release of these gases slows down considerably. If the vehicle owner uses certain cleaning products, such as leather conditioners, it can prolong the time the car smells new, but also the time it can be exposed to fumes inside the vehicle.

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