Just What Is That New Car Smell?

New Car Smell

There is nothing quite like that new car smell. While you might not describe it as fresh or natural, it certainly has a very distinct odor that many have come to enjoy. Maybe the smell reminds people of money or success. Buying a brand new car can be expensive, after all. Or perhaps the odor evokes a sense of newness or cleanliness. Whatever the reason, people seem to like it. One question still remains though – just what causes that smell?

The New Car Smell

While the new car smell might seem familiar, one thing to keep in mind is that both the scent and the direct cause of the aroma actually differs from car to car. That said, the smell is largely the result of the same basic principles at play.

The new car smell is mostly the result of organic compounds in the interior of the car. Much of a car’s interior is made of plastics and various fabrics, and many components are held together with an assortment of adhesives and sealers. These parts release volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, through a process called off-gassing.  

Off-gassing is the release of a gas that has been dissolved, trapped, frozen, or absorbed in some material. It occurs because not all chemicals used in automobile manufacturing bond to the other compounds used in the car, and are therefore released over time in a process similar to evaporation. The new car smell is the direct result of these VOCs off-gassing.

If VOCs sound familiar, it’s because they are practically everywhere. Many household products, like paints and cleaning supplies, emit VOCs. VOCs are air pollutants, and like other forms of pollution, they can be bad for your health. Thankfully, they’re normally found in very low concentrations in indoor air.

So Is a New Car Bad for Your Health?

We now know the smell is a result of VOCs off-gassing, but are these VOCs in your car bad for you? Yes and no.

At new car levels, these chemicals are not all that dangerous, but they’re not exactly good for you either. We mentioned that the scent and cause of the new car smell is different depending on the automobile. Basically, when it comes to VOCs, not all cars are created equal.

There have been studies done in the past that suggest that some of the chemicals off-gassed in cars can be bad for your health. Some have even recommended ventilating new cars while driving, especially during warm summer months.

Still, too much exposure to just about anything can prove to be bad for your health, and conversely there has been evidence to suggest that the new car smell is not toxic.

One good thing is that the new car smell, or more specifically, the VOCs that cause them, decay pretty quickly. You’ve probably noticed that the odor doesn’t linger around all that long.

Additionally, many automakers are actually trying to get rid of that new car smell by experimenting with different, more natural products to build their cars. Most companies would prefer not use the chemicals involved in the smell if they can help it.

New Car Smell in a Bottle?

If you’re concerned that the new car smell might eventually go away, worry not. Turns out there are plenty of people trying to profit off the odor by selling ‘New Car Sprays’.

Fortunately (or unfortunately if you’re into authenticity), fragrance manufacturers aren’t stuffing bottles full of VOCs, but rather trying to simply mimic the smell. Still, the fact that there is even a market for these types of products proves that consumers really do love that new car smell.

How do you feel about the new car smell? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Mark Heald

Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.

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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 156 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.