Since it's the time of year where we are all inside more — and are potentially having people over to visit us, it's tempting to pick up an air freshener when you happen upon them in the supermarket or drugstore. If you do, you're not alone: About 75 percent of American households use some kind of air freshener, whether that's a spray product, a wall plug-in device, potpourri, or solid versions (in fact, the market has doubled since 2003 as scents and types have expanded). But there's good reason to forego that purchase (besides saving money). That's because most air fresheners, including those with a label of "natural,"contain some toxic ingredients. Air fresheners are not regulated for safety by the FDA or any other federal organization, nor are there any safety standards applied to them. But maybe there should be. 

A study by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2007 "... tested 14 different brands of common household air fresheners and found that 12 contained the hormone-disrupting chemicals known as phthalates. Only two, Febreze Air Effects and Renuzit Subtle Effects, contained no detectable levels of phthalates. The products that tested positive included ones marketed as 'all-natural' and 'unscented.' None had phthalates in the list of ingredients or anywhere else on the label." 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, air fresheners most often contain "formaldehyde, petrochemicals, p-dichlorobenzene and aerosol pollutants," that are released more or less continuously. Chemicals used in the home have a disproportionate effect on women (who spend more time in the home) and children and babies, whose bodies are smaller, and less able to process and excrete chemicals that are absorbed or inhaled into their bodies. These chemicals can also irritate asthmatics and those with already existing respiratory issues. 

Since air fresheners only mask problems and don't address the core issues; there are better ways than spraying chemicals into the air we breathe to deal with a smelly house. Here's how I deal (with three people, a dog and two cats in a 1,500-square-foot house): 

Air out your house every day: Newer houses especially tend to have tight envelopes, which means that while they might be energy-efficient, you are probably not getting much fresh air in your house during the colder months. Changing the air can make a big difference. A good flush takes about 10 minutes, and ideally is done every day, but if you can only manage five minutes every other day, that's better than nothing! (After work, right when you arrive home, can be a good time to do it, since you are moving around and stale air that has been sitting all day will get flushed.) When it's not too cold, I crack my window all night so that I get fresh air while I sleep and air the house out thoroughly when the heat is at its lowest point anyway. 

Isolate the smelly stuff and deal with it: This isn't exactly news, but there are probably a few select things causing stinkiness in your house (and you probably know what they are). Empty and clean — with soap — your cat litter boxes and trash can liners or interiors. Blow a fan on damp areas to dry them out, and if you have mold, go after it with some white vinegar and soap solution. If it recurs quickly, you have a mold situation that may need to be professionally addressed, and the moldy smell is the least of your worries — mold can have serious negative health effects when inhaled over time. 

Baking soda, baking soda, baking soda: I sprinkle it over my rugs (always feeling very '50s housewife when I do) and let it sit for 10 or 15 minutes before vacuuming it up, add it to the cat litter box every time I change it, and leave an open box of it in the basement to absorb odors (and then use that to scrub my sinks later). Of course it's great in the fridge to suck up smells and I also sprinkle some in the trash can — and recycling bins kept indoors — every now and then. 

Never smoke cigarettes, pipes or cigars indoors: Never. Not even in a separate room with the door closed, or outside near a window that goes into the house. The smell (and toxins) will hang out long after you've finished puffing. 

Still want to add a little scent to your environment? A super inexpensive, healthy and delicious alternative is essential oils (look for labels that say "100% pure essential oil" on the label, otherwise they can be made with toxic fragrance chemicals). I rub them on the underside of my window sills, drip a couple drops into my air-heat blowers, and the corners of my pillows (they are oil, so they will potentially stain; I do it in an unobtrusive spot). Aura Cacia is a reliable brand and Sweet Orange Oil is usually $4 a bottle and it lasts for hundreds of uses. You can also add essential oils to an old spray bottle (about 10 drops of oil to 10 ounces of water works for me) and spray around if you want an easy, cheap, healthy dose of scent. 

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Starre Vartan ( @ecochickie ) covers conscious consumption, health and science as she travels the world exploring new cultures and ideas.

Why you should ditch air fresheners — even those labeled as natural
There are better ways to improve the way your home smells without resorting to toxins.