What Causes a New Car Smell? Definition, Meaning and Concept

Even though people call using the phrase the new car smell, it applies to any new vehicle, like a camper or RV, 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 plastics, adhesives, and other chemicals release trapped gases, their combined odors cause new car smell. This outgassing decreases as the vehicle ages, and the study showed that outgassing was significantly reduced after two months. Some people enjoy the smell, but other people suffer health problems from the chemicals released.

The study detected approximately 100 compounds in the test car's interior air, and more than 50 of the chemicals were significant by volume. Most of these compounds are a mixture of invisible fumes and vapors from solvents and adhesives, plastics, and other materials. Many of the chemicals are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause headaches, throat and eye irritation, and drowsiness. Although some countries and regions protect their consumers from excessive exposure to VOCs, the United States does not have regulations that control VOCs. In American cars, the gases that create the distinctive odor can be up to 128 times larger than Australian standards allow.

Softeners for plastics, called phthalates, exhaust gas, but some chemists claim that phthalates have only a slight odor and probably don't contribute to the car's new scent. Other degassed chemicals that many health officials consider to be carcinogens include benzene and formaldehyde. Some companies sell vehicle air purifiers. Experts suggest that people keep their vehicles as cool as possible because outgassing increases significantly as temperatures rise. Parking in the shade and using a sun protection device are two ways to keep a parked car cooler.

The fabrics in a new vehicle contribute to the new car smell. This includes car seat upholstery, internal seat padding, and carpet. An invisible contributor is sound insulation. Some new products are more unstable than others, like carpets.

Although leather is more organic than vinyl, the tanning process, dyes, and cleaners all contribute to outgassing. Vinyl or other plastics, paints and sealants, and lubricants give off gases for many months. Some experts advise that it may take six months before the process slows noticeably. When an owner uses cleaning products and other maintenance chemicals, such as leather and vinyl conditioner, they extend the time a vehicle has that new-car smell.