Does Febreze Really “Trap” Bad Odors?

Turns out, yes—a cage-like chemical compound called cyclodextrin makes short work of stinky odors.
Surprisingly, there is truth in this advertising.
Surprisingly, there is truth in this advertising. / Carol Yepes, Moment Collection, Getty Images (bottle); Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (BQ speech bubble)

Febreze commercials make a very specific claim: They say their spray is better at deodorizing a smelly room than pungent incense or a fragrant candle because it doesn’t just cover offending smells with oppressive florals, it “eliminates” them. But how is that even possible?

According to a video from the American Chemical Society’s Reactions series, it all comes down to the chemical composition of odors. Febreze really does trap those unpleasant smells, and it does so by deploying chemical compounds known as cyclodextrins.

The centers of the funnel-shaped cyclodextrins are extremely hydrophobic, which means they attract other hydrophobic molecules, including those that are responsible for most aromas. When odor is emitted from molecules in the air, they also tend to stimulate receptors in the nose. As such, after spritzing some Febreze, those hydrophobic stinky scents get trapped inside the cyclodextrins, rendering them unable to reach those nose receptors. This leaves the intentionally hydrophilic perfumes added to the Febreze to flood your senses with more appealing scents.

But while we know how Febreze works, we still don’t quite fully understand how we smell smells, as chemist Chad Jones explains in the video. “What we’re not sure about is how the receptors work,” Jones says. “Some say the receptors work like a lock and key, with the molecule acting as a key in the lock receptor. Others suggest that because each molecule vibrates in its own special way, the receptors can detect these vibrations.”

We do know that volatile molecules—ones that evaporate quickly and enter the air—bind to olfactory receptors, which then send a message to the brain about the nature of the chemical. As two Nobel Prize–winning researchers discovered, these receptors are highly specialized and can detect only a few kinds of odors.

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A version of this article was originally published in 2015; it has been updated for 2024.