What Exactly Is ‘New Car Smell’?

Ever wonder what really makes a car smell like new? Let’s explore the science behind this iconic aroma.
Would a smell by any other name evoke such delight?
Would a smell by any other name evoke such delight? / Andreas Schlegel, fStop Collection, Getty Images (inside bubble) ; Justin Dodd, Mental Floss (background)

To most people, the smell of a new car is strangely enticing. Though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes the aroma so distinct, plenty of air fresheners and sprays have tried to replicate it. But what exactly is that scent?

Despite its crispness, the smell of a brand-new car is far from natural. It’s actually the result of the release or “off-gassing” of numerous chemical compounds in the plastics, paint, lubricants, sealants, plasticizers, and various other materials that are used to manufacture an automobile’s interior and exterior.

Cars are made to last—enduring bumps and scratches while upholding a sleek appearance. To accomplish this, they’re constructed with materials that provide minimal corrosion, which usually means a variety of high-performance vinyls and plastics. These materials are highly effective in preserving the interiors of a car: polyurethane, for example, is a tough flexible material that is resistant to temperature and abrasion from weather, radiation, and most solvents, while polyethylene terephthalate (more commonly known as polyester) is used for wiper arms, engine covers, and connector housings. These materials, as well as many others, all contribute to that new car smell.

Although the scent smells heavenly to many, it can be as toxic as it is intoxicating. The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released from such materials have a high vapor pressure as well as low boiling points, which causes large numbers of molecules to evaporate into the air. In fact, scientific studies have been conducted to test whether or not these smells are concentrated enough to produce any health risks—either short- or long-term. Some of these volatile chemicals, the same ones that are commonly found in paints and glues, may lead to dizziness, allergic reactions, or headaches if you're exposed to large quantities for long enough periods of time.

Fortunately, most of the VOCs in a car’s interior dissipate over time and can be released from the car by simply rolling down a window and allowing fresh air to circulate.

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A version of this article was originally published in 2016; it has been updated for 2024.