How Do Odor Neutralizers Like Febreze Work?

Odor neutralizers can work some chemical magic on your smelly sofa.
Odor neutralizers can work some chemical magic on your smelly sofa. / Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Moment via Getty Images

Unpleasant odors are all around us, from foul body scents lingering from visitors to whatever unspeakable things your pet has tracked into your home. Rather than wait for the smell to dissipate on its own, some people reach for “odor neutralizing” products like Febreze to dampen the olfactory offense. But are they masking the smell, or actually getting rid of it?

It’s a little bit of both.

According to The Washington Post, Febreze—which debuted in 1999—actually functions as a chemical attack on smells. Odor is emitted from molecules in the air that stimulate receptors in the nose. When Febreze is spritzed, it uses compounds called cyclodextrins to trap the molecule. While it doesn’t disappear, it’s contained, effectively shutting off its ability to offend your nostrils.

The spray has other properties, too. Sodium citrate affects the pH of odor molecules; the proprietary duo PSB polymers deliver the spray deep into fabrics.

But if Febreze can kill a scent, how can it give off a pleasant aroma of its own? Wouldn’t it neutralize itself? Not necessarily. Both the cyclodextrins and the odor molecules are hydrophobic, repelling water. The perfume content of an odor neutralizer is hydrophilic, which is attracted to water. The two don’t mix, and so Febreze can both “kill” odors and give off a scent of its own without interfering with itself.

While Febreze is a clever chemical product, its most impressive function was initially lost on consumers. When Procter & Gamble began testing it in the 1990s, people didn’t seem to be responding to ads trumpeting the product’s ability to “kill” unpleasant odors in the home because people tend to be desensitized to them. When one field operative from the company quizzed a woman in her residence about what was, to him, a potent smell courtesy of her nine cats, she seemed confused. The cats, she said, hardly smelled at all.

[h/t The Washington Post]