Lives are full of smells. If you live a lot of your life in your car — picking up the kids after soccer practice, driving home with delicious but pungent takeout, or exploring the country on epic road trips — it stands to reason that your vehicle will absorb many of them. That’s why every driver needs the right car air freshener. It’s an investment in a better quality of life. No, really.
How much of an investment? Entirely up to you. Air fresheners that can do the job come at lots of different price points, scents, and form factors. Also, the intensely personal nature of cars — that they are so present in our lives and so reflective of our personalities — complicates things. A more modern air freshener might work better, but if preserving the vintage cachet of an older vehicle is important to you, then something in the shape of a tree is going to be the obvious choice. So while it’s most important to choose a car air freshener that actually works, choosing one that fits both car and driver is also important.
What the Experts Say
Renea Hanks, the founder of Moda Fraganza with over 20 years experience in fragrance composition, says that, because scent affects memory and emotion, it’s important to choose a fragrance with positive associations.
“If you purchased your car brand new and now have buyer’s remorse, do you really want that new car smell that is so popular? Probably not,” she said. “How about a tropical vacation with salty air, palm trees and coconut drinks? Have you ever had an experience like that or dream of one? If so, that is a good fragrance choice for you.”
Once you’re done looking within for the smell that will make you happy, Laura Avila, an experienced professional cleaner who also runs CleaningFan.com, recommends focusing on the practicalities. “I’ve come across a variety of car air fresheners and have found that the best ones are those that are easy to use and install, and are refillable or have a long-lasting fragrance life,” she says. “A good car air freshener should effectively eliminate odors, provide a pleasant and long-lasting scent, and not cause any damage or safety concerns.”
Using these criteria, SPY identified nine car air fresheners in a variety of scents, formats, and price points.
Votivo Aromatic Auto Fragrance
Votivo is a fragrance company first, so it’s not exactly a surprise that their car air freshener scents — island grapefruit, teak, and champaca among them — are more creative than the standard new car and pine options without crossing into the absurd. (We call this the Bath & Body Works line.)
For just $10, which Hanks says is her maximum spend on her own car air freshener purchases, you get one of these scents in a cartridge that clips onto an air vent and leverages the A/C to disperse the smell. (It also has a dial that lets you adjust how strongly or faintly the scent disperses.)
P.F. Candle Co. Car Fragrance
Why It Stands Out: A more refined take on the hanging air freshener, P.F Candle Co.’s car air fresheners feature complex scents and refined packaging that’s miles away from the standard options at the local automatic car wash.
Coolest Feature: The freshener comes in a barrier bag that you can use to control the strength of the scent. For the strongest odor possible, take the freshener completely out. For a more muted scent, snip across the top and expose as much as the freshener as needed.
Febreze Unstopables Car Vent Clips
Who It’s For: People whose favorite scent is fresh laundry. It’s a difficult-to-define smell, but when you clip these tiny reservoirs to your vents, you’ll recognize it circulating almost instantly. And instead of covering undesirable smells, these clips contain odor blockers that, true to the brand’s reputation, can help get rid of the smells that build up over years of driving.
Coolest Feature: The reservoir has a clear front window that proves the fragrance is being dispersed and serves as a reminder of when you need to replace the clip.
Ozium Smoke & Odor Eliminator Gel
Why It Stands Out: This car air freshener sits snugly in a cup holder or center console, and is designed specifically to take on perhaps the stingiest of car smells: cigarette smoke. But even if you’re not a smoker, it can take care of the stubborn smells that confront you every time you open your car door.
Made For: Smokers and drivers who don’t want to be distracted by a rear-view hanger or partially obstruct their A/C vents with a clip-on air freshener.
Little Trees Royal Pine Hanging Air Freshener
Made For: Drivers who appreciate a classic. The aptly named Car-Freshner Company that makes these says they date to 1952 when Julius Sämann invented the first car air freshener for a milk truck driver in northern New York whose truck smelled like, well, spoiled milk. He cut the specialized blotter material in “the shape of an abstract evergreen tree in honor of his years extracting aromatic oils in Canada’s pine forests.” For a smell and aesthetic that has stood the test of time, you simply can’t beat this air freshener.
ROI: These air fresheners clock in under $5 and last between six and eight weeks. That’s a good deal any way you look at it.
Purggo Car Air Freshener
Made For: Drivers who think the best smell is no smell at all. Instead of diffusing a scent into the interior of a car, this sack of activated charcoal hangs off the headrest of one of the front seats traps odor-causing chemicals as they pass through. Think of it like a sponge that picks up bad smells.
ROI: One Purggo bag lasts an entire year, which is way more than any of the diffusion-based air fresheners on this list.
Drift Wood Freshener
Why It Stands Out: Attach the chunky metal clip to your visor and snap in one of the wooden cartridges for an unobtrusive, sophisticated look. Scents run the gamut from classics like pine to nouveau scents like pumpkin spice latte, so there’s something for everyone.
Coolest Feature: The fragrance cartridges, which also come in metal and stone varieties, are magnetized. That means they’re easy to install and uninstall — and that they feel expensive and elegant when they snap in snugly.
Chauffeur Car Diffuser
Why It Stands Out: This “smart” diffuser has a motion sensor so it only emits scent when the car is in motion. This has the benefit of saving oil diffusion for when there’s someone around to smell it, and it also goes a long way to making the triple-digit price tag feel justified.
Coolest Feature: The 20-mL diffuser cartridges are inspired by trendy hotels around the world, from the Hotel Costes in Paris (sandalwood, vanilla, amber) to The Wynn in Las Vegas (jasmine, green melon, and lily) — the kinds of places that someone with money to spend on a car air freshener of this caliber would stay.
Patelai Essential Oil Car Diffuser
Made For: People who already have strong opinions on essential oils. This bring-your-own-oil option is essentially a handsome wooden circle that clips to an air vent and can be filled with any essential oil. If there’s a lavender oil that you particularly like at the local farmer’s market or more esoteric scents that aren’t available in other car air fresheners, these diffusers (they come in a four-pack) are for you.
Coolest Feature: These diffusers are made of real, intricately carved wood and contain volcanic stones that absorb and then release the oils over time.
Frequently Asked Questions About Car Air Fresheners
What are the different types of car air fresheners?
There are car air fresheners that just sit in your car and there are those that seek to use your A/C system to circulate the scent throughout the cabin more quickly. There are also ones that add a scent to the air, those that seek to get rid of bad scents, and some that do both.
What should a car air freshener smell like?
Whatever you like. Popular categories include citrus, lavender, and pine scents, which can be energizing, relaxing, and comforting, respectively. Some fresheners don’t smell like anything but instead work to remove existing odors from car interiors.
What’s the best way to get that new car smell?
Plan an elaborate heist to steal that intoxicating new car smell liquid from your local dealership. Or, if you’re no Danny Ocean, just go there and buy a new car like the rest of us.