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Last updated: May 8, 2023

Like New Car Smell? It Could Cause Cancer

The levels of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde found in new cars can cause cancer, according to a recent study.

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There’s nothing like the smell of a new car straight from the dealership, but beware before taking a sniff. A recent study, published in the journal Cell Reports Physical Science from Harvard University and the Beijing Institute of Technology in China, found that the new car smell many love could actually give you cancer. In measuring the concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in new cars for 12 consecutive days, researchers discovered high levels of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, both of which have been linked to cancer in humans and animals.

High Volumes of Cancer-Causing Compounds in New Cars

For the study, researchers observed sealed, new cars parked outside for 12 days to see how 20 common VOCs would affect their environments. The result? They found that levels of formaldehyde and acetaldehyde were above China’s national safety standards by 35 and 61 percent, respectively. These VOCs could affect someone through inhalation or dermal uptake (skin contact).

The combination of these VOCs poses a “high health risk” for drivers, particularly through inhalation, playing “a significant role in the risk of cancer for drivers and passengers exposed to VOCs.”1

What Is Formaldehyde?

According to the American Cancer Society, formaldehyde is a colorless but strong-smelling chemical that, at room temperature, is a gas. It’s commonly used in adhesives, glues, fiberboard, and insulation materials and has been shown to cause nose cancer and leukemia in lab animals.

In people, there has been a proven link between formaldehyde exposure and nasopharynx cancer — which is cancer of the upper throat behind the nose  — as well as cancer of the nasal sinuses and leukemia.2 Formaldehyde made up nearly 26 percent of a new car’s VOCs in the study, although it’s certainly not something people look for in new cars.

What Is Acetaldehyde?

Acetaldehyde, meanwhile, made up 20 percent of new cars’ VOCs. It’s a clear liquid with a strong odor of fruit that is used to produce other chemicals, such as disinfectants. In a car, acetaldehyde can enter the body through inhalation, affecting someone’s blood vessels, lungs, and heart. Repeated damage can severely damage the lungs and cause cancer.3


Other VOCs found in new cars include 2-ethyl hexanol, hexanal, p-Xylene, and more.

How to Stay Safe

The next time you buy a new car, make sure to open the windows to air it out and lessen the concentrations of its carcinogenic VOCs.


Just bought a new car? Make sure you have the best auto insurance for new cars.

If you have an older car, you won’t have to worry about that new car smell, but keep in mind that exhaust gas and atmospheric pollution still affect air quality. Consider buying an electric vehicle to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gasses that could negatively affect not only the environment but your health.


  1. Observation, prediction, and risk assessment of volatile organic compounds in a vehicle cabin environment. Cell Reports Physical Science via ScienceDirect. (2023, Apr 19).

  2. Formaldehyde and Cancer Risk. (2023).

  3. Frequently Asked Questions – Acetaldehyde. Delaware Health and Social Services. (2015, Jan).