Do fresheners actually kill odors and/or bacteria in the air? Can you explain the science of how this works?

McGuire: Most fresheners do not “kill” anything unless they are part disinfectant. They are simply a cover-up for the foul odor. A registered disinfectant with the proper claims is needed to kill bacteria and generally needs to be applied at the odor source to be effective. The odor itself is caused by molecules that have the ability to emit a vapor. These molecules are generally created by the bacteria. As these molecules become airborne they emit a vapor that hits the olfactory system, allowing people to then identify it as a pleasant or foul odor. To eliminate the odor, you need to choose a product that attacks the odor molecule.

Malik: It depends on the product formulation and its claims. An air freshener is a product designed to mask or remove unpleasant room odors.  If it is designed to mask odors only, it will overcome a malodor by overwhelming it with a stronger odor for a period of time, but it will not break the malodor down.
If an air freshener is designed to break down malodors, it will contain odor counteractants in addition to fragrance. The odor conteractants neutralize the malodor by breaking down its molecules into the air. An air freshener with odor counteracts is the best solution for a facility with offensive malodors such as smoke and rotting food that should be removed from the air.
An air sanitizer can reduce airborne bacteria making the air you breathe healthier and cleaner. The simplest definition of how it works is a molecule from the air sanitizer attaches to a bacteria molecule and causes it to become inert.

Ferris: Let’s take urine odors – one of the toughest cleaning professionals face. Urine odor comes from naturally occurring bacteria and uric acid crystals (crystalized urine residue). Porous damp surfaces like grout host the bacteria, which feed on urine. Uric acid crystals often stay trapped in these porous surfaces and release strong odors as the bacteria consume the urine. Humid conditions or rewetting the surface can reactivate odors. The only real way to completely eliminate odors – not just mask them – is to eliminate those naturally occurring sources of odor.

Michael McGuire
Thornell Corporation
Smithville, Mo.

Beth Malik
Director of Marketing
Amrep, Inc.
Marietta, Ga.

Amanda Daluga
National Sales Manager
OMI Industries/Fresh Wave IAQ
Long Grove, Ill.

Brad Ferris
Senior Public Relations Manager
Clorox Professional Products Company
Oakland, Calif.

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