What is in that New Car Smell?

/ / Environmental Testing

Testing a new car for VOC’s and Formaldehyde

Healthy Building Science recently leased a brand new 2013 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Clean Diesel for use by the inspection department.  While the car is very nice, low emissions and great mileage, it definitely has that New Car Smell.  Being the science geeks we are at HBS, I decided to sample the interior of the car for airborne VOC and Formaldehyde, to try to determine the components of the somewhat pleasant odor.

Although this is an anecdotal sampling and far from a scientific study, the results are interesting.

Here are the particulars:

Vehicle: 2013 Volkswagen Jetta TDI, Silver with Black “leatherette” interior.  1,080 Miles.

new car smell

HBS New 2013 Volkswagen Jetta

Date of Sampling: November 4, 2013, 12:30 PM.

Location:  Walnut Creek, CA 94595

Outside Air Temperature and Humidity was 64.5OF at 23.4% RH

Interior of the vehicle temperature and humidity was 63.4OF at 30.5% RH.

CO2 Was consistent inside and out at 480 ppm.

new car smell

CO2 monitors

The vehicle had been stationary and sealed (windows closed) for 48 hours except to place and remove sampling pumps.

Sorbent Tube samples from Prism Analytical were taken for TVOC (Total Volatile Organic Compounds) and Formaldehyde.  The formaldehyde sorbent tubes were sampled for 20 minutes (4.0 Liter samples) and the TVOC sorbent tubes were sampled for 120 minutes (24.0 Liter samples).  A sample was taken inside the vehicle and an exterior sample was taken for comparison purposes.

new car smell

TVOC & Formaldehyde Sampling Interior & Exterior


New Car Smell Test Results

Formaldehyde Results              Inside Vehicle                Exterior Control

In Parts Per Billion                            9.9 ppb                     < 6 ppb (BQL)*

*Below Quantifiable Limit

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has set a recommended exposure limit (REL) of 16 ppb. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has set a workplace permissible exposure limit (PEL) of 750 ppb. For more information on exposure limits, see this report about Environmental Health.

The formaldehyde results for the Jetta are well below the NIOSH REL and OSHA PEL for airborne formaldehyde.  As this sample was taken with the vehicle sealed, levels while driving with the windows open should be much less.  It is good to know the exterior air had no appreciable formaldehyde.  Most homes I have tested are between 20-30 ppb for airborne formaldehyde, and very few are below the NIOSH REL of 16 ppb.

The resources listed below provide additional information about formaldehyde.

US Environmental Protection Agency



Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR)



National Institutes of Health (NIH)





Volatile Organic Compound Results              Inside Vehicle                Exterior Control

Measured in Nanograms per Liter                     2,200 ng/L                     < 200 ng/L (BQL)*

*Below Quantifiable Limit

The Median TVOC for approximately 4,500 homes tested is 1,200 ng/L.

The U.S. federal government has not specified a TVOC limit for indoor air. However, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has recommended 500 ng/L as the upper TVOC limit. TVOC levels below 500 ng/L indicate that the IAQ is acceptable for most individuals; however, chemically sensitive persons may require lower levels. TVOC levels between 500 and 1,500 ng/L indicate that the air quality is marginal and some effect on the occupants is possible. Levels above 1,500 ng/L indicate that your IAQ should definitely be improved.  These levels are based on observed health effects and have been determined from a combination of published journal articles (1, 2, 3) and the statistical distribution of TVOC concentrations from the IAQ Home Survey methodology.

For more information on VOC’s and Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) see:

US EPA: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/

American Lung Association: http://www.lung.org/healthy-air/home/

World Health Organization:


Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory: http://www.iaqscience.lbl.gov/voc-introduction.html

The TVOC level in the Jetta would be considered elevated, and may trigger symptoms in chemically sensitive individuals.  Again, this sample was taken with the vehicle sealed, and the levels with the windows open while driving would likely be much lower.  Over time, the off gassing should decrease.

Anecdotally, my colleague, Alex Stadtner, sampled a new car a couple of years ago and the TVOC result was 1,900 ng/L, similar to the Jetta, with a similar chemical composition. What is that chemical composition…?


So What is in that “New Car Smell”?

Components of the TVOC Sample

The largest VOC component of the sample was Ethanol, at 480 ppb.  Several other compounds were detected in trace amounts.

Compound Result (ppb) NIOSH Exposure Limit
Ethanol 480 ppb 1,000,000 ppb
Ethylacetate 7 ppb 400,000 ppb
Ethylene Glycol 5 ppb 50,000 ppb
Propylene Glycol 4 ppb 100,000 ppb
2-Butoxyethanol 2 ppb 5,000 ppb
Toluene# 2 ppb 100,000 ppb
m,p-Xylene# 0.6 ppb 100,000 ppb
Hexane# 0.4 ppb 50,000 ppb


C10-C11 Hydrocarbons were detected but not quantifiable.

# Considered an EPA HAP (Hazardous Air Pollutant)


Ethanol is quite common.  It the alcohol in beer, wine and spirits, as well as most perfumes, fragrances, many cleaners, and hand sanitizers.  While not particularly hazardous, it can trigger sensitivities in chemically sensitive individuals.

The other compounds of new car smell are in trace amounts and are common to paints, finishes, automotive products, and anti-freeze.  C-10-C11 Hydrocarbons are likely diesel fuel, as this is a diesel vehicle.

The presence of these compounds is not surprising, and all the compounds are well below established hazardous limits.

However, the Total VOC amount is much higher than recommended and this may trigger sensitivity in certain individuals.

While some find the “New Car Smell” quite pleasant, other chemically sensitive individuals cannot tolerate the high TVOC.  Opening the windows and ventilating with fresh air will help reduce the levels, and over time the New Car Smell will fade.  Perhaps another sampling at the 2-year mark is order, for comparison.  Check back in 23 months for a follow up!