Man with a clothespin on his nose, reeling from the nasty smell of his laptop.

So, you’ve cracked open that new phone or laptop, only to be greeted by a familiar, plastic smell. Where does this strange “new electronics smell” come from, and why does it disappear over time?

It’s Like a New Car Smell

Everybody knows the smell of a new car. It’s a crisp, clean, and somewhat mysterious scent. It’s often the key factor in confirming that a car is genuinely new, and as it turns out, it’s actually just the smell of vaguely-toxic chemicals. (These chemicals don’t pose a serious health risk, but more on that later.)

See, cars are full of adhesives, flame retardants, chemical starches, and plasticizers. These materials are in your vehicle for a good reason, but they contain a slew of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

VOCs are chemicals that evaporate at or below room temperature. For example, formaldehyde (which contributes to the smell of fresh paint), evaporates at -2 degrees Fahrenheit. And while this sounds scary, most VOCs are entirely non-toxic. In fact, most natural odors are just VOCs.

Like a car, most (if not all) electronics contain glue, flame retardants, protective coatings, and plasticizers. These materials are full of VOCs, which evaporate at room temperature and create the “new electronics” smell.

With Ventilation, the Smell Eventually Disappears

The VOCs in new electronics evaporate into the air that you breathe—that’s why new electronics have a smell. But your new Nintendo Switch isn’t filled with an unlimited supply of VOCs. Over time, all of the device’s VOCs will evaporate into the air, and you’ll be left with a smell-less heap of plastic.

This process is commonly referred to as off-gassing, and it’s the reason why old electronics and cars don’t smell “new.” While this off-gassing process technically begins as soon as a product is manufactured (again, VOCs evaporate at or below room temperature), the speed at which a product off-gasses is mostly tied to ventilation.

A close up photo of an HVAC AC unit

This idea sounds complicated, but it’s straightforward to understand. When you buy a new laptop or phone, it probably isn’t fresh out of a factory. It’s probably spent a few months in the back of a Best Buy. But upon opening the box, your device smells “new.” That’s because there’s very little ventilation inside of a sealed box. Without anywhere for the VOCs to go, they just stick to the laptop or phone.

Some people dislike the smell of VOCs, especially when they’re present on cheap leather products or furniture. These VOC-haters sometimes speed up the off-gassing process by leaving new products outside, or by leaving the windows open in their new car. Remember, ventilation encourages the off-gassing process. If you hate the smell of your new laptop, then don’t leave it in a stuffy room.

VOCs Don’t Pose a Major Health Risk

Earlier, we referred to new car smell as “vaguely-toxic.” That’s because government regulation forces manufacturers only to use safe quantities of toxic VOCs. Sure, the idea that any amount of a toxic chemical can be “safe” sounds laughable, but it’s a scientific fact. Formaldehyde, as an example, is integral to your body’s metabolic functions. It’s only deadly when ingested excessively or inhaled over a long period.

That being said, long-term exposure to these slightly-toxic VOCs can cause some problems, like irritation of the throat and eyes, headaches, and lethargy. These health issues are referred to as sick building syndrome, and they’re usually a result of poor ventilation in a newly remodeled building. Remember, VOCs evaporate into the air, and the off-gassing process is encouraged by ventilation.

A man who's happy because his laptop is fully offgassed

The health issues associated with sick building syndrome are not permanent, and they can be eliminated by improving ventilation (opening a window or replacing the A/C’s filter), steam-cleaning new products, filtering the air with houseplants, or by leaving new products outside to speed up the off-gassing process. Once something stops smelling “new,” it’s been off-gassed.

Yes, there’s the elephant in the room, and it’s called cancer. A Google search for “off-gassing” or “VOCs” will lead to claims that the chemicals in cars, electronics, and new furniture contribute to cancer. While we know that severe long-term exposure to VOCs can cause cancer (working full-time as a painter for thirty years without wearing a mask), it’s challenging to find a link between consumer-level VOC exposure and cancer.

If you’re concerned about the VOCs in your new electronics or updated carpeting (remember, health issues only occur after repeated long-term exposure), then your best bet is to improve your air quality by encouraging ventilation, or by off-gassing new products outdoors. If you want a little piece of mind, you could use an air quality monitor to detect VOCs.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
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