A change in the air

2nd of October 2023
A change in the air
A change in the air

Air fresheners have come a long way since they first entered the market in the mid 20th century. But the practice of fragrancing the air goes back much longer than that. ECJ traces the origins of air fresheners and looks at the latest technologies capable of delivering pleasant aromas.

Vibrating meshes, perfume diffusers, nanotechnology – these terms and others like them are increasingly being used in the same breath as ‘air fresheners’. The market has grown massively in sophistication over the past few decades and manufacturers are coming up with new and innovative fragrance delivery methods all the time.

But the concept of masking malodours and replacing them with pleasant aromas is practically as old as time itself. In fact, the ancient Egyptians were world leaders in the international perfume trade according to Vectair vice-president of marketing Chelsey Schwartz.

“Many of the scents created in ancient Egypt used myrrh and cinnamon as their core ingredients, both of which can still be found in popular perfumes today,” she said.

Perfume oils were typically stored in ornate alabaster bottles and classed as a precious substance, says Schwartz. “In fact when Julius Caesar won the Battle of the Nile in 47BC, he threw bottles of perfume to the crowd upon his triumphant return to Rome,” she said. “Records show that the ancient Egyptians actually believed perfume to be the sweat of the gods.”

Early perfumes were typically made by boiling flower petals, herbs and spices and soaking them in a carrier agent such as olive oil, says Schwartz. “Imported spices such as pepper, cinnamon or ginger were also used to add an exotic element to local scents,” she adds.

Synthetic fragrances

When synthetic ingredients were first introduced in the late 19th century they enabled fragrances to be mass produced and sold at an affordable price, according to Schwartz. “This meant perfume could become an everyday pleasure rather than an occasional luxury,” she explains. “And perfume oils were used to freshen the air until the mid-20th century, when aerosol sprays in pressurised cans were developed to deliver bursts of fragrance into the atmosphere.”

The air freshening market has evolved both in terms of technology and scent since Vectair began trading in the 1980s, says Schwartz. “Most fragrance dispensers used to be placed in washrooms where a fresh citrus scent was used to mask odours,” she said. “And aircare dispensers were designed to be smelt – but not seen.

“Now however, air fresheners have become a requirement for refined, sophisticated environments such as reception areas, meeting rooms and spas. And today’s dispensers are designed to complement any upscale environment and blend in with the décor.”


Vectair is continuously working to create new technologies and produce more effective air fresheners, says Schwartz. The company’s patented Vibe Pro dosing system is said to enable its Vibrating Mesh Technology to deliver superior scent consistency. “A membrane containing 2,000 laser-cut holes vibrates at the bottom of a reservoir, forcing out a mist of very fine droplets through the holes,” said Schwartz. “This allows the fragrance to be delivered precisely and efficiently – which is something manufacturers have struggled to achieve in the past.”

Antimicrobial technology is also increasingly helping to protect staff and customers from harmful germs, she adds. Vectair’s Invizi-Touch technology is designed to provide protection against bacterial build-up from germs such as MRSA, E.Coli and Legionella.

Prodifa was among the first companies to offer precise automatic diffusion systems for fragrances in the 1980s, according to marketing director Florian Leveugle. “This delivered a consistent fragrance over a period of up to three months,” he said. “It was a solenoid valve system and is still part of our range today.”

The first fragrance diffusers were essentially candles or sachets containing scented essences, he says. “The most common system today is the aerosol dispenser with dosing valves,” says Leveugle. “Other products exist such as nebulisation systems for large spaces and impregnated polymers which are cheaper and easier to use. But these are still marginal solutions compared with metering valve systems.”


Early fragrance products functioned erratically and were not designed for the professional sector, he says. “Either consumption was too high or efficiency diminished over time.

“For a long time the market was driven by price because the aim above all was to deodorise. But many low-cost products are ineffective because they only produce a smell for a few seconds - and sometimes not a very pleasant smell at that. In these cases you might as well not be using an air freshener at all.”

There is now a wide range of technologies available on the market today, says Leveugle. “Automatic diffusers with a timer are ideal for the professional market because they offer value for money and a precise, stable diffusion that lasts for up to eight months with a single refill,” he said.

Solid systems such as impregnated polymers provide a high level of fragrance power, while ultrasound/piezoelectric systems using a mixture of oil and water are both pleasant and aesthetically pleasing, according to Leveugle.

Continuous release

“However, they require regular refilling with fragrance and water while the vibrating membranes tend to clog up quickly, which causes the device to lose its effectiveness,” he said.

Nebulisation systems have been around for years and are highly efficient, says Leveugle. “Our tests show that we can perfume a room measuring 50,000 cubic metres using just one device,” he said.
Prodifa’s latest products include Ideal Misty, claimed to be the first diffuser with refillable metering valve refills. These are said to reduce refill waste by 92 per cent. The company has also launched a new range of fragrances and programmable nebulisers as well as introducing more recycled and recyclable plastics into its products.

Essity’s earliest air fresheners took the form of a plastic tab that would change colour once it had been used up, says the company’s global brand innovation manager Meta Grundén.“Many traditional air fresheners struggle to remain effective due to their ‘spray and fade’ effect,” she said. “They also need to be placed high on walls to deliver freshness to the whole washroom, which is not ideal when making dispenser checks or refilling the unit.”

New from Essity is the Tork Constant Air Freshener which incorporates a generator that continuously releases oxygen. This emits precise doses of fragrance which are delivered to a cellulose pad. The propellant-free system is said to distribute the fragrance evenly throughout the room and each refill lasts for 90 days.

Hagleitner’s first air freshener was the NOLI air purification device, says the company’s product manager Kerstin Heine. “The scent was dispersed throughout a room by the draft of a door wafting the scent through the fins of the device,” she said. “The NOLI-Filler refill was a wad of cotton wool soaked in essential oil and would last for two months.

“Then came the HAGI fragrance dispenser which would be attached to the top of a door. Every time the door closed, a button on the dispenser would be pushed against the door frame causing the dispenser to emit a burst of air freshener.”

Motion sensors

These products were followed by the first digital air fresheners to be equipped with a motion sensor, she said. “With these it was possible to set a time interval for scenting, but the dispersion had to be fine-tuned to ensure that a room was evenly scented.”

She says today’s digital air freshener dispensers are much more customisable. “Many things can be set via the app including the intensity of scenting and the period for which it is active,” she said. “In addition, the frequency and volume can be adjusted while the range of fragrances has been adapted to tie in with customer requests.”

Hagleitner offers the wall-mounted airFRESH spray and the Magicus system which works through evaporation. The fragrance oil is heated on small plates causing it to vapourise and diffuse into the air. The column is said to be suitable for scenting larger areas.

So, how will air fresheners develop in the future? The popularity of programmable technology will rise still further, according to Vectair’s Chelsey Schwartz.

“Customers appreciate the ability to fully control their dispenser output because if a fragrance is too strong, they can turn it down,” she said. “A greater emphasis on sustainability has also prompted a shift towards greener scents containing earthy ingredients along with fruity and floral fragrances. And there is also a move towards scents being recognised as more gender-neutral which means that traditionally masculine scents, such as leather, are now appealing to all genders.”

Higher expectations

The user experience and customer well-being are both growing in importance according to Essity’s Meta Grundén. “People now have greater expectations of indoor spaces and air quality is being placed higher up on the agenda,” she said.Prodifa’s Florian Leveugle says his company is moving towards more eco-responsible products.

“Factors such as waste reduction, intelligent programming, greater autonomy of refills and devices that reduce the use of batteries are among our priorities,” he said. “We are also increasingly developing 100 per cent natural fragrances and ‘picto-free’ products.”Hagleitner’s Kerstin Heine has also noted an increased demand for natural fragrances such as wood scents. “The market is developing according to this demand and it is important for us to keep up,” she said.


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