In today’s climate change-savvy world, we’re constantly on the lookout for outdoor air pollution. Cars and trucks spewing clouds of particulates have us shaking our heads in disgust, factory smoke stacks have us up in arms, and don’t even think about lighting a fire! But all the while, there’s been a quiet offender much closer to home…inside our homes, to be exact. It turns out that in many cases, indoor air quality is many times worse than the air outside.
Indoor air pollutants are everywhere
The sad truth is that, no matter how health-conscious we are, our houses are absolutely jam-packed full of potential air pollutants. Here’s a very quick run-down of all the things in and around your home that may be lowering the quality of your indoor air, and possibly making you sick:
- Mold. Ah yes, our old arch-nemesis mold. Mold is a sneaky little blighter, lurking where you least expect it and colonizing any areas where there’s poor ventilation or high moisture content. Mold can contribute to chronic respiratory problems, sneezing, allergies, asthma, and low-level inflammation. Do not underestimate the polluting power of mold.
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs). You may have heard me harp on about VOCs in the past – I’m definitely not a fan! In essence, VOCs are toxic gases that are released from certain solids or liquids, with top offenders including paints, varnishes, glues, adhesives, cleaning products, building materials, and furniture. Even the pillow you rest your head on at night could be loaded with VOCs, which then seep into your skin and get sucked into lungs to wreak havoc on your health.
- Radon. This compound sounds like something straight from a crappy sci-fi film, and in fact that guess isn’t too far off the mark. Radon is an odorless radioactive gas that can be emitted by certain rock formations under your home and in some building materials. Radon can contribute to lung cancer, and may be responsible for tens of thousands of deaths every year.
- Carbon monoxide. Yet another odorless, colorless gas, carbon monoxide is emitted via the combustion of fossil fuels. In the home, carbon monoxide can be emitted by anything from cigarettes to faulty furnaces and certain cooking appliances. Carbon monoxide is infamous for causing countless deaths across the globe, mainly on account of the fact that there’s really know way to tell whether it’s lurking in your personal airspace or not.
There’s plenty of other sources of pollution in your household or office, particularly with regards to cleaners, air-fresheners, detergents, and basically anything that isn’t natural. And if you’ve got carpet, be prepared to breathe in a heady mix of dead microorganisms, skin flakes, and a bunch other unmentionables that are better left outside of your nasal passages.
How to improve air quality with indoor plants
Sure, you can spend hundreds, perhaps thousands, on fancy schmancy air purifiers and filters…but let’s be honest, you’d rather save that money for your next tropical vacay, or perhaps a pair of overpriced leather boots. I don’t judge. So how, then, do you get crisp, toxin-free air without forking out a small fortune? Why, indoor plants or course!
But I’m not just talking about any old plants. Back in the 80’s, NASA went to great lengths to determine how to purify the air in their satellite facilities and spacecraft. The result was a series of very convenient studies which showed that certain indoor plant species are a cut above the rest when it comes to removing pollutants from the air and cleaning things up nicely. Based on their findings and those of subsequent studies, here’s the best indoor plants for improving your air quality at home or in the office.
Also known as spadeleaf or burgundy philodendron, this luscious little indoor plant was shown by NASA studies to effectively remove large concentrations of formaldehyde, benzene and carbon monoxide from indoor air. Liivi’s grandma has philodendrons growing ALL OVER her house, so we took a couple of cuttings, shoved them in some soil, and soon had 2 very healthy individuals growing in our own home. I took one of them to work to cleanse the air around my desk, and it had soon sent out 3 meter-long shoots in every direction! If you have a very un-green thumb, this is the plant for you.
Believe it or not, this super handy succulent is the gold standard when it comes to improving air quality in and around the home. Aloe vera is even better at removing formaldehyde from the air than philodendron varieties, and has the added bonus of being a must-have first aid plant for burns, blisters, and sun damage.
Sansevieria trifasciata (snake plant)
In a 2014 study that examined the pollutant-removing abilities of 12 indoor plants, Sansevieria trifasciata (snake plant) turned out to be the most effective in removing the VOC toluene. We’ve got a couple of these plants around the house, and I can confirm that they’re wonderfully easy to keep healthy and they look super cool.
Chlorophytum comosum (spider plant)
We’ve gone from snake to spider, and things are looking mighty fine in the indoor air department! The same study that was all about the toluene removal of snake plant also found that spider plant was the most efficient at removing ethylbenzene (another carcinogenic VOC) out of 12 different indoor plants. This is another easy one to look after, but if I’m honest it doesn’t look quite as cool as snake plant.
There’s plenty of different species that belong to the Yucca family, but if you go to buy one for your home it’ll likely be Yucca elephantipes. Whatever the species, yuccas are a great choice for improving your indoor air quality provided you have enough light infiltration to help them grow big and healthy. Interestingly, I couldn’t actually find any scientific evidence to verify the claims about yucca, but we have a large yucca growing in our hallway and the air always seems fresh and clean out there. If nothing else, it’s a great ornamental plant!
The best setup for your indoor plants
One thing that many of the studies noted was that there’s a certain formula for success when setting up your indoor plants to improve air quality. Here’s a quick summary of how to maximize the air-purifying potential of your indoor plants:
- Plant leaves can only absorb so many toxins from the air, so if you’re worried about indoor air pollution, buy more plants or allow your existing plants to grow bigger by transferring them to a bigger pot. Greater leaf surface area means more toxin removal.
- It’s best to cover the soil around your indoor plant with a sterilized medium like sand or clean gravel. This is due to the fact that exposed soil can harbor mold and other potential organic contaminants.
- The NASA study noted that “a combination of activated carbon and plant roots have demonstrated the greatest potential for removing large volumes of volatile organics along with smoke and possible radon from closed systems.” Now, growing plants in straight activated carbon (aka charcoal) is tricky, but I’ve talked to plenty of people who have had success growing their indoor plants in a moist medium of 50/50 activated charcoal and soil. Give it a go, and if it works your indoor air quality will soar!
Personally, I think the biggest thing is to keep your plants healthy and ensure that you’ve got at least a couple of plants for each large living space. Smaller rooms like bathrooms and bedrooms may only require one plant to keep the air nice and fresh.
Other ways to improve indoor air quality
It’s fair to say that investing in some good indoor plants is the best move you’ll ever make for improving the air quality in your home or office, but there’s plenty of other things you can do besides. Here’s just a few.
Essential oil diffusers
Diffusing certain essential oils fulfills multiple air quality functions within the home. Firstly, essential oils are hands-down the best way to make your home smell ah-may-zing, and they do this without exposing your lungs to harmful chemicals…the same can’t be said for conventional air fresheners. Secondly, certain essential oils have powerful anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties, meaning they can be used to kill off airborne mold and other organic toxins. I often pop 3-4 drops of doTERRA’s onguard essential oil, or sometimes lemon essential oil, into the diffuser and set it going for 2 hours in our bathroom to ensure we don’t suffer from any mold issues.
Burning regular paraffin or soybean oil candles in your home is one of the worst things you can do for your health. If we walk into somebody’s house and they’re burning these types of candles, we usually either step back outside or sneakily put the candles out while they’re not looking and pretend it was the wind! Studies show that these candles actually release a toxic mix of VOCs and other harmful compounds into the air.
The solution, then, is to invest in beeswax candles instead. They may cost more, but they burn for longer, smell far nicer, and provide a net benefit for your indoor air quality. Pure beeswax candles burn with no smoke and release negative ions into the air, which bind to airborne toxins and contribute to their removal.
While there’s a notable lack of scientific evidence, there’s no shortage of anecdotal evidence suggesting that salt lamps are good for improving indoor air quality. They’re composed of Himalayan salt crystals that, similar to beeswax candles, emit negative ions into the air when heated slightly. In addition, the light they produce is a warm orange color, which incidentally is the only light spectrum that won’t interfere with your melatonin production. For this reason, salt lamps make a great night light for babies or kiddies, as it won’t keep them awake and it cleanses the air.
Got any air-purifying techniques that I’ve missed? Or have you experimented with different indoor plants and seen great results? Let us know in the comments below!