According to the Environmental Protection Agency, an average American spends 93% of their time indoors.
Let this sink in for a second.
87% of that is spent inside buildings and the other 6% inside a vehicle. This means that out of the 168 hours you have in a week, you are spending less than 12 outdoors. And the recent pandemic has only made these numbers worse.
So, naturally, because we are spending so much time indoors (and online), we want to spruce up our indoor spaces just like we see on social media. This means more fluffy rugs, pillows and blankets, fragrant candles, and maybe even new furniture.
But while we’re turning our homes into our tiny safe havens, are we overlooking what’s really safe for our health?
New stuff equals new indoor pollutants
With new furniture, carpeting and decor, new airborne contaminants creep into our homes.
New furniture is often manufactured using toxic chemicals and can be detrimental to your health. There are quite a few eco-friendly and health-safe alternatives to standard furniture on the market. But understandably, replacing everything in your house, especially when recently purchased, is excessive and expensive.
Whether we know it or not, there are a lot of toxic air contaminants in our homes that continuously enter our bodies via the air we breathe. Luckily, we can get rid of these and improve indoor air quality before it causes adverse health effects. But how do we create clean air—healthy, purified air—in our homes?
Let’s look at whether an air purifier can protect your health and clean your home’s air from airborne pollutants, gaseous pollutants, virus particles, or even just regular allergens like pet dander, and what are the best air purifiers available.
So, in this article, we’ll examine the causes of poor air quality and look at some possible solutions.
Whether you live in a cramped apartment or an enormous house with lots of extra room, the air quality in most of our living spaces is dangerously low.
Over the years, many scientific studies have focused on indoor air quality and how it affects us. This research points to a severe need to reduce dangerous airborne pollutants and significantly improve indoor air quality.
According to another study conducted by the EPA, it was found that “levels of about a dozen common organic pollutants to be 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside”.
We all know that the air outdoors is polluted, especially in big cities. But as it turns out, the air inside our homes and workplaces is even worse. This is caused by things like toxic cleaning products, chemicals like flame retardants off-gassing from furniture, aerosol sprays like hairspray and perfumes, building materials, outside air pollution accumulating inside & more.
And since we spend so much time indoors, you can easily see how this can lead to serious health problems.
While we have little control over the outside air pollution, we can definitely keep the air inside our homes clean. The good news is that getting rid of indoor pollutants like fine particles, fungal spores, off-gassing furniture, pet hair, and pet dander, volatile organic compounds, etc., is a pretty straightforward process. And, of course, we should also minimize the outdoor air pollution we drag with us inside on our clothes, hair, and shoes.
Understanding indoor air quality
“Walking into a modern building can sometimes be compared to placing your head inside a plastic bag that is filled with toxic fumes.”
Although this quote from John Bower, the founder of Healthy House Institute, might seem like an exaggeration, it is entirely accurate.
Your indoor air is saturated with pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), formaldehyde, lead, pesticides, asbestos, biological contaminants, etc.
Quite literally every modern health issue, from skin problems, weight gain & brain fog to infertility, and respiratory or autoimmune conditions, is linked to environmental toxins. Many of which you are exposed to just by breathing in your home.
While you might think that it’s not a problem because these toxins only exist in small quantities, the reality is very different.
For instance, let’s look at volatile organic compounds and what they can do to air quality in your home
VOCs are mostly components of petroleum fuels, paint thinners, and dry cleaning chemicals. They’re also found in everyday household products such as aerosol sprays, perfumes, and cleaning products. They’re emitted by thousands of different products.
Basically, VOCs include a variety of human-made chemicals that are emitted as gaseous pollutants from a wide array of sources. And exposure to these gases has both short- and long-term adverse health effects.
While most common household products contain small amounts of VOCs (or so manufacturers claim), construction materials like paints and strong adhesives have enough to cause immediate physical reactions.
So, newly painted walls, wallpaper, flooring, or any new piece of furniture is a potential source of toxic chemicals that off-gas and contribute to indoor pollution. And many studies have shown that the levels of VOCs are consistently up to ten times higher indoors than outdoors.
The health effects you may experience varies significantly between these chemicals. It depends on what, how much, and how long you’re being exposed. However, you never know what you’re being exposed to, so it’s best to avoid these chemicals altogether. VOCs create a high risk for problems like allergic skin reactions, fatigue, hormonal imbalances, cognitive dysfunction, liver damage, nervous system damage, and even cancer.
There are also more acute symptoms.
If you’ve ever noticed eye or nose irritation when there’s construction going on, it’s likely a reaction to volatile organic compounds.
And this is precisely what I’m experiencing as I’m sitting here and writing this article. We’ve just moved into our new office yesterday, but unfortunately, we failed to negotiate nontoxic limescale paint with the office building.
So, the windows are open, our air purifiers are running on full blast, and the inside of my nose is irritated.
But I digress.
In addition to VOCs, there are many other toxic fine particles contributing to indoor pollution
There are also more immediate reactions. We’ve already covered many of these, but just for emphasis, it’s things like incense sticks, candles, and laundry detergent. Then there are also outside sources like smog and industrial air pollution, motor exhaust, pesticides, pollen, wildfire smoke, and other organic pollutants.
As these chemicals make their way into your home and accumulate, they will affect your well-being. The best way to avoid indoor air contamination is to adopt healthy practices. We’ll look at these in a bit.
Every single room is different
Your house might feel like one complete unit, which is true in a way. However, although the air circulation will distribute allergens (as well as airborne viruses, virus particles, and all manner of particulate matter and gaseous pollutants) throughout your home, the type and amounts of allergens will differ from room to room.
For example, bedrooms and living rooms with carpeting and upholstery tend to be the spot for dust particles. Kitchens and dining areas might have more food and cockroach allergens. If you have pets, the space where they spend the most time will have related allergens in the air due to pet dander and fur. And last but not least, bathrooms, damp basements, and areas with water leaks are prime breeding grounds for mold spores.
The quantity and types of allergens in the air inside your home depend on the building type, materials used, and structure. For instance, the house we live in is a 100-year-old house that has been renovated using non-toxic materials. Since there are solid limestone walls covered with lime paint, there’s no mold, and no toxic gaseous pollutants are emitting from the walls.
But new buildings, however, are notorious for having poor filtration and ventilation systems. They’re also often built too fast without leaving adequate time for the dry walls to actually, well… dry. This allows mold spores to really thrive and multiply. The danger is that they will be hidden inside the walls, away from the human eye, but causing harm nonetheless.
Last but not least, size does matter in this case. A space that is just a few square feet or cubic feet larger, or that has larger rooms, will contain more air, resulting in a lower rate of airborne particles or airborne contaminants in a single room. So while it’s a minor factor, room size really does have an impact.
Improving indoor air quality is of utmost importance. There are many solutions to identify and measure the pollutants in the air you breathe, but should you?
Suppose you’re planning on buying, renting, building, or renovating, it might be good to hire a building biologist or air quality specialist to evaluate the space with a particle counter. But that can be an expensive service, and cheap devices from amazon just aren’t reliable. It’s also only worth doing if you’re ready to take actual steps based on the information.
However, skipping the measuring altogether and taking steps to improve your indoor air quality is actually pretty low effort if you play it smart.
Here are three easy ways to significantly improve the air quality in your home
1. Air purification with plants
In the late ’80s, NASA released a series of studies stating that indoor plants can potentially purify the air.
They found that at least one plant per 9.3 m² (100 square feet) space is enough to purify the air. However, these studies were done under particular conditions.
NASA conducted these studies in sealed a space station setting, where there was no air movement. And concurrent research has shown mixed results for real home and office environments.
So as it turns out after some savvy people did the actual math, they discovered that for a 140 m² (1,500 square feet) home, you would need to have 680 plants to have a solid chance of fighting all the toxins in the air. That’s a jungle-worth of plants just to make your air cleaner, which is not at all realistic.
But didn’t we recommend plants in Whomesome’s Ultimate Guide to Non-Toxic Homecare? Well, yes!
Indoor plants still have other air quality and health benefits. In some ways, they are nature’s best air purifiers because they reduce CO2 levels and increase relative humidity. In other words, they help to move the air and act as natural humidifiers.
More humid air could help reduce eye, ear, nose, and throat irritation for people who are sensitive to those things, whether from airborne pollutants or something as simple dry air itself. And some plants can even extract formaldehyde and particular flame retardants contained in new furniture and fixtures from the air to some extent.
And if nothing else, these helpful air cleaners will brighten up your living space and your mood!
Some plants can be pretty pricey, though. That’s why we suggest buying plants that can make little plant babies relatively fast. Our favorites are the spider plant, rubber tree (Ficus), and snake plant (mother-in-law’s tongue).
All three of these plants are super easy to take care of, and if you wait a month or two, you are likely to have a new offspring ready to be repotted.
Ferns are also fairly potent air purifiers but may require a bit more skill to transplant. But that’s why YouTube was invented, right?
And a free life hack tip is to search your local online group or community to see if someone’s moving or gifting plants. You’ll be surprised what gems you can find online for free!
2. Best air purifier
Since an abundance of plants unfortunately won’t do the trick, we recommend that you consider investing in a home air purifier. Air purifiers protect your respiratory health and make your home’s air cleaner for your family, friends, and even your pets.
Here are some of the important features to look out for as you search for the best air purifier on the market:
- Type of filter the air purifier uses
- Easy to change filter type
- The fan speed options
- A quiet or a night operation mode
- The clean air delivery rate
- Wifi connectivity, aka smart air purifier (hint: you don’t want your air filter to have one)
You should also take some time to research the most reliable home appliance manufacturers and perhaps read through some consumer reports to ensure that what manufacturers claim about their air purification solutions is actually true. It is also useful to search forums to compare brands. Some, that have successfully managed to hyped up their “best air purifier” are unnecessarily expensive and you’re basically paying for their marketing costs.
And a little side note about the above mentioned clean air delivery rate (CADR). The calculation process is on the Clean Air Delivery Rate website. They teach you how to calculate the rate at which an air purifier cleans the air and what is the best air purifier for your home. They also have a CADR rating, so you can skip all the math and look for a CADR 300 (& above) and H13 True HEPA Air Purifier. Best air purifier brands should be disclosing their clean air delivery rates number for their own interest.
We know that’s a lot to think about as you select the best air purification system for your home. That is why we’ve done a lot of the research for you. We have tested a number of products at home ourselves to figure out which air purifiers protect you and your home with efficiency and without breaking your bank account.
The most effective way to improve indoor air quality and maintain clean air in the home is to invest in high-quality HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) purifiers. These HEPA air purifiers (with a true HEPA filter) have proven extremely effective, whether you’ve got a large home or just a few square feet to filter.
Many allergy sufferers who use these HEPA filters will vouch for how essential they are. HEPA air purifiers help decrease the level of pollen that has come in from the outside, animal dander, mold spores, dust mites, smoke, odors, and any airborne particles measuring 0.3 microns or above. Although many other air purifier technologies will make similar claims, we’ve found that true HEPA filters are among the top air purifiers on the market.
It is essential to mention that air purifiers do not prevent mold from growing, so it’s still necessary to take care of the source of mold in your home.
We know that finding the right filter for you and your home can be a little intimidating. With so many choices and features (including the ever-increasing number of fan speeds and the impossibly quiet operation offered by most air purifiers today), what should you look for? Should you choose a carbon filter? A HEPA filter? Are Blueair air purifiers the best choice? What does activated carbon even mean? How many air purifiers do you need to breathe clean air? The questions are endless. Don’t worry. We’ll make it simple.
Choosing the right air purifiers
We have two main tips that can already help you narrow your choices.
- For the best air money can buy, go for a true HEPA filter. Avoid cutting corners by going for “HEPA-like” or “HEPA-type” filters, as these are just marketing ploys from companies to get consumers to purchase their product.
- Understand your needs well. Can you isolate your chosen room by closing doors? If the room you want to place the air purifier in cannot be isolated, you will probably need multiple air purifiers, or at least one with a sufficient clean air delivery rate.
3. Source control
In most cases, prevention is definitely better and easier than cure.
Yes, our bodies have the capacity to filter out many of the toxins that we’ve discussed in a natural way, and we can help the effort by following basic health recommendations. But from an evolutionary perspective, the real problem is that we are exposed to supernatural levels of these toxins.
Another issue is that a group of chemicals called Forever Chemicals can not be detoxified, and the damage they cause to our biology is cumulative.
So, prevention and controlling the sources of common airborne pollutants is the most effective way to keep them in check. This means that the smartest move is to reduce the amount of toxins you’re exposed to.
Unfortunately, no plants or air purifiers alone are a magic solution for everything. They help, but it is ultimately up to you to keep your living space toxin-free.
Let’s look at some of the biggest offenders.
Offender 1 — Dust particles
Most of the harmful chemicals in your home accumulate in your household dust.
In 2016, researchers from several scientific institutions, including Harvard, found that, on average, indoor dust contains about 45 chemicals from five different chemical classes. These compounds were derived from common consumer products and home materials. And they were associated with health hazards such as cancer, endocrine and hormone disruption, and reproductive toxicity.
Co-author of the study Veena Singla commented that “We think our homes are a safe haven, but unfortunately, they are being polluted by toxic chemicals from all our products,”
The study focused mainly on how the indoor environment affects children, especially considering that children often play on the floor and put their hands in their mouths.
“They end up having a lot more exposure to chemicals in dust, and they are more vulnerable to toxic effects because their brains and bodies are still developing,” Singla said.
Toxins released from different sources around the house, including mold spores, cleaning products, perfumes, and such love to nest in the dust. All these harmful elements are just collecting in your home and waiting to be inhaled or ingested.
So making sure the dust in your home is under control (we cannot avoid it completely), will lessen your exposure to its harmful effects.
While air purifiers do help to reduce the amount of dust, we also need to do our part and make sure there’s not too much of it for even a great HEPA filter to handle.
A special attention should be paid by the parents of young children who are most at risk when they crawl or play on the floor for obvious reasons.
So what can you do?
Surprisingly, the thing that creates the most dust is fresh laundry—especially when using a dryer. So whenever possible, the washing machine and dryer should be placed in a garage or a basement to keep your air quality at safe levels.
Another significant source of dust is clutter. Piles of clothes, one too many pillow cases, extra blankets and old magazines even if they seem tidy and hidden away, still accumulate dust. If this is your case, it might be time to go Marie Kondo on your home.
Furthermore, if you are running an air purifier with a true HEPA filter or an air conditioning unit, don’t forget to clean them regularly. Also remember to replace filters as indicated in the manual, and it’s always best to keep some spares on hand.
After Miriam and I moved out of our moldy house in Portugal, we tossed out all the relatively new filters from our air purifiers. Because think about it, air purifiers trap mold spores within their filters. We didn’t want to risk contaminating the new place we would move into.
Offender 2 — Lovely little fragrant things
Perfumes are supposed to make you feel empowered and sexy. Scented candles cozy and nostalgic. But the fact is that their contents are poisoning air quality and ultimately, our wellbeing.
Coming to a close contact with these highly scented products, through inhaling or direct application is linked to a staggering number of health risks.
You can find “perfume”, “fragrance” or “aroma” listed as an ingredient even on the so claimed natural products. You may be wondering what the problem is if the product is natural. Well, by law, perfume, fragrance or aroma are just umbrella terms that are protected as trade secret, which means the manufacturers don’t have to disclose their actual ingredient list. And the reality is, that any of these “ingredients” can have a mix of astonishing 3000 different chemicals within them.
The particles from these products can linger in the air for longer than you think. The best practice here is to really avoid anything with any of those three things on the ingredient list.
Offender 3 — Personal care products and household cleaning products
Similarly to the fragrance in perfumes and candles, personal care and household cleaning products can have a whooping amount of harmful chemicals that will add to worsening air quality in your home.
Yes, there are some instances where natural products just won’t do the job. But using regular cleaning products on weekly basis, will keep your home clean on a surface level only. The dangers of the chemicals from things like bleach and regular laundry softener greatly exceed the benefits.
Similarly, using a conventional shampoo with a very strong fragrance that leaves your hair and home smelling for hours after use, will be taxing on your liver trying to detox your body and your air purifier cleaning your home.
As you can see from the examples above, it’s not only about investing in an expensive smart air purifier. Most air purifiers will do a great job, even the more affordable ones. But if you want to truly clean your home environment, you have to start looking at it holistically and do your part in avoid adding the air pollutants in the first place.
With a thorough check, you can identify many things that impact your home’s air quality, and you can slowly but steadily find alternatives to prevent chemicals, mold, dust mites, and other airborne pollutants or airborne viruses.
Time to breathe in healthier air
No amount of healthy eating and yoga can save you from developing lung issues and allergic reactions if you continuously breathe in toxic pollutants in your surroundings. While this statement sounds very harsh, it is also a bitter truth that needs our immediate attention and time.
Indoor air pollution is not a new problem, but with people spending increasingly long periods of time indoors, it is an issue that is becoming more prevalent. Your lungs and your overall health will thank you if you make your air cleaner by making an effort to implement some of these simple tips.