One thing you can do to keep your lungs healthy this season is vacuum. Studies have shown that households with carpeting have higher levels of certain chemicals, ranging from hormone-disrupting phthalates to flame retardants that interfere with your thyroid hormones. The best fix is to replace all that carpeting with hardwood flooring, but if that's not in your budget, you can do the next best thing: Get yourself a really good vacuum cleaner—or at least learn how to be a really good vacuum-er.
THE DETAILS: Both Consumer Reports and the Good Housekeeping Institute conduct annual vacuum cleaner tests, and what they've found over the years is good news for bargain hunters. Less-expensive brands like Hoover, Kenmore, Bissell, and Eureka usually rate better than fancier brands that come with hefty price tags. In its 2010 tests, Consumer Reports gave props to all those brands for their ability to pick up tough pet hair, good suction when using tools, performance on both carpeted and hard flooring, and reliability (those brands usually required the least number of repairs). The Good Housekeeping Institute lauded vacuums sold under those brand names for ease of use, and consumer-minded features like not tipping over when you pull on the hose attachment.
Miele was the one high-end brand that performed well in both group's tests, and one reason is that brand's effectiveness at preventing dust from spewing out of the vacuum back into your indoor air, says Carolyn Forte, director of household appliances and cleaning products at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute. "The best vacuums trap air and dirt from being emitted from other parts of the vacuum," she says. And although most vacuums do contain filters that prevent dust from the bag or canister from escaping, those filters don't always prevent dust from escaping from other, non-dust-collecting parts of the machine. "Miele provided the best combination of cleaning and performance from an emissions standpoint."
If Miele's $600-and-up price tags give you sticker shock, though, that's OK. Nearly all of the low-cost upright and canister vacuums that Consumer Reports tested scored either "excellent" or "very good" on emissions. Of the brands mentioned above, Hoover's vacuums scored consistently well in that category.
WHAT IT MEANS: You don't have to spend a fortune to get a little peace of mind about what’s lingering in your carpets or in the crevices of your sofa. But even if you aren't in the market for a new vacuum cleaner, there are ways to use your existing dust-buster more effectively.
If you're in the market for a new machine:
• Look for "HEPA" filters. "Unfortunately, when you're buying an appliance, the hardest thing to tell is how it will work at your house, so the best thing to look for is that a vacuum at least has a HEPA filter," says Forte. HEPA stands for "high-efficiency particulate air," and the filters that use the technology trap microscopically small particles that you can't see but that can lodge in your lungs and cause problems. These filters are extremely effective at preventing air from escaping from a vac back into your home. But Consumer Reports has found that some companies can go a little too far, using filters that are so effective they inhibit the suction of the vacuum cleaner. HEPA filters aren't a complete panacea—Good Housekeeping researchers have found that some non-HEPA filters are just as good as true HEPA filters at preventing spewing. Still, Forte says, "Not all vacuums are created equal, but HEPA filters are a good place to start."
• Opt for bags. Sure, those bagless vacuums don't leave you up a creek when you need to clean but realize you don’t have any bags, however, Forte says they add an extra layer of protection between your lungs and all that vacuumed-up dust. Plus, she adds, "the vacuums that have the bags are usually the best-performing." She says it's particularly key for people with allergies to get bagged vacuums, so they don't wind up inhaling a big cloud of allergens as they try to empty a canister.
• Favor the basics over bells and whistles. Nowadays, vacuums have as many features and add-ons as your smartphone. Some come with dirt indicator lights that tell you when your carpets are clean, while others have headlights and automatic height-adjustment features. But Forte notes that the model's attachments could be all the "technology" you really need. "We're all about making cleaning fast and easy," she says, "and your vacuum cleaner is actually a really great tool for speed-cleaning." Look for dusting attachments you can use on things like lampshades, crevice tools for tight corners and for the crumbs in the corner of your sofa, and wall brushes that clean hard-to-reach corners. Don't be dazzled by a vacuum that doesn't clean anything but carpets. Some of the most expensive models tested by both Consumer Reports and Good Housekeeping didn't come with any attachments at all. Also consider where you'll mostly be using it: Uprights work better on carpeting, while canisters are easier to use if you have stairs.
If you just need some extra carpet-cleaning tips:
• Vacuum often. "The more often you vacuum, the less dust and dander you're going to stir up," Forte says. The general rule of thumb is to vacuum once every three to four days, but if that seems undoable, devote 10 to 15 minutes every day just vacuuming one room. (It's great exercise!)
• Be thorough. Most vacuum pros recommend swiping the same spot seven times to ensure it gets thoroughly vacuumed. But "who has time for that?" asks Forte. Making sure you overlap your vacuum swipes will get that deep-down dirt without turning your vacuuming into a marathon.
• Buy high-efficiency bags. "If you have a bagged vacuum, even going out and buying high-filtration bags, instead of buying the cheapest bags you can find, will trap more allergens," she says. You can buy high-quality vacuum bags from the manufacturer of your vacuum, and online retailers that specialize in allergy-control products carry third-party products that claim to be very efficient in cutting down on dust.
• Dump with care. If you have a bagless vacuum, there are a few techniques you can use to prevent dust from winding back up in your home. The first, Forte says, is simply emptying the dust canister outside (back to the wind!). If that's not possible, she recommends wrapping a plastic bag around both your hand and the dust canister, then pulling the canister release. All the dust you've just collected gets trapped in the plastic bag, which you can then throw away. "That way, you're not inhaling a cloud of dust," she says.