7 Steps You Should Take To Detox The Air In Your Home

The air quality in your home is just as important as the quality outside it—here's how to avoid potential health problems.

February 14, 2017
woman relaxing with window open

Poor air quality is usually obvious. It’s the parade of cars idling during your school pick-up, or a nearby factory belching smoke. But experts say the quality of our indoor air—what we breathe while cooking, watching TV, and sleeping—is just as important as outdoor air.

“When pollutants get emitted outside, there’s a giant volume into which they’re mixing,” says Brett Singer, a scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Your house is a relatively small volume. Whatever pollutants get emitted inside, there’s a limited amount that they’re going to get diluted and it takes a while for them to clear out.” 

Poor indoor air quality can cause short-term health effects like headaches and fatigue while contributing to long-term conditions like asthma, and studies have shown that the offgasing of toxic chemicals risk for more serious diseases. Here are seven easy ways to cut indoor air pollution.

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baking soda and vinegar
Get Picky

 The best thing you can do to improve your home’s air quality? Source control, says EPA scientist Laureen Burton: “Source control is making sure you use the least toxic product you can, whenever you do anything. Take stock of the chemicals you use in your daily life, from nail polish to cleaning products, and try to use the smallest amount you can. Minimize your exposure, whether that means swapping your counter spray for simple soap and water, or moving painting projects outside. If you need to use chemicals, focus on ventilation. Anything you can do to push polluted air out of your home and increase the amount of clean air—whether through heating or cooling systems connected to outside air, fans, or just opening a window—cuts down on your exposure to dangerous fumes. 

Related: 3 DIY Natural Home Cleaners Just Like Grandma Used To Make 

oven fan
Fan Away

Cooking at home is one of the best things you can do for the environment and your health, but it’s one of the largest sources of indoor air pollution. Even boiling pasta water increases moisture and can lead to mold, since both gas and electric burners emit tiny particles that can get stuck in your lungs and bloodstream. Burning fat releases acrolein, an irritant used as a chemical weapon in WW1. But don’t reach for the takeout menu just yet. Using your hood and fan, every single time you cook, captures emissions and dramatically decreases your exposure to pollutants. If your hood doesn’t vent to the outdoors or if you don’t have one, don’t stress. Opening your window and running a fan (even your bath fan!) provides a similar effect. 

natural air fresheners
Ditch The Synthetic Air Fresheners

Everyone wants their home to smell good—or at the very least, not smell like the salmon you made last night! Unfortunately, many air fresheners contain chemicals like phthalates, some of which are carcinogenic. The EPA’s Safer Choice website offers a list of safe, eco-friendly alternatives. Aura Cacia’s aromatherapy mists, with just water and essential oils, are a good option. Or DIY your own nontoxic air fresheners.

“A simple formula is 1 part vodka to 1 part distilled water, then add essential oils (about 15-20 drops to 8 ounces of liquid),” says Stacy Karen of natural living blog A Delightful Home. She recommends tailoring the essential oils to your mood and taste: citrus for an uplifting blend, chamomile for calming, or cinnamon for coziness. In your car, get rid of odors by filling a small bag with activated charcoal, which has a porous structure that enables it to absorb strong odors. Follow with your DIY spray or a sachet filled with your favorite dried herbs or flowers (we like lavender) for a delicious smelling car, no toxins required.

hepa filter
Filter It Out

High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters were originally developed to get rid of nuclear waste. Now, their air cleaning qualities are marketed as a miracle solution to the nasty soup of mold, dust and animal hair in our air. While the filters are powerful—they’re 99% effective at catching miniscule pollutant particles floating through the air—studies are mixed about their health benefits. Singer says most people don’t need them, but they’re worth trying if you have allergies or asthma. You can buy freestanding HEPA filters to treat your entire house, or a small one for a specific room. 

Related: Banish These 12 Household Toxins From Your House 

vacuuming shelf
Clear Out Dust

Don’t forget about air quality when you’re spring-cleaning. Tiny particles of dust can get into lungs and exacerbate respiratory conditions. Keep them at bay by vacuuming carpets and furniture, washing sheets in hot water weekly, and look for a vacuum with a HEPA filter, which filters out dust instead of just moving it around. For extra credit, replace dust-attracting curtains with shades and installing low-emitting wood or tile flooring instead of carpet. 

couple looking up
Roberto Westbrook/Getty
Get Inspected

Asbestos is a group of minerals with a structure that makes building materials flexible, chemical resistant and fireproof. It’s also extremely toxic: exposure can cause lung irritation and, in some cases, cancer. If you discover broken building materials (like insulation, siding, or vinyl floor tiles) hire an accredited asbestos inspector to assess your risk. Another hidden danger is radon, an odorless gas formed when radioactive elements in the earth decay. When you breathe it in, it damages lung cells, and it’s the leading cause of lung cancer for nonsmokers. Your level of danger depends on your city’s soil, but the EPA recommends testing all homes below three stories. If your house has never been tested, you can also order a DIY testing kit

house plants
Love Your Plants-But Don't Rely On Them

A 1989 NASA study demonstrated that houseplants like English ivy can work as all-natural air filters, eliminating chemicals like formaldehyde from the air. Unfortunately, since the studies were performed in airtight chambers, the results aren’t applicable to the average home: even if your apartment is distressingly cave-like, it probably has some natural air flow. “The same things that make plants good for you outdoors—psychologically, physically, mentally—apply indoors, but there’s nothing in the research that has shown you can have a few plants and get air cleaned,” says Burton. 

Related: Choose The Best Plant For Every Room In Your House