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Your 101 Guide To Cleaning Your Home's Air — No Purifier Required

Photo by Brina Blum
November 7, 2017

As cooler temperatures hit, the annual ease into hibernation has officially begun: Homes are getting the cozy treatment, wardrobes are welcoming new layers, and soups and stews are looking more and more appealing. The chilly air is a welcome reprieve after one of the hottest summers on record, but it comes with a slight risk. All of that time indoors means more exposure to toxins in the air.

Believe it or not, indoor air is two to five times1 more polluted than outdoor air. Dust, mold, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that off-gas from furniture and appliances can cause a laundry list of symptoms like irritated eyes, runny nose, headaches, and fatigue, but a few proactive tweaks can go a long way toward clearing the air.

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Why are there so many toxins in our air in the first place?

The first step in crafting a cleaner home is filling it with products that aren't made using as many harsh chemicals. Unfortunately, this is often easier said than done.

"I was surprised by how many really bad products there are out there," Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group told mbg when speaking of the organization's just-released Healthy Home Guide. "It could take you a while to sift through everything out there. You really need to know what you want to avoid and arm yourself with information before you go shopping."

Some of the EWG's top chemicals of concern include VOCs, flame retardants, PVCs, PFCs, and antimicrobial agents like triclosan. While the home industry is still not required to label many of these potential triggers, Stoiber is heartened that certain states are starting to enforce stricture rules. For instance, California recently announced it would require cleaning companies to disclose any potentially hazardous chemicals in their products online by 2020, and on labels by 2021. And just last week, the city of San Francisco passed an outright ban on flame retardants in furniture and children's products, following Maine and Rhode Island's lead.

Until these bans are adopted on a federal level, here are a few ways you can shop smarter and maintain good air quality:

What you can do the next 10 minutes...

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Simply cracking open a window and turning on your exhaust fans can go a long way toward clear the air of toxins. "Bringing in fresh air is a key step," advises Jonathan Galland, J.D., an integrative health expert and co-author of The Allergy Solution. "Sunlight is also an efficient method of killing mold—a very common indoor air toxin that grows quickly in any damp place."

Stoiber adds that vacuuming and dusting are easy air-clearing techniques that are often underestimated: "We know that things in your house shed chemicals, which you're then subsequently exposed to. You have flame retardants coming off furniture, phthalates shedding from plastics, etc., so it's a good idea to vacuum with a HEPA filter as much as possible, and use micro cloths that really pick up dust."

Basically, if something smells distinctly chemically, it probably is.

Lastly, you can zip through your house and get rid of any problem items that stick out to the nose right away: air fresheners, noxious personal care products like hair spray and nail polish remover, and scented cleaners and candles. Basically, if something smells distinctly chemically, it probably is. Replace it with a natural alternative. Here are some of mbg's top picks for candles, air sprays, beauty, and hair care products.

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What you can do in the next week...

Houseplants are the darling of home décor these days, and functional medicine doctor Heather Moday, M.D., looks to them for more than just aesthetics. "Some of the worse toxins can all be removed by houseplants. Peace lily and English ivy can remove formaldehyde, lady palms are good for benzene and acetone, and snake plants increase oxygen in the air by decreasing overall carbon dioxide," she says.

Next up? Swap harsh cleaners for safer, eco-friendly options like essential oils, baking soda, and vinegar. All-purpose wipes and sprays often contain antimicrobial agents that have been linked to asthma, respiratory infection, and allergies.

What you can over the next month...

Cleaning up at home is a long game that requires maintenance, so vow to keep up with your stricter cleaning routine and buying standards. The EWG's Healthy Home Guide is a great tool to reference the next time you're in the market for a larger home purchase, and it has easy-to-follow tips on shopping for everything from paint to mattresses to carpeting.

While investing in an air purifier can't hurt, Stoiber says it should be your last resort. "It won't be incredibly effective, since a lot of particles are pretty heavy, and those are going to settle on your floor," she says, recommending any model on the California Air Resources Board's vetted list.

"They are best placed in the bedroom and in areas where you spend a lot of time," adds Moday. "However, they are only capable of cleaning a certain amount of air each hour, so they are not super helpful in a large space like a loft."

If you're still concerned about your air quality at home after making these tweaks, consider making an appointment to get your space professionally tested for toxins. Or, if you live in a "radon zone2"—the Great Plains, Midwest, and upper Northeast states—inexpensive kits3 can usually detect this chemical.

Wondering how to get the most bang for your cleaning buck? Check out the eight best ways to detox your home, ranked by effectiveness.

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Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.