A modern living room filled with plants and open windows to improve indoor air quality

How to Improve Indoor Air Quality: Stop Chasing the Smell of Clean

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Have you ever thought about what’s in your home’s air? Ironically, so many of the things we use to clean our home leaves our air dirty. And when indoor air quality suffers, so do the people breathing that air.

Thanks to my allergies, when my home’s air quality goes downhill, I’ll start wheezing and develop what feels like a permanent cold. For years, I assumed pollen or other irritants tracked indoors were to blame. I’ve since learned our homes are full of seemingly innocent stuff polluting our air. 

Things that Pollute Indoor Air

Are you familiar with volatile organic compounds (VOCs)? They’re basically the undercover agents of the chemical world and hang out in everything from paints to cleaning products, even the scented candles we light to make our homes smell cozy. 

That “heater smell” when you first turn on the furnace? It’s dust burning off the coils and it contains VOCs, too. VOCs aren’t the only source of indoor pollution, though. Mold, dust, and pet dander are common culprits. 

So are some fabrics, manufactured wood and laminates that release formaldehyde. Then there’s the stuff we knowingly spray: air fresheners, hair spray, even cooking oil—they contain propellants that linger and affect our indoor air quality. 

The Impact of Bad Indoor Air 

For most healthy people, stuffy air or a few VOCs aren’t that big of a deal. But if you have allergies like mine, or if you have asthma or respiratory problems, they can make you miserable. Headaches, scratchy eyes, or fatigue after spending time in particular rooms can also be a sign.

Easy Ways to Improve Your Indoor Air Quality

Exchange air daily

I used to keep our doors and windows shut tight and run our HVAC rather than let outdoor smog into my home. But the EPA says the indoor air is often more polluted than the air in big, industrialized cities.  

So, to replace that stale, polluted indoor air, open the windows on opposites sides of your home for about 10 minutes each day. Since I have allergies, I do this in the morning when allergy experts say pollen counts are at their lowest.

Deal with that dust

Part of learning to cleaning for allergies involved changing what I use to clean with. First to go: wimpy dusting devices. Yes, I know Swiffer dusters claim to hold on to dust, but I’ve never been impressed. Feather dusters are no better.

When I started dusting everything with a damp microfiber cloth, and rinsing it every few minutes, I finally got our dust under control.

I do still use a long-handled electrostatic duster to reach places where dust hides, but I keep that thing charged with static by rubbing it with a nylon cloth before and after every use, so it attracts every speck of dust.

Say it: don’t spray it

I grew up in the Bay Area and remember our school holding a drive to collect aerosol cans which had just been banned due to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). The kid who brought in the most cans won an ice cream trough at Farrell’s. That was a big deal, literally. Also, it was not me.

Modern aerosol sprays replaced CFCs with VOCs, most commonly butane and propane. Those VOCs produce more indoor pollution than all the vehicles in the UK. Switching from spray to pump products is a small but impactful way we’ve improved the indoor air quality in our home.

Clean naturally

You know that lemony fresh or pine clean scent we all love? Cleaning products with those scents contains monoterpenes, and breathing in those molecules is like breathing the fumes from a busy road for hours. 

And trying to create that smell naturally is not better. Adding essential oils to diffusers raises the level of VOCs 100 times more than those cleaning products!

Put plants to work

I’m sure we all remember from middle school that plants take “inhale” carbon dioxide and “exhale” oxygen as part of photosynthesis. It turns out, they aren’t just breathing the air: they’re cleaning it by removing VOCs

Like people, some plants are harder workers than others. Ferns, English ivy, golden pothos, ficus trees and bamboo palms are known for helping improve indoor air quality. So guess who’s rediscovered her green thumb now? 

Fresh filters

So, even with all these practices, there are still things in every home that pollute the air: cooking and using gas stoves, even countertops exposed to heat. Even farts.

Filters are there for a reason: to purify our air. For instance, an HVAC filter effectively cleans the air, but only when it’s not clogged with dirt. I swap mine monthly due to my allergies.

Remember, your vacuum isn’t just a dust buster—it’s also an air cleaner, thanks to its two filters. The pre-motor filter stops dust from getting into the motor, while HEPA filter keeps dust from recirculating. When they’re dirty, they’ll leave your air dirty, too.

Don’t forget those other filters in your air purifier, dehumidifier or humidifier, and your range hood filter. Oh, and that dryer lint screen? It catches lint before it escapes the dryer and turns into dust that adds to indoor air pollution. Keep them clean and you’ll help them keep your air clean, too.

Now that you’ve got some ideas about little changes you can make to improve your home’s indoor air quality, which one will you try first?

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