Air-cleansing plants: Debunking a common myth

By Paige Slaughter

Air-cleansing indoor plants

I don’t remember much from high school. But there was one thing my environmental science teacher told my class that stood out: For most people, air quality is worse inside the home than it is outside during the winter.

It’s worth noting that I did not grow up in the country, so the fact that a living room could be more toxic than a commuter-littered metropolis was mind-boggling. 

In the winter, we close up our windows, often leaving them so for months. According to my teacher, we live and breathe in stagnant air while our furniture oozes formaldehyde.

Formaldehyde, she said! Clearly, it stuck with me.

As a result, many have looked to indoor plants to help purify the air. But do houseplants actually clean the air in your home? The answer is: sort of.

Indoor air pollution

funny article in The Atlantic debunks the long-held (although understandable) myth that houseplants clean the air inside your home.

“For several years, research really did suggest that houseplants might cleanse the air of certain pollutants. But now, most scientists say that’s not right,” wrote Robinson Meyer in the article.

Plants do, of course, transform the carbon dioxide you exhale, plus light and water, into sugar. Oxygen is a beneficial byproduct we need to survive.

But a few decades of research informs us that we’d need a lot of plants in our houses to improve the air. Plus, they’re out-competed by material items that release a type of air pollutant called volatile organic compounds (VOC). 

According to the article, “VOCs are regularly released by common household products such as drywall, house paints, nail polish, shampoo and almost anything with a scent.”

But, there are real ways to improve the air quality in your home.

Every few weeks, open the windows to get fresh air flowing through your house. Take the opportunity of a warmer day, or use a fan to help with circulation. The temperature in your home might drop a bit, but you don’t have to leave them open long. 

Also, rid your home of non-toxic items. It’s astounding what synthetic chemicals are allowed into household products, as well as the negative effects they’ve been scientifically proven to have on our health. Being more conscious about even a few household items, particularly cleaning products, can make a big impact on indoor air quality.

But, of course, I’m not here to stop you from filling your house with plant life.

Maybe our houseplants aren’t the air filtration systems we’d love them to be, but they do play a role in helping us live healthier, cleaner and more enjoyable lives.

Any ritual—in this case, remembering to water your plants—brings you into the present. Tending to houseplants connects us to nature, even when we’re cozied up inside with a blanket and a book. 

Bringing your garden indoors, even if it’s not an edible one, is a wonderful way to stay connected to and intentional about being alive.

10 classic house plants

Tropical

1. Money Tree – Water when soil is dry with medium, indirect light. Give it room to grow big.

2. Peace Lily – Water when leaves droop, placing in medium, indirect light. If leaves yellow, give it less sun.

3. Snake Plant – Water every two weeks; does well in any light. Great for limited space, as it grows upward rather than outward.

4. Zebra Plant – Water once a week in either bright, direct or indirect light. Place it on a windowsill or in a bathroom, where it will enjoy the humidity. 

5. ZZ Plant – Water every two weeks in low, indirect light.

Succulents

6. Aloe – Water when soil is dry; does well in any light.

7. Angel Wings Cactus – Water every two to three weeks. Place in bright, direct light.

Cascading

8. String of Pearls – Water when soil is dry in bright, direct or indirect lighting.

9. Pothos – Water when soil is dry; place in low to medium indirect light.

10. Philodendron – Water when soil is dry in low to medium indirect light.

There are so many wonderful houseplants to choose from. Think first and foremost about the lighting and space you have available. Will they fill the corner of a room? Sit on a windowsill? Hang from the ceiling?

When you know those two elements, you can choose the best houseplants for your needs.

May your houseplants be lovely reminders of connecting with the natural world, living in the present moment and cultivating well-being.

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