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Air-cleaning houseplants

Air-cleaning houseplants are very efficient natural air cleaners and bio-filters because they remove a variety of air pollutants and poisonous gasses found in your home. Just about all of them are tropical houseplants too. They are more efficient in producing oxygen from carbon dioxide as well as the pollutants and toxins they take in at the same time.

Besides that, tropical plants are pretty, colourful and very appealing to the senses. You just have to look at them to feel a 'lift' to your mood in my opinion.

The air pollutants commonly found in houses are made worse by two things in winter because of:

  • The dry air (i.e. low humidity) inside your home 
  • The "closed" indoor environment due to the winter season.

Even in the summer season, there are pollutants and toxins in the air inside our homes but we're able to open doors and windows to help the air-cleaning and filtering process. Not so in winter. It's especially important in winter to improve the air quality, increase the humidity and improve air circulation as best as we can to rid ourselves of air pollutants and harmful gasses in the air. We'll feel better and be a lot more healthier if we make the effort.

Now if we don't, we'll be more prone to things like headaches, eye, nose or throat irritations, dry cough, the ever present dry or itchy skin, feeling tired a lot, perhaps some fuzzy-headedness resulting in difficulty concentrating and even nausea and some sensitivity to odours. All in all, not much winter fun!

Air pollutants and toxins

A large number of air-cleaning house plants deal with the most common toxins found indoors. There are three major toxins as well as some others that affect the indoor air in our homes. Pretty scary when you think about what is lurking unseen in the air that we breathe. 

The worst offenders (particularly the first three chemicals) are:

  • Trichloroethylene
  • Formaldehyde
  • Benzene
  • Xylene
  • Toluene
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Carbon Dioxide.

What kinds of air pollutants are in your house?

Just about anything in your house gives off emissions of one kind or another from a variety of everyday manufactured goods. The most common ones come from cleaning products, detergents, plastics, dry-cleaned clothes, personal care products, furniture and leather furniture, appliances, paint, glues and solvents, paper products (including toilet paper) and even art supplies. 

Then there's car exhaust from your garage, varnishes and oil-based finishes on furniture, particleboard, carpets and other floor coverings, sealants, foam insulation, plywood and tobacco smoke not to mention cooking too.

Really, it's enough to make you want to live in a hermitically sealed bubble! Since that option is not feasible for most of us, we have to take common sense countermeasures that are practical and economical as well. Hence, buying air-cleaning houseplants suits both of these purposes.

How do indoor air-cleaning houseplants work?

The short answer is that air-cleaning houseplants brings in toxic chemicals lurking in the air that is first absorbed by the leaves. Later on, the toxins pass down through the plant's root system. Through photosynthesis, microbes in the plant's roots converts and filters many of pollutants plus carbon dioxide (that we breathe into the air) into oxygen which is then released back into the room. The end result is that many harmful toxins are removed as well. 

Another benefit is that plants add moisture (humidity) to the air. This is important to us humans because we need to keep humidity levels consistent inside our houses. We tend to be more healthier overall during the winter season if we have adequate humidity levels to maintain a comfortable level.

Having air-cleaning houseplants scattered throughout your house will definitely improve the indoor air quality. You will quite likely also need additional sources of humidity though. This gets delivered either via your heating system or by a stand-alone humidifier unit . This all depends on what kind of heating system you have.

Best indoor air-cleaning plants for improving air quality

Here's a list of the best types of indoor plants that you can buy to improve the air quality in your house.

  • Bamboo palm
  • English Ivy
  • Rubber plant
  • Dwarf Date palm
  • Boston Fern
  • Peace Lily
  • Kimberley Queen Fern
  • Gerbera Daisy (Gerbera jamesonii) Laundry and Bedroom
  • Areca palm
  • Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) 
  • Aloe Vera (Aloe vera)
  • Potted mum (Chrysanthemum)
  • Weeping Fig (Ficus tree)
  • Janet Craig Dracaena
  • Red-edged Dracaena
  • Snake plant (also called "Mother-in-law's tongue)
  • Dumb cane
  • Golden pothos
  • Azalea

Which air-cleaning houseplant works for what toxin?

Many of the plants listed above work on the main offenders, which are Formaldehyde, Benzene and Trichloroethylene. However, some plants like the Spider plant and English Ivy also work on Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide as well. 

Having a mixture of any of these air-cleaning plants strategically placed around your house will definitely improve the indoor air quality. The obvious places would be your kitchen, living and dining area. You should also consider placing them in your laundry, in your garage and basement if there's enough light too.

Now you'll need to do a little research on to how to care for a particular plant, for example:

  • Does it need low, medium or lots of light to thrive? 
  • Is it an easy-to-care-for plant or not? 

I've found most of them are fairly easy to care for. However, the Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina) tree is a very fussy plant in my experience so I've given up on this plant. Looks great in the store, you get it home, and for me, it loses all its leaves within a few weeks.

Here's a list of air-cleaning houseplants that work on specific air pollutants that are all too common in our houses.


F = Formaldehyde; B = Benzene; TCE = Tri-chloroethylene; T = Toluene; CM = Carbon Monoxide; CD = Carbon Dioxide; X =Xylene; Nitrogen Oxides = NO

Bamboo or reed palmB, F, TCE
English IvyB, F, TCE
Red IvyB, F, TCE, T
Rubber plantB, F, TCE, T
Dwarf date palmF, X, T
Boston FernB, F, TCE
Peace LilyB, F, TCE, T, X
Kimberley Queen FernB, F, TCE
Gerbera DaisyB, F, TCE
Areca palmX, TCE
Spider plantB, F, TCE, X, CM
Aloe veraB, F, TCE
Potted ChrysannthemumB, F, TCE, X
Weeping Fig F, TCE
Warneck dracaenaX, TCE
Janet Craig dracaenaX, TCE
Red-edged dracaena F, X, TCE
Snake plantF, NO
Dumb caneX
Golden PothosCM
Chinese EvergreenB, F, TCE
Heart leaf philodendrenF
Wax plantB, F, TCE
Mass caneB, F, TCE

Children, pets and indoor houseplants

Some air-cleaning houseplants are toxic to children, cats and dogs only if they are eaten while others are not. It's just best to not let any two or four-legged creatures start munching on any indoor plant so keep them out of grasping little hands or energetic paws reaching for them. 

Here's a chart to help you decide about the air-cleaning houseplants you are using and their possible effect on your children and pets.

English Ivy Toxic 
Golden PothosToxicToxicToxic
Peace Lily ToxicToxic
Flamingo LilyToxicToxicToxic
Chinese Evergreen Toxic 
Snake plant ToxicToxic
Selloum philodendron Toxic 
Elephant ear philodendron Toxic 
Red-edge dracaena ToxicToxic
Janet Craig dracaena  Toxic
Warbeck dracaena   
Weeping Fig ToxicToxic
Potted Mum ToxicToxic
Rubber plant Toxic 
Dumb caneToxic 

What did NASA recommend to improve air quality?

The smart folks at NASA concluded after their research (for space station bio-filtration purposes) in the late 1980's that between 15 to 18 good-sized houseplants in six to eight-inch (203 mm) diameter pots in an 1,800-square-foot (170 m2) house is recommended. You can scale this formula to whatever size of house you have.

Having more of the recommended types of plants scattered throughout your home will be more beneficial than less in my opinion. Some plants are better than others for absorbing the most common toxins but all of the plants do have properties that will improve the indoor air quality in your home.

My recommendation

Here's what I have in my home:

Peace lily, several types of dracaenas, Heart leaf philodendron, Spider plants, Snake plants, English Ivy, Areca palms, Bamboo palm, several Golden Pothos and Dumb cane (Dieffenbachia). There are a few others I've bought just for aesthetic reasons too.

I love having plants around me so I've gone a bit crazy... at the most recent count, I have 44 plants (down from 50 though!). They are concentrated in four main areas of our building; at our ground entrance, the foyers on the 2nd and 3rd floors and throughout our living space on the 2nd floor. We've also combined the presence of the plants with a small portable air cleaner in our kitchen/dining area to really help improve the air quality in our space. The result? Well, we feel the air is cleaner (less dry throats and nose irritations) with these measures and feel better for it in my opinion.

Besides the above, you also might want to consider putting a specific houseplant in a particular area such as:

  • Garage - Golden Pothos because it works on car exhaust and doesn't need that much light.
  • Laundry - Gerber daisy because it works on filtering out benzene that is associated with cleaning products but it does need good light as it's a pretty flowering plant 
  • Bathroom - Snake plant (Mother-in-law's tongue) because it likes the humidity and doesn't need much light at all.
  • Kitchen - Aloe vera because it works on a variety of chemical-based cleaners, solvents and paints
  • Bedrooms - Not generally recommended to have plants in the bedroom although there are two schools of thought on this topic so experiment and decide for yourself.

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