You Should Probably Clean the Air in Your House, Too

Marisa Casciano

Lately, I’ve been feeling like Monica Geller in the episode of Friends when she’s vacuuming her vacuum: overrun with thoughts about pollen, dust, and cleaning everything. Between the novel coronavirus and a worse-than-usual allergy season, I've developed an almost paralyzing need to strip my clothes after going outside, sanitize my countertops constantly, and wipe down every package that comes through my door.

But as the pandemic pushes on and trees begin to bloom, it’s the air in my home I’m laser-focused on. Does it need to be cleaned, too? At the risk of sounding like Chandler Bing, can it even be cleaned?

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Standing in my living room with a spray bottle of citrus yuzu and vanilla multipurpose cleaner in one hand, and data from a 2018 report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pulled up on my phone in the other, I feel a little helpless. According to the report, Americans typically spend around 90 percent of their time indoors. Often, pollutants in these spaces are two to five times higher than in outdoor ones, because of mold, exposure to "fresh" air through an open window bringing in pollen and dust, plus the increasing use of powerful cleaning products.

With many Americans working from home and abiding by quarantine orders, these pollutants are likely skyrocketing, says John R. Balmes, M.D., professor of medicine at UCSF and national spokesperson for the American Lung Association. More than ever before, people are being exposed to and creating new allergens and particulate matter — particles that disperse into the air when you’re cooking, running a space heater, smoking, and even lighting a candle or incense, Balmes explains.

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Why is this so worrisome? “The quality of the air we breathe is linked to our whole body health,” says Shruthi Mahalingaiah, M.D., assistant professor of environmental, reproductive, and women’s health at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. That includes heart and lung health, but also brain function and even reproductive health, Dr. Mahalingaiah says. Although there is admittedly limited research on the topic, poor air quality is a suspected risk factor for irregular periods, infertility, and preterm birth, she adds. Plus, experts believe it can affect our health in the long-term, upping the risk for respiratory and heart diseases and even cancer long after exposure. Listening to your body is the first step.

What symptoms may you experience if there’s poor air quality in your home?

After opening up your windows on a spring day, do you experience itchy or watery eyes? Do you reach for the tissues after playing with your dog? Or find rashes on your skin after scrubbing your kitchen? These are all symptoms to look out for that can help you determine which allergen may be the culprit so you can act accordingly. (For example, if you should open your windows to "air out" your space, or keep them closed to prevent trapping outdoor pollutants inside.)

According to Dr. Mahalingaiah, sinus congestion, wheezing, fatigue, headaches, dizziness, and abnormalities in your sense of taste or smell — among other symptoms — can also be a signal that the air you’re breathing isn’t up to par. Of course, some of these symptoms are also signs of the coronavirus, which is why it's important to closely monitor your symptoms to determine your best course of action.

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If you’re someone who suffers from seasonal allergies or a pre-existing condition like asthma, know that these symptoms may be heightened by poor air quality in your home, which is why it's important to continue with your medication regimen as recommended by your doctor, whether that’s a daily Zyrtec, nasal spray, or prescribed inhaler – and to take measures to keep the air in your home clean.

So, how can you clean the air in your home?

The good news is there are plenty of ways to clean your home’s air. It doesn’t necessarily take a Monica Geller-esque passion for cleaning to do it, either. To start, Dr. Mahalingaiah suggests keeping your space tidy by vacuuming, wiping down surfaces, and spraying areas with a cleanser (she likes Bona or Seventh Generation) where particles are likely to collect. (Keep in mind that pollutants in the air can settle into your furniture or nestle into your sheets — so be sure to clean them regularly, too.) She also suggests these three easy tips.

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Study up on your home's air flow.

It's important to know how and where the air flows in your home by keeping up-to-date on your heating and air conditioning systems. Balmes suggests making sure there’s ventilation in your bathroom and kitchen, where moisture and pollutants can easily hunker down, by utilizing windows or by having a device professionally installed that exchanges your indoor air with outdoor air.

Rethink your cleaning and laundry products.

Namely, ditch ones with harsh odors and additives. Use a stronger product when you need to disinfect a specific spot, like a doorknob or frequently used remote. But, be mindful of how often and where you’re using a product enriched with chemicals you may be sensitive to. Dr. Mahalingaiah says she uses stronger products “in a targeted and limited way.” This prevents her family from coming into contact with their allergens frequently, and from them lingering in the air. Whatever you do, don’t inhale when you remove lint from your dryer’s trap either.

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Add plants.

For those who have a green thumb, adding plants to your space is an option as well, but keep in mind that you may want to do some research first on its source. “If you buy a poor quality plant, or get one from a contaminated source, you could bring pests and fungi into the home,” cautions Dr. Mahalingaiah. A 1989 study from The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), sometimes known as the “Clean Air Study,” found that there are tons of indoor houseplants such as aloe vera, dracena, or an English ivy, that are able to effectively remove chemicals. Snake plants, spider plants, and a monstera can absorb some carbon dioxide, while being a trendy addition to your full-length mirror set-up.

Just keep in mind that it may not be the quickest or most effective way to clean your air: A 2017 study from a group of researchers found that the amount of ozone common houseplants actually removes isn’t that significant. However, if you pick out the right type of plant and it’s properly watered and given nutrients, it can certainly lend a small helping hand.

...but an air purifier is still the most effective method.

Possibly the most expensive, yet super effective, way to clean your air is with an air purifier. (Bonus: They may even help your skin, too.) There are several on the market including the Dyson Pure Cool TP04 Purifier and the Honeywell HPA200 True HEPA Allergen Remover ($205; target.com).

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These devices use top-notch HEPA filters to capture the pollutants in your home and make your air healthier to breathe. They work by pushing the air through the filter via a fan, explains microbiologist Ted Myatt, senior consultant at Environmental Health & Engineering, Inc. This removes particles as little as .3 microns in size — which, for comparison, is a fraction of a piece of your hair, he adds. (Of course, there's always the possibility of stragglers. Extremely minute particles, like gases or bacteria as small as .1 micron, are hard for even the raddest air purifier to capture.)​​​​​​

If you invest in one, be sure it's the proper size for your space to get the job done properly. Most should have a note in the description online or on the physical box, specifying its Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) or what type of room it's recommended for.

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In order for these devices to be effective, you also need to run them regularly, experts say. “The exact frequency depends on the type of home you live in and the health issues you are facing,” says Dr. Mahalingaiah. She runs hers every night for her family members who have severe allergies and atopic dermatitis. Myatt agrees running it constantly will likely give you the best results, but that “you don’t need to run it if you’re not going to be in that space” where the device resides. Either way, be sure to replace the filter as directed to achieve maximum cleanliness.

But...what about the coronavirus?

A 2018 study from The Journal of Infectious Diseases found that it’s possible to remove certain illnesses from our air with the right filtration. But as the coronavirus has rapidly proved, it’s not your average virus. According to Dr. Mahalingaiah, it’s smaller than the usual particles an air purifier is designed to remove. That doesn’t mean your cleaning efforts will be a total waste, though.

“Air purifiers can be a nice complement to all those other things that you’re doing,” says Myatt. “People are breathing out particles all the time,” and sneezing, talking, and coughing. Who’s to know what other bacteria may be worth cleansing right away?

On the bright side, Dr. Mahalingaiah says the recent stay-at-home orders may be slightly improving air quality for anyone who lives near busy streets. That means it may be safer for you to open your windows and cycle some fresh oxygen through your home, if you don’t suffer from spring allergies.

At the end of the day, doing what you can is what matters most. Cleaning can be never-ending, but throwing on an episode of Friends and giving your space a refresh will help you sit back on the couch and breathe easy.

The coronavirus pandemic is unfolding in real-time, and guidelines change by the minute. We promise to give you the latest information at time of publishing, but please refer to the CDC and WHO for updates.