Let’s talk about air-purifying houseplants – yes, you can grow your own fresh air!  Of course, all plants do this to some degree, but some are better than others at filtering out certain household toxins and I wanted to avoid plants that are toxic to children or animals.  I’ve done some research to share with you on the best plants to consider.

I came across this idea while researching expensive air purifiers for my new home – this one is on my wishlist, but at that price, I started to think about other solutions!  Because I had the entire house repainted (with zero-VOC paint) and the floors refinished (sealed with non-toxic AFM Safecoat – more on that in a future post), plus more than a few odds and ends repaired, I was concerned about any lingering fumes or products off-gassing.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of the common toxins in the household:

  • Formaldehyde is everywhere and in most everything. It is used in particle board and pressed wood, home cleaning supplies, carpet backing, fire retardants, paper towels, grocery bags and much more. Formaldehyde can trigger asthma attacks, cause headaches and irritate all the mucous membranes, e.g., nose and throat.
  • Benzene is found in household cleaning products, gasoline, paints, inks, plastics and rubber. Benzene has been found to cause headaches, fatigue, psychological disturbances, anemia and bone marrow diseases.
  • Xylene is used in the production of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic bottles, polyester clothing, paints, varnishes, and in gasoline. Xylene has been associated with headaches, dizziness, mental confusion and lack of muscle coordination.
  • Trichloroethylene is used in printing inks, paints, varnishes and adhesives. It is a central nervous system depressant and it can cause headaches, dizziness and confusion.

NASA released a list of air-purifying houseplants as part of their Clean Air Study a few years back in 1989, and since then, there have been a number of other studies investigating the best plants for removing household toxins.  It’s easy enough to find these plants and try them out in your own home.  Since I wanted to buy some plants for decorative purposes anyway, I figured why not go for plants with a dual-purpose?

I bought the book How to Grow Fresh Air by B.C. Wolverton who was the author of the original NASA study.  It’s a great resource.  I also scoured the internet and read several different lists, including the original NASA study, lists on Wikipedia and Mother Nature Network, and came up with an overall list of air-purifying plants to consider.

Then I cross-referenced all the plants on the list to eliminate those which were toxic to children or dogs. If you have cats, it is worth checking the ASPCA website before buying any of these plants – I only checked for toxicity to dogs and sometimes there’s a difference.

Finally, I was ready to shop. First I went to a well-known big-box hardware/garden center, but they had none of the plants and did not know about the list.  So I decided to go to a local garden center with extremely knowledgeable staff who not only knew about the NASA list but stocked all of the plants on the list. I bought pots for the plants as well, and they delivered them and helped me choose the right places in my home for the different plants.  Here are the ones I ended up purchasing.

  • Areca Palm – The best all-around performer at removing airborne toxins.  So we bought a huge one for the living room.  It’s also a great humidifier – we don’t have much of a humidity problem in New Orleans, but during the winter when the air is a bit dry, it is nice to have added humidity.
  • Bamboo Palm – One of the best plants for filtering benzene and trichloroethylene. Also filters formaldehyde.  It’s very similar to the Areca Palm, but grows slightly smaller.  Another great humidifier.
  • Lady Palm – This is one of the best overall air purifying plants, and it’s also very pretty with thick dark green leaves. It’s easy to maintain and grows pretty slowly.
  • Kimberly Fern – Originally I planned to buy the Boston Fern but the Kimberly Fern is equally good at removing toxins (especially formaldehyde) and the foliage grows more upwards instead of drooping over the pot. I didn’t want it in a hanging pot or on a pedestal, so the Kimberly was the best choice for me. It is also easier to maintain than the Boston Fern but still probably the most high maintenance of all the plants we bought, because it likes to be near an air vent and also likes to be misted.  It wasn’t doing so well after I had it for a few weeks and I talked to the plant specialists at my local nursery and they advised me to move it closer to an a/c vent.  Since then it’s been very happy even though I don’t mist it very often at all.
  • Spider Plant – These filter benzene, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and xylene. I bought 2 of these which came in tiny pots – perhaps 3 inches across when I purchased them but grew very quickly. In less than 6 months they easily filled the large pots I bought for them.  They are very hardy and easy to keep alive, as evidenced by the fact that my little ones (both furry and human) have pulled off a lot of leaves and tried to eat them (making me extra glad I checked for toxicity).
I also bought an aloe vera plant separately but did not check the ASPCA list first – later found out that it is toxic to dogs, so that’s something to keep in mind.  Mine is on the kitchen counter next to the window, so my little dog cannot get it at all.  The gel inside the plant is helpful for minor cuts & burns, and the plant itself filters formaldehyde and benzene.

Apparently, it is recommended to have 1 plant for every 100 square feet in your home.  That’s a lot of plants for the average house – I’m not even close to that number. I started off with plants only in the main living areas – none in the bedrooms or bathrooms or laundry room, but I took another look at the list and decided some smaller plants in those rooms.  I love to have flowers in my bedroom, so I looked for air-purifying houseplants that are also flowering. In particular, the Phalaenopsis Orchid (Moth Orchid) respires and gives off oxygen at night, so it’s supposed to be great for bedrooms. It is especially effective at removing xylene and it’s also one of the easiest orchids to maintain. I added several of these throughout my home – they are great for the bathrooms and bedroom. I was also surprised to read about the air-cleaning superpowers of the Gerbera Daisy, so I added one of those to the nursery. It’s another one that gives off oxygen at night. I have several of these simple Gracie White Porcelain Planters that I bought for decorating around the holidays and was able to repurpose them for more air-purifying houseplant action with the Moth Orchids and Gerbera Daisies.

It’s been a few months and I can definitely tell the difference – the air feels fresher and of course, the plants are beautiful to have in my home.  I’m still looking for places to add another plant here and there, trying to get closer to one plant per 100 square feet.

What about you? Anyone out there have any air-purifying houseplant adventures to share? How many plants do you have in your home?


This post contains affiliate links. See disclaimer for more details.