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There is some debate as to whether air filters are really necessary for a healthy home. True, you can do a lot for your indoor air with a few well-chosen indoor plants and it is the most natural and inexpensive way to purify indoor air. But since indoor air is more polluted than outdoor air, and with all of the chemicals and off-gassing materials used in home building and furnishings today, air filters and purifiers can only help… as long as you grab the right one.
Indoor Air Pollutants
Whether it’s furniture off-gassing or cleaning products used around the house, indoor air quality is often worse than outdoor air. Even when we’re using the safest products we can, it’s difficult to get away from these chemicals and toxins entirely. Add in the fact that many of us have to keep our windows closed for months at a time when it’s too cold or hot outside, and indoor air pollution is unavoidable.
Some of the common sources of indoor air pollution are:
- personal care and cleaning products
- tobacco smoke (even what’s brought in on someone’s clothes)
- gas ranges
- water-damaged materials
- furniture (pressed wood in particular)
- new building materials (new flooring, carpets, remodeling, etc.)
And here’s what these sources are contributing to the indoor air we breathe:
- biological pollutants
- carbon monoxide (CO)
- lead (Pb)
- nitrogen dioxide (NO2)
- radon (Rn)
All of these indoor air pollutants get into our lungs and circulate through the body… not an ideal situation, especially where young kids and babies are concerned.
Health Effects of Indoor Air Pollution
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air pollution can cause immediate symptoms such as:
- irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat
Long-term, asthma symptoms may show up or worsen. Studies also point to eventual respiratory diseases, heart disease, and even cancer.
Research published in the journal Neurotoxicology shows that childhood diagnosis of asthma, allergies, Asperger’s and Tourette’s may be linked to exposure of some indoor air pollutants.
A 1996 study also indicates long-term exposure to indoor pollutants possibly causes Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS). MCS is a disease (not recognized by medical organizations) where the patient reacts to chemicals in the environment. Often the symptoms are fatigue, brain fog, dizziness and headaches. While it may not be officially recognized, thousands of stories from chemically suffering individuals suggest more studies are needed.
Reducing Indoor Pollution
Though we can’t get away from pollutants entirely, we can minimize the amount of indoor pollutants in our homes. An obvious place to start in cleaning up indoor air quality is to reduce the source of pollutants. Building materials, furniture, mattresses, cleaning and personal care products, and air fresheners can all contribute to poor air quality. Here are some ideas for reducing the sources of poor air quality:
- Replace old furniture and mattresses with less toxic choices.
- Replace conventional personal care and cleaning products with natural ones. (I might know where you can find a few recipes for homemade home cleaning products or natural DIY beauty treatments!)
- If building or rehabbing your house, try to use non-toxic materials from reputable “green” companies.
A good old-fashioned airing of the house by opening windows regularly may help, but if you live in an area with a lot of air pollution or suffer from seasonal allergies, this may not be a good solution for you.
Ways to Filter Indoor Air Naturally
There are several ways to clean up the air and improve air quality in your home. I use a combination of all of them:
An easy and cost effective way to make an impact on the air quality in the home is to use plants. Almost any plant will help clean up indoor air (they absorb gases — including CO2 — through their leaves) but some are better at it than others. Some of the best plants for cleaning indoor air are:
- bamboo palm
- English ivy
If crawling toddlers make you wish for another option, consider hanging plants on a wall (or moving on to the next few suggestions).
Another way to clean up indoor air is through negative ions. Many toxins are positively charged. Both beeswax candles and Himalayan salt lamps clean the air by emitting negative ions which attach to toxins and remove them from the air. Beeswax candles and salt lamps are also both relaxing and beautiful, making them a great addition to a natural home. It is important to note that neither of these solutions creates a lot of negative ions and may not do much against more polluted air.
Did you know the V in HVAC stands for ventilation? That’s how important it is! An HVAC system that’s working properly should take care of ventilation for you (but make sure it’s been serviced recently!)
If your home is heated with wood or other alternative to an HVAC system, ventilation is still important. When possible, opening a window and letting in some fresh air can do wonders. If it’s too cold outside close off one room and open the windows in that room for an hour or so. Then when it’s full of fresh air, close the windows and open the door to the rest of the house. The fresh air will circulate through the house but won’t affect the temperature inside (much).
Again, if you have seasonal allergies or live in an area with questionable air quality, this may not be an option for you.
And finally… yes, air filters are a great way to clean the air in the home! With all the options out there, here are the need-to-know facts on air filters I’ve learned through trial, error, and much research.
Why We Still Need Air Filters
Even after all of the other steps are taken to reduce toxins in the home, a good air filter is worth the investment. Just think, assuming we spend half our time sleeping (or, if you’re a mom, a quarter of your time!) using an air filter even just in the bedroom can reduce exposure to airborne toxins by 50%.
Do Air Filters Work?
Air filters do have a positive impact on the amount of toxins in the air. One study found that air filters removed more than 70% (and as much as 95%) of pollutant particles in the air. Other studies suggest that due to the reduced contaminants in the air, respiratory and vascular (heart-related) symptoms improved.
There aren’t too many downsides to using an indoor air filter, honestly, but a few things to keep in mind: If air filters are in HVAC systems but the systems are moldy or have other allergens, the air filter may not be helping you. It’s also not true that a good air filter reduces the need for frequent dusting and vacuuming (sorry!), which is an important means of removing all yukky chemical particles and allergens from the home.
Different Kinds of Air Filters
There are many types of air filters available on the market, but they all fall into one (or more) of these categories.
Ionic Air Filters
Ionic filters use electrical charge to remove particles from the air. This kind of filter produces negative ions that attract particles in the air. As mentioned above, beeswax candles and salt lamps work in a similar way.
Carbon Air Filters
Activated carbon can absorb odors and particles in the air. Carbon is particularly good at trapping odors like cigarette smoke.
UV Light Air Filters
UV light air filters remove impurities by exposing the air to a UV light. The UV light neutralizes most carbon based organic compounds (like mold and bacteria).
HEPA Air Filters
High efficiency particulate absorbing filters (HEPA) can remove up to 99.97% of particles in the air, making them the gold standard for air filters. HEPA filters work in three ways:
- HEPA filters intercept particles as air flows through the filter. Particles that are close to a fiber in the air filter are caught and trapped.
- Larger particles can’t adjust to the changes in air flow in the filter and run into the fibers (and get stuck).
- Microscopic particles move in a random, zig-zag like pattern (because they collide with other molecules). Because of this and the way the filter is designed, they have a higher chance of being caught by the fibers.
Zeolite Air Filters
Zeolite is a mineral that is very absorbent. It is made up of aluminum, hydrated silicon compounds, and oxygen and can trap toxic gases and odors such as formaldehyde, ammonia, and carbon monoxide.
These filters can be used alone or in combination with one another.
Best Air Filters
There are so many air filters available on the market it can be hard to know which ones are really good and which ones aren’t. Filtering through the options (ha!), it seems a combination of whole system filtration (a filter in the HVAC system, for example) and local filtration (a stand-alone air purifier) is best.
I own an Austin air purifier and run it in the family room. I also have an Air Doctor and bought them for our bedrooms for its air quality sensor feature and lower price point. (It’s also quite a bit quieter, which is nice.) The third filter I have is a Hypoallergenic Air that stays in our office and I really like it too.
Best: AIR Doctor Air Filter
The AIR Doctor air filter is comparable in performance and quality to the Austin air filter but has a slightly lower price point (and I’ve been able to negotiate it for much lower for a limited time).
This filter also uses a combination of a high-grade HEPA filter along with a carbon/gas trap/VOC filter. Like the Austin Air it is a 100% sealed system and removes even ultra-fine particles smaller than .1 microns. This means it removes very close to 100% of particles.
One advantage this filter has over the Austin Air is a built-in sensor that tests the quality of the air and adjusts the filter to the correct level of filtration. For example, I can be cooking in the kitchen and as soon as the AIR Doctor senses a change in the air quality, it will automatically increase the fan and filtration speed until the air is appropriately filtered.
I appreciate that the AIR Doctor filter is a tad quieter due to improved fan technology, and they have limited-time deal they’re offering to Wellness Mama readers.
Best: Austin Air Filter
I like the Austin air filter because it’s incredibly high quality and is recommended by allergists. It combines several of the air filtering methods described above, including activated carbon, zeolite, and HEPA technology to eliminate the most pollutants. Austin air filters are also designated as “medical grade” and remove particles as small as .1 microns (a micron is 1 millionth of a meter).
This air filter is also extremely durable (vs. something that will quit working and end up in a landfill in a year). Made of solid steel, the Austin air purifier won’t off-gas like plastic purifiers and it even comes with a 5 year guarantee!
This isn’t one of my top choices due to its higher price tag, but the Molekule air filter wins big points for being small, stylish, and incredibly powerful. It uses PECO air purifying technology in addition to a top of the line HEPA filter so it can remove and destroy mold, VOCs, and other particles usually too small to be captured by other air filters.
The Bottom Line on Air Filters
The short answer on whether or not we actually need them is yes, although other tactics for combating household toxins (like houseplants, beeswax candles, and reducing pollutants) definitely help, air filters are necessary for a clean indoor air environment. Allergy sufferers and children especially will benefit.
Do you use an air filter or any of these air purifying tips? What has been your experience?
- Introduction to Indoor Air Quality. (2018, January 29). https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/introduction-indoor-air-quality
- Associations between indoor environmental factors and parental-reported autistic spectrum disorders in children 6–8 years of age. (2009, February 10).
- Repace, J. (n.d.). Indoor Air Pollution and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/236211407_INDOOR_AIR_POLLUTION_AND_MULTIPLE_CHEMICAL_SENSITIVITY
- Vijayan, V. K., Paramesh, H., Salvi, S. S., & Dalal, A. A. (2015). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4587002/