10 humble houseplants to clean up your home

Scented candles and air fresheners have become common, but there are some humble houseplants that can work just as well...

It has become very common for people to turn to scented candles and air fresheners to make their home smell nicer. But, you might want to go easy because recent research from The Royal College of Physicians has found that some of these common products release nasty chemicals which can make the air in our homes more polluted than the streets outside.

It’s true - we’d all quite like to bury our head in the sand and ignore the warnings, mainly because the study implicates a whole host of other essentials we use everyday from cleaning sprays, gas cookers and boilers to beauty products. These chemicals are full of nasties but it’s what happens when they react with the air that should concern us most.  One of the most common bi-products of fragrance chemicals is called formaldehyde, this is pretty nasty and has been linked to Cancer as well as Asthma and other respiratory diseases.

It’s scary stuff, and all of the advice points to good ventilation in your home as well as limiting your use of these products. However, what you might not know is that the humble houseplant could be just what you need to help clear that invisible indoor smog.

Not only do they add a pop of colour and change the mood of a room, they have also been proven to help remove harmful air pollutants such as formaldehyde and other VOCs (volatile organic compounds) from the air we breathe indoors.  
VOCs are the gasses emitted after the chemicals from cleaning products, paints and nail varnishes have been exposed to the air.   Some are harmless while others, in high enough concentrations, can cause dizziness, headaches, fatigue and nausea to name but a few symptoms.

Plants banish these gases by absorbing them through their leaves and roots in the same way trees help to clear outdoor air pollution. Microorganisms in the soil also play an important role in neutralising the toxins. NASA was the first to demonstrate the purifying abilities of a number of plants in a 1989 study. More recently The Daily Mail published a report by researchers from the State University of New York which compared how well pot plants can clear different toxins from the air.  


Here are our top 10 houseplants to help you go from smog to smug (and make your home look lovely too):

Peace Lily (Spathiphyllum ‘Mauna Loa’):  Right at the top of the list is the Peace lily, which cleans up the most VOCs - trichloroethylene, formaldehyde found in cleaning products, benzene which is found in paints, lacquers, permanent markers among other things, xylene and ammonia.  Give it some shade and a weekly water but keep well out of reach of animals and humans, especially children.

Florist’s chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum morifolium):  If you fancy some colour you can’t go wrong with these blooms. They also score highly by eliminating trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, benzene, xylene and ammonia.  Make sure you choose a floral ‘mum’ rather than a garden variety (which does better outdoors) and place in a light room.  Don’t let them near animals though; they’re toxic to both cats and dogs.

Variegated snake plant (also known as mother-in-law’s tongue or Sansevieria trifasciata'Laurentii'):  This wide-leafed plant can clean up trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, benzene and xylene.  It favours low light and steamy, humid conditions; perfect for the bathroom.  The plant is safe for humans but toxic to animals.

Spider plant (Chlorophytum Comosum): The spider plant is reportedly ‘lightening fast’ at removing toxins from the air and able to perform photosynthesis with minimal lighting so good for darker corners of the room.  They help to reduce formaldehyde, styrene, benzene and carbon monoxide and a single plant can purify a room of 200 square feet!  It is also near impossible to kill, so a good houseplant for those who don’t have green fingers.  The Spider plant is non-toxic.

English Ivy (Hedera Helix): Usually at home in the garden, English Ivy has been proven to reduce airborne mould by up to 60% within 6 hours of being placed in a room!  It also eliminates benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene, xylene and ammonia, making it one of the most effective plants at cleaning up.  However, proceed with caution; English ivy is toxic to dogs and humans if eaten and the sap can cause severe contact dermatitis in humans with sensitive skin.

Scarlet Star (Guzmania Lingulata): A non-toxic plant is a type of tropical bromeliad that blooms for many months indoors and has been named as one of the best natural air fresheners, removing a variety of compounds. Not just a pretty face then!

Dracaenas (Dracaena):  This popular indoor houseplant which comes in a range of shapes and sizes can grow to 15 feet, cleansing the air of benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene and xylene.  Choose from a range of varieties including the rainbow plant, which is bright purple, or corn plant with its unusual markings. Keep away from animals; your dog may vomit or salivate more if they eat this plant.

Bamboo palms (Chamaedorea seifrizii): These elegant and sturdy plants are a little more tricky to care for than some of the other plants but look attractive in a bright but not directly sunlit spot.  They eliminate a range of VOCs and are safe to keep in a house with animals.

Areca palm (Dypsis lutescens): This plant (also known as the butterfly palm) can be counted on to keep the air clean throughout the year with its delicate wispy leaves.  These plants are non-toxic to both cats and dogs.

Aloe: This sun-loving succulent is not just good for healing the skin; it has been proven to absorb formaldehyde and benzene, typically found in cleaning products, as well as carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.  It is easy to grow and should be placed in a sunny spot on a windowsill in order to thrive.  It is safe for humans but toxic to cats and dogs.

It is recommended that you should have one plant per 100 square feet to use the plants most effectively.  Do also check the toxicity of plants before introducing them to your home.  As well as using plants to purify the air, other ways you can keep VOCs at bay are:

  • Ventilate - open windows and doors to let the air circulate
  • Use water to clean - ditch the chemical cleaners
  • Use natural scents - avoid the air fresheners and use natural lemon to scent the room instead