Air-Purifying Plants: Do They Work?


We’ve all read articles in health journals and blogs about how to tweak our lives in order to live better, if not longer. Our current culture sees the benefits of yoga, meditation, eating your greens and for good reason: we do start feeling better. And even though I have felt my healthiest when I have practiced one or all of these things, the insatiable curiosity in me can’t help but wonder if these remedies are all true?

Even if a healthy lifestyle didn’t have any chemical benefits, carving out a few moments each day to do something “healthy” was enough for me to feel better. However, being a hyperactive go-getter means I also look for ways to incorporate passive healthy living into my life. I sleep north to south to promote the elongation of my spine, I try to substitute my cravings for jumped up java for something more mellow like tea, I try to introduce as much light into my day as possible even if it’s by a window. I spend most of my day indoors, wood stoves billowing smoke through the colder months, and it had me wondering what I could do to have healthier indoor air. My obvious thought was air-purifying plants and the ones that are the best. Yet, the skeptic crept out again and tugged my curiosity once more: Can incorporating plants into your living space really make for a healthier life?

There is a rise of toxins in what we consume daily. There is a global climate shift — even though we found out that individuals aren’t to blame but that 100 producers make up for 71 per cent of global industrial greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It may all seem doom and gloom, however, that doesn’t mean we should give up on healthy living. Despite the current doomsday mentality of our generation, there are small ways in which you can live a healthier life than generations before.

Most air-purifying plant articles found on the internet are based on a NASA study done in 1989. The study was prompted by a rise in health problems when people worked in new builds. Chemicals were being released from synthetic building materials and they called it “off-gas”. These gases alongside these newly, airtight building techniques, more and more workers were complaining about such things as headaches, rashes and irritations. Much like new builds, new space shuttles could have the same results on people’s health. So, the organization wanted to try to find solutions for air-pollutants when astronauts were up in space. Headed by B. C. Wolverton, the study began by placing everyday household plants into an enclosed chamber. There were also other materials that the researchers used, including an activated carbon-houseplant air filter system. This combination proved critical in the results.

Researchers started by pumping benzene, tricholorethylene and formaldehyde into the chamber and leaving the plant for 24-hours. What they found was that most if not all the plants were able to take these volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, and filter them from the air. Some of the plants were able to filter up to almost 90 per cent of the VOCs. A process called phytoremediation proves the exchange of gases through the leaves of certain plants, absorbing toxins through its pores and into its system. Researchers found that the leafier the plant, the better.

Additionally, it’s important to note that Wolverton and his team used an activated carbon-houseplant air filter system in their research. When testing the soil, they found “… common soil microorganisms … most are known to be capable of biodegrading toxic chemicals when activated by plant root growth.” Meaning a broad leafy plant and filtration system could be the key combination for air-purification, especially when the plant’s roots were growing. Therefore, the broad-leafy plant should need little light to mimic the conditions of being indoors. The team concluded that “[l]ow-light-requiring houseplants, along with activated carbon plant filters, have demonstrated the potential for improving indoor air quality by removing trace organic pollutants from the air in energy-efficient buildings. “

However, this study has been pulled into question from time-to-time since its publication nearly 30 years ago. In one Time Magazine article, the author highlighted a few contemporary skeptics of the NASA study. One Luz Claudio, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. reviewed the NASA study and pointed out that it was performed in a controlled environment. Stanley Kays, a professor at the University of Georgia. describes that the study has little to no resemblance of a real house setting. Kays coauthored a study and finds that moving a plant from a sealed environment to an open one can change the results dramatically. He continues to describe how indoor air and outdoor air would often become mixed in a house, saying that the exchange of air seems to be a better cleaning technique than to use plants alone.

Despite the controversy of whether these plants actually purify the air or not, Victoria Houlden, a PhD candidate who co-authoured a study for the University of Warwick, points out that there are health benefits to having indoor plants that go beyond air-purification. She notes the benefits of greenery on mental health by reducing levels of stress.

Not only could plants have an added bonus of purifying the air, but there are plants that provide medicinal properties as well. Take for instance the popular household name Aloe Vera. This plant could prevent deadly VOCs from entering your system and can be used externally for cuts and burns.


Whether it is for cleaner air, or for your mental health, it seems that having plants around the house do offer some benefits. That being said, here are a list of possible air-purifying plants that could also improve your mental health, or at least these were the ones that seemed to frequent all of the top health publications and blogs:

  1. Spathiphyllum (Peace Lily)

  2. Chrysanthemum morifolium (Florist’s Chrysanthemum)

  3. Dracaena reflexa (Red-Edged Dracaena)

  4. Sansevieria trifasciata (Snake Plant)

  5. Ficus benjamina (Weeping Fig)

The ones to hit the top of the list in the NASA study were the English Ivy and Boston Fern. Even Wolverton was quoted as saying that the Boston Fern would be his most recommended air cleaner. They aren’t on the list above as these are the plants that seem to average on every list. We’re not sure if it’s because they aren’t as aesthetically pleasing, or if they take up too much room in a house, but they were the ones that seemed to score the best. The NASA study had a pattern of ferns and palms rating as the highest air purifiers, but again these findings were in controlled conditions and haven’t made too many of the other common lists. Whatever the reason, we think the plants still look nice.

Additional reading on air-purifying plants:

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