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How Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) Affect Your Health

Last updated September 16, 2023

As an experienced content producer and editor, James makes sure our content is always compelling, clear, and useful. He also leads the production team and makes sure our writers have everything they need to keep doing their best work. On his off days, you'll find him outside hiking or searching for stone circles.

Our verdict:

VOCs are potentially dangerous gasses often found inside our homes, emitted by countless everyday household products.

They can cause various health problems, ranging from slight airway irritation to organ damage (and even cancer). People with existing conditions like asthma may be at greater risk.

The best way to reduce VOCs inside is to remove as many causes of them as you can. If this isn’t possible, good ventilation and an air purifier with certain filters can help lessen their impact.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are gasses emitted inside your home by various common products. They’re so common you almost certainly have some floating around your house right now. Indoors, their concentration can quickly build up — primarily if they’re being emitted at a high rate by a particular item or activity. 

Certain VOCs can cause health problems ranging from mild to very severe. People with existing damage to organs like their lungs or conditions like asthma may be more vulnerable to the adverse effects of VOCs.

Brief or minor exposure to VOCs is unlikely to cause serious harm. To experience any more severe side effects, you would probably need long-term, repeated, or highly concentrated exposure.

A few of the mild to medium symptoms you may experience from VOC exposure include:

☣️ Eye, nose and throat irritation
☣️ Dizziness
☣️ Headaches
☣️ Allergic skin reactions
☣️ Nausea
☣️ Visual discord
☣️ Memory impairment

Some of the more severe symptoms that can be caused by long-term VOC exposure are:

☣️Difficulty breathing
☣️Damage to the central nervous system
☣️Damage to organs like the kidneys, liver or lungs

Remember: it takes some severe exposure to VOCs to experience harmful side effects. It’s wise to be careful and avoid exposure where you can, but one sniff of paint or gasoline isn’t going to hurt you.

What Are VOCs?

The term Volatile Organic Compound covers many gasses commonly encountered in our homes. They’re essentially substances that evaporate into the air very quickly. Some well-known VOCs include formaldehyde and acetone, which can be harmful when breathed in.

Often, when you smell something in the air, it’s due to the presence of a VOC. For instance, new cars and fresh paint emit a specific smell due to the VOCs they release. This release process is often called “off-gassing” or “outgassing.”

Chemicals emitting these glasses are used in various products we use daily. This means the concentration of VOCs in our homes tends to be high, with the EPA finding levels normally 2 to 5 times higher inside than outside. This is the case even in isolated, rural locations.

If you carry out an activity that releases high VOCs (such as paint stripping), this value can rise to a thousand times background outdoor levels.

The reason for this is the sheer number of products that release them

A few common sources of VOCs include:

⚠️ Cosmetics
⚠️ Deodorant
⚠️ Cooking
⚠️ Cleaning products
⚠️ Smoking
⚠️ Air fresheners
⚠️ Photocopiers and printers
⚠️ Craft and hobby materials
⚠️ Burning wood
⚠️ Gasoline
⚠️ Diesel
⚠️ Pesticides
⚠️ Paint
⚠️ Varnishes
⚠️ Caulks and adhesives
⚠️ Paint strippers
⚠️ Carpet
⚠️ Vinyl Flooring
⚠️ Composite wood
⚠️ Upholstery
⚠️ Dry cleaned clothing

If you want an even longer list of common VOCs, check out our list of 100 VOCs and where they are found in the home.

Many people are entirely unaware of this fact or that many of these items produce gas. 

When you smell one of these items, you smell the VOCs and other off-gassing compounds.

VOCs are practically impossible to avoid today. You’ve undoubtedly encountered them — likely every single day. 

7 Ways to Reduce VOC Exposure

The best way to reduce VOC exposure is to limit how much is released in the first place. With thousands of everyday products containing these chemicals, this is hard. However, it’s not impossible. 

1. If you buy a product like furniture or flooring that is off-gassing VOCs, store them outdoors for a few days to dissipate most of the gas.

2. Choose paint products with non-toxic or low-VOC versions. This is an excellent way of lessening how many VOCs are hanging around your home. 

💡 Pro Tip: Research the impact of removing these chemicals first since it can sometimes impact their performance. For example, low VOC paint needs more coats before the color is solid.

3. When you buy products like paint or gasoline, buy the amount you’ll need immediately or keep them somewhere like an outdoor shed.

💡 Pro Tip: Remember that VOCs emitted into an attached garage will likely seep through to the rest of the home.

4. Always follow manufacturer warnings and instructions. Don’t mix products — especially cleaning chemicals — unless instructed to by the packaging.

6. When using products like paint, remember that they emit VOCs long after drying. If you can still smell that “new paint” smell, gas is still being emitted, and the room should be ventilated and avoided where possible.

6. When using high-VOC products, ventilation is the best way to minimize their impact. Open all the windows and constantly get fans moving air out of your home.

7. An air purifier is an excellent tool in your arsenal for combatting household VOCs — especially if you’re planning an activity like painting. 

We’ve tested many air purifiers and know precisely what to look for in a unit for VOCs. Here are our top picks for filtering VOCs from your home as effectively as possible:

IQAir HealthPro PlusMila Air PurifierAustin HealthMate
AIR CLEANING SPEED ⚡25 minutes37 minutes35 minutes
CADR 👩‍🔬300 CFM263 CFM400 CFM
FILTER TECHNOLOGY 💨Hyper HEPA and V5-CellH13 HEPA and The Critter CuddlerHEPA and Activated Carbon
MAX ROOM SIZE 📏1125 sq. ft.1000 sq. ft.1500 sq. ft.
WEIGHT ⚖️35 Ibs18 lbs47 lbs
OUR REVIEW 🔍IQAir HealthPro Plus reviewMila Air Purifier reviewAustin HealthMate review
PRICE 💵$899.00$428.00$715.00

Last update on 2023-09-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

💡 Pro Tip: Check out our full list with the best air purifiers for VOCs based on our tests.

Final Thoughts

VOCs are an oft-overlooked hazard in our homes, with many people not knowing they’re an issue. It can seem impossible to avoid them with the thousands of products released into our homes daily.

However, with a few of the tips mentioned above, you can keep your home safe for people and pets. We hope this article has helped you better understand the air floating around our homes and what you can do to keep it as clean as possible.

Last update on 2023-09-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API