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How to reduce VOCs inside your home

By
Updated on January 24, 2024
Written by
Marie Cookson
Based in Manchester, Marie is one of the writers at HouseFresh and our resident dust expert. She works together with our in-house researchers and our Managing Editor to produce in-depth articles offering practical advice on how to tackle indoor air quality issues.
TL;DR

Found in a wide range of products, such as paint and produced from activities like smoking, VOCs (volatile organic compounds) can be a significant concern. 

They can cause various health problems, including shortness of breath, fatigue and even some cancers, so reducing exposure in the home is crucial. 

Fortunately, there are lots of ways you can do this. Increasing ventilation and using an air purifier with activated carbon are key ways to minimize the risks and improve indoor air quality.

That uplifting, fresh scent we associate with new furniture or car may have hidden dangers — VOCs (volatile organic compounds). 

According to the EPA, VOCs are emitted by a vast variety (actually thousands) of products, and concentrations can be up to ten times higher inside the home than outside. Similarly, airborne concentrations of VOCs can increase rapidly once you use products that contain them. They can also stay in the air long after you’ve stopped using the product.

In simple terms, VOCs are gases emitted via many products and items commonly used at home such as paints, cleaning products, new furniture and insect repellents. These gases can lead to serious health issues when people are exposed to them for long periods of time. 

Luckily, you can easily reduce VOCs, and we’re here to help show you how. We have distilled the top 11 tips to help you reduce VOCs inside your home:

1. Ventilate your space

An excellent (and cheap) way to reduce concentrations of VOCs is simply to open windows and doors to let in fresh air. If it isn’t too windy outside, you can also use fans to boost the air circulation that’s coming in from outdoors.

Tip

If you’re sensitive to pollen, you might want to be more strategic about opening windows, such as waiting until the pollen counts are low. 

2. Control the sources of VOCs

As VOCs come from several products inside the home, it’s super essential to exert control over them:

✅ Only buy the products you need for paints, solvents, caulks, adhesives, etc.

✅ Unused chemicals may “leak” and release VOCs into the air — be sure to store these where people do not spend much time, such as in a garage or shed 

✅ Dispose of unused chemicals responsibly — check with your county or city for household harmful waste collection sites

✅ Consider buying low-VOC or toxic-free options of paints and furnishing

✅ Keep all sources out of reach of children and pets

✅ Always follow label instructions carefully

Tip

Formaldehyde is one of the best-known VOCs and is found in many products. Fortunately, it’s also one of the few that can be easily measured as it’s often labeled. Be sure to check products and, if possible, remove the source.

3. Let new items air out or “off-gas”

When purchasing new items, it’s a good idea to go for floor models rather than those that have been tightly packaged in a storeroom. This is because the floor models will have had a chance to air out and off-gas before entering your home. 

If this isn’t always possible and you have a garden or yard, you could let products (including carpets) off-gas outside for a few days.

Tip

If you can, go for solid-wood items and furniture, as these contain fewer VOCs than pressed-wood products, such as plywood.

4. Monitor humidity levels

High humidity is always uncomfortable, yet another downside is that it can also increase the concentrations of VOCs. In places of high humidity and temperature, chemicals off-gas, so it’s crucial to keep humidity levels low, ideally between 30-50% relative humidity (RH). 

Moreover, high humidity levels also reduce the ability of carbon filters in air purifiers to clean the air.

Tip

Your best bet for keeping humidity to an optimum level is to purchase a dehumidifier. This will not only help to reduce VOC emissions but will also alleviate issues such as condensation and dampness.

5. Try a “Bake-Out” when moving into a newly-constructed home

Owing to the heady combination of new paint, flooring, sealants and other building materials, most new homes have that unmistakable new build smell. Unfortunately, this also means that your perfect new home will likely emit a fair amount of VOCs. But don’t worry because you can try a “bake-out.” 

The idea is to bake, well warm, the entire structure, as this will accelerate the off-gassing process and release VOCs before you move in.

Follow these steps:

  1. Close up your home and crank up the heat to 85-90 F. Be sure to leave it on all day and all night for 3-5 days. 
  1. Air out the home by opening windows for 15-25 minutes 2-3 times a day. This allows the indoor air to be exchanged with the outside air while preventing VOCs from reabsorbing.
  1. When the 3-5 days are up, turn off the heat and open windows and doors to ventilate thoroughly. Let the house cool for at least 24 hours before properly returning inside. 
Tip

If you can still smell chemicals and feel it needs more work, you can repeat the “bake-out” process.

6. Go for natural cleaning products

Cleaning is essential for home maintenance, but many store-bought products can emit VOCs. Natural cleansers are a much better choice; you can easily make one using simple ingredients. 

Our top recipe for a good all-surface natural cleaner:

  1. Combine one part white vinegar, one part water, lemon rind and a few rosemary sprigs into a spray bottle and shake well
  1. Let the ingredients infuse for a week before applying
  1. Use around the home, such as in trash cans and on wall smudges
Tip

Be sure not to use this mixture or any other acidic cleaner on granite, as it can scratch the stone. 

7. Keep cigarette smoke outside of your home

If you or someone you live with smokes, stopping as soon as possible is vital. Tobacco smoke contains several cancer-causing substances and is a significant source of VOCs. For example, benzene is a recognized human carcinogen released when tobacco is burned.

Tip

Giving up smoking isn’t easy and can take time, so keep your home smoke-free and only smoke outdoors.

8. Choose a non-toxic mattress 

Given that we can spend up to a 1/3 of the day on a mattress, it’s essential to ensure the surface doesn’t emit harmful VOCs. Some mattresses can use off-gas compounds like chlorinated tris, a semi-volatile organic compound. Always look for one that contains non-toxic chemicals and materials.

Tip

You can wrap your mattress in a low-density polyethylene cover for a cheaper alternative. Polyethylene is considered an inert plastic and doesn’t contain unsafe plasticizers like phthalates.

9. Renovate during the warmer months

If you’re thinking of doing some home improvement, then pencil it in for when the weather is warmer so that you can open doors and windows frequently. Increasing ventilation and airing out the space will help reduce exposure to VOCs.

Tip

To further lower the risks, aim to carry out renovations when the home is unoccupied.

10. Steer clear of regular candles

If you love a calming, scented candle, be aware that conventional paraffin ones can emit carcinogenic VOCs like toluene and benzene into the air. Luckily, there are many natural alternatives, such as soy, coconut and beeswax.

Tip

Read the label thoroughly to check that the candle is 100% non-toxic, as some companies can blend natural wax with paraffin wax.

11. Use an air purifier that contains activated carbon

Air purifiers are highly effective for reducing VOCs, but choosing a device containing activated carbon filters is essential. Activated carbon (sometimes called charcoal) has been heated to aid the adsorption process. And the more activated carbon a purifier contains, the more VOCs will be removed. 

Another bonus is that it can help to eliminate household odors, such as cooking.

Tip

Be sure to select a purifier suitable for the room size. If the space is too big for the unit’s capacity (and vice versa), it won’t be able to remove VOCs successfully.

Our top 3 air purifiers for VOCs

We’ve tested nearly 50 different air purifiers since we launched HouseFresh. All our tests are conducted inside the same test room, following the same process. This allows us to compare units side by side based on our own data, regardless of what marketing materials tell us. 

When it comes to VOCs, we have selected our top three units here:

👑 BEST OVERALL💰 FOR TIGHT BUDGETS🛋️ FOR LARGE SPACES
IQAir HealthPro PlusMila Air PurifierAustin HealthMate
CADR 👩‍🔬300 CFM263 CFM400 CFM
FILTER TECHNOLOGY 💨Hyper HEPA and V5-CellH13 HEPA and The Critter CuddlerHEPA and Activated Carbon
ACTIVATED CARBON ⛏️5 lbs0.84 lbs 27 lbs
MAX ROOM SIZE 📏450 to 1125 sq. ft.1000 sq. ft.750 to 1500 sq. ft.
WEIGHT ⚖️35 Ibs18 lbs47 lbs
ReviewIQAir HealthPro Plus reviewMila Air Purifier reviewAustin HealthMate review
PRICE 💵$899.00$419.99$714.00

Last update on 2024-02-21 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API


Frequently asked questions about VOCs

🤔 What are VOCs?

VOCs (or volatile organic compounds) are a big group of chemicals that exist in nature and many products in our homes. It’s during the manufacturing process that VOCs start to become problematic. This is because they initially start as solids or liquids, yet their high vapor pressure means that they evaporate quickly at room temperature.

This vaporization process is called off-gassing and can seriously impact our air. And while it is possible to smell VOCs, not being able to smell them doesn’t mean they aren’t present.

Some common examples of VOCs that may be all around us include: 

  • Formaldehyde
  • Benzene
  • Toluene
  • Ethylene glycol
  • Methylene chloride
  • Tetrachloroethylene

According to the EPA, VOCs are emitted by a vast variety (actually thousands) of products, and concentrations can be up to ten times higher inside the home than outside. Similarly, airborne concentrations of VOCs can increase rapidly once you use products that contain them. They can also stay in the air long after you’ve stopped using the product.

🤔 What are the most common sources of VOCs at home?

What types of things emit VOCs? They can broadly be divided between building materials and home and personal care products, including:

⚠️ Wood preservatives

⚠️ Paints, stains, strippers and finishes

⚠️ New furniture, including cabinets, beds and mattresses

⚠️ New carpets, rugs and wood floors

⚠️ Gasoline, fuels and solvents

⚠️ Moth repellents 

⚠️ Air fresheners/deodorizers

⚠️ Cleansers and disinfectants

⚠️ Pesticides

⚠️ Personal care products

⚠️ Cosmetics like nail polish remover

⚠️ Aerosol sprays

⚠️ Paraffin wax candles

⚠️ Craft supplies, such as glue and permanent markers

🤔 What happens if you breathe VOCs?

While not all VOCs are harmful, several short- and long-term health hazards vary depending on the type and length of exposure. And inhaling VOCs may increase some people’s risk of health problems. 

Serious health problems caused by VOCs include:

  • Cancer — some VOCs can cause cancer in animals, and some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans
  • Damage to the liver, kidneys and the central nervous system
  • Declines in serum cholinesterase levels — serum cholinesterase is a blood test that analyses the levels of two substances that help the nervous system work properly

People with asthma and/or chemical sensitivity are especially vulnerable to adverse health effects from inhaling VOCs

Likewise, children, older adults and anyone with underlying respiratory conditions are also at risk.

🤔 What are the symptoms of exposure to VOCs?

Key signs and symptoms of VOCs exposure include:

🚩 Eye redness

🚩 Nose and throat irritation

🚩 Headache

🚩 Allergic skin reactions

🚩 Shortness of breath

🚩 Nausea and vomiting

🚩 Nosebleeds

🚩 Fatigue

🚩 Dizziness

🚩 Memory impairment

🚩 Loss of coordination


Final thoughts

Reducing VOCs in the home will help prevent specific health problems, and you can minimize exposure in many ways. One of the most important things you can do is shop for and use products wisely. For example, always look for low-VOC or non-toxic paints and keep areas well-ventilated by opening windows and doors. 

Using an air purifier with a large amount of activated carbon will also significantly help to reduce VOCs and boost your well-being. 

SOURCES

Last update on 2024-02-21 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

About the author

Marie Cookson

Based in Manchester, Marie is one of the writers at HouseFresh and our resident dust expert. She works together with our in-house researchers and our Managing Editor to produce in-depth articles offering practical advice on how to tackle indoor air quality issues.