Skip to main content

Are plants that clean the air a myth? Yes (but also no — it’s complicated)

With COVID still on our minds, there’s never been a time when the desire for cleaner, healthier air has been stronger. And, with winter approaching and with it, more time spent indoors, it’s even more important to be sure that the air we breathe is as clean and healthy as can be. 

You can change your air filters, schedule a thorough cleaning of your ductwork, and even purchase an air purifier or two, but you can also introduce your home to the most natural purifier of them all: plants. If you remember from elementary school science, plants, through the process of photosynthesis, deliver the very oxygen we need to breathe. So if we all want cleaner air, can indoor plants really do the job?

Decorative plants
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Can plants clean the air?

Plants convert the carbon dioxide we exhale into fresh oxygen, and they also have the power to help remove toxins from the air. A famous series of studies by NASA in 1989 cited the ability of certain common house plants to remove organic chemicals from indoor air, namely benzene, trichloroethylene, and formaldehyde.

Unfortunately, today’s research indicates that the NASA study may have been a touch too optimistic. You would need a really large number of indoor plants for the foliage to really be able to wipe out the toxins. But, they still provide great health benefits, and even just a few can make a significant difference. 

According to Bill Wolverton, a former NASA research scientist who conducted the 1989 plant study, plants that are bigger and leafier have the best chance of actually making a difference in helping to purify the air. Wolverton recommends at least two “good-sized” plants for every 100 square feet of interior space. He also recommends two plants, in particular, stating: 

“The Boston fern is one of the most effective plants for removing airborne pollutants, but it is often difficult to grow indoors. I usually recommend the golden pothos as my first choice, since it is a popular plant and easy to grow.”

Getty Images

7 indoor plants that help clean the air

  1. Aloe vera
    You may already know about the healing properties of aloe vera for soothing kitchen burns, but you may not be aware that this amazing succulent has the ability to purify the air of formaldehyde and benzene, found in many varnishes, floor finishes, and detergents. It makes a lovely, and practical, addition to a sunny windowsill in your kitchen.
  2. Bamboo palm
    Able to thrive in low-light conditions, the bamboo plant is a striking centerpiece for any room. With its graceful, arching leaves, this air purifier is particularly skilled at removing formaldehyde from the air. 
  3. Chrysanthemum
    These pretty blooms love any sunny spot in your home, and with this plant’s ability to filter out a host of toxins such as ammonia and benzene (often found in plastics, detergents, and glue), it makes a wonderful addition to a kitchen or family room as well.
  4. English Ivy
    Airborne fecal matter is not a topic people like to discuss, but it does exist, which is why this easy-growing perennial is the perfect addition to your bathroom. It’s particularly effective at reducing these nasty airborne particles and can combat mold, too.
  5. Snake plant
    Want to sleep better? Of course you do, and this yellow-tipped succulent can make sure you do. It releases oxygen at night, which helps you breathe better while you sleep, and is one of the best plants around for filtering out formaldehyde, xylene, benzene, toluene, and trichloroethylene from the air. Plus, it’s really easy to care for, provided you don’t overwater it.
  6. Spider plant
    Don’t have a super green thumb? Look no further than this ultra-resilient house plant: the spider plant. It practically takes care of itself, even sprouting little “spiderettes” that you can repot to grow even more easy-to-care-for house plants. This delicate-looking plant can battle carbon monoxide and xylene — a solvent found in printing and rubber industries. Bonus: This house plant is completely non-toxic to pets. 
  7. Rubber plant
    Hardy, good-looking, and low maintenance, too, this popular plant received NASA’s stamp of approval as one of the best for cleansing the air. It’s also a lovely way to brighten up a bare spot on your counter or windowsill. Note: The rubber plant is toxic to dogs and cats, so be sure to keep it out of reach of pets. 

House plants are a fan-favorite way to bring color and beauty to your home, and, while they may not be able to purify the air in your home on their own, they do offer many health benefits. Add a few well-chosen house plants to your home and you just may find yourself breathing a little easier this winter. 

Editors' Recommendations

Kim Renta
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Kim has written for Bloomingdales, Movado, and various e-commerce wine sites. When she's not writing about wine and…
This is what you should be planting in fall for a beautiful spring garden
Plant these seedlings in the fall and watch them grow in spring
Spring flowers forget-me-not

If you want a beautiful garden next spring, it's best to get to work now and start planting in the fall. Autumn is the perfect time to clear new garden beds, build pathways, add architectural elements, and of course, plant. Fall is also the ideal time to install cold-hardy plants because pest populations will dwindle, and plant growth patterns will turn in your favor.

The cooler autumn air is much more forgiving, and the still-warm soil offers an ideal environment for deep root development. And although your new garden plants will be going dormant soon, their roots will continue to grow through fall, until the ground freezes. This gives them an immense head start, as they'll have two seasons (fall and spring) to deepen and strengthen their roots ahead of next summer’s dry heat. As you plan your garden for the year ahead, consider planting these seedlings right now.

Read more
The best indoor plants to decorate your home with in October
Resilient indoor plants to brighten your home during the fall months
Croton plant

Fall is a slow and underwhelming season for avid gardeners. Summer plants start to die off or go dormant, and it's too early to cut down a Christmas tree, right? So, what can you do to keep some of that glorious greenery in your life when the air starts to get chilly? The good news is you don't have to give up your green thumb just because summer is over. There are a ton of indoor plants that can thrive right inside your home during the brisk fall season.

What makes the best indoor plants for fall?
Not every indoor plant is suitable for indoor life in the fall and winter. Many varieties need high heat and long hours of direct sunlight, and they just won't get the vital things they need while inside your home in the fall. The days are shorter and the air is cooler, after all. To prevent the disappointment of browning or wilting leaves, look for indoor plants that have a few key characteristics so you can reap all the benefits of your fall foliage.
Pick plants with high durability
Since fall and winter produce shorter days and dryer air, direct sunlight and humidity will be scarce in your home. It's a good idea to pick the heartiest, most resilient plant varieties that can withstand, or even prefer, the low light conditions and lower moisture levels.
Some indoor plants have great health benefits for cooler months
Among the dry, recycled air blowing around your HVAC system, there are a lot of germs, toxins, and impurities that you and your family breathe in during colder months. Fortunately, many indoor plants can improve the air quality in your home. Through the process of photosynthesis, they filter out those harmful toxins and even give the air a little more humidity. Pick indoor plant varieties that are the best air purifiers out there.
Go for some decorative beauty
Our moods and energy levels definitely take a hit during the chilly months, especially when the trees are bare and the lawn is yellowing. Arguably the best quality of indoor plants is their natural beauty and greenery. Amidst the long nights and barren lawns, having some pretty plant life around may be just what you need to brighten up your day.

Read more
These are the best plants to put in your shower for a nature-inspired sanctuary
Adding a plant to your shower benefits both you and the plant
Bathroom with orange walls

Bathroom plants are a rising trend, and for good reason. Who wouldn't want to add a touch of refined nature or create a cozy farmhouse feel in their bathroom? Placing a plant in the shower, however, might seem a bit odd. The truth is, there are many benefits to having a plant in your shower, both for you and for the plant itself. We're going to discuss some of these benefits, and we're going to give you some ideas for the best plants to put in your shower. Once you've added a touch of nature to your shower, you'll wonder why you didn't do it sooner.

Why put plants in your shower?
Above and beyond adding a bit of color to your dim shower, there are some health and environmental benefits to keeping plants in your shower.
Less unwanted moisture
It's no secret that bathrooms tend to be hot spots for humidity. Excessive amounts of moisture, however, can have some adverse effects. Mold can grow around your bathroom, the paint on the walls can peel, and certain nasty bugs are attracted to moist places. A shower plant can help reduce unwanted moisture in your bathroom and minimize some of these issues. Since plants need water, they suck it right out of the air, providing the added benefit of not having to water the plant as often.
Cleaner air
You probably know that plants pull carbon dioxide out of the air and emit oxygen, right? But did you know that while this process is taking place, the plant is also filtering the air and pulling toxins out of it? With all of the cleaning products, hair products, and other nasty molecules that leave toxins in your bathroom's air, having a shower plant will allow you to breathe a bit easier and healthier.
Mental health benefits
Having indoor plants comes with numerous health benefits, but the most significant are the benefits to your mental health. We all know that plants are therapeutic, and studies have shown that plants help with stress relief, energy boosts, and even increased concentration and productivity. Why not reap all these mental health benefits right at the start of your day while you shower in the morning?
Elevated decor
Let's face it, indoor plants are beautiful, and they add so much charm and character to any room. Why not apply that same philosophy to your bathroom and shower? Having a plant in your shower is not only trendy and aesthetically pleasing, but it will leave you feeling like you're showering in the tropics.
The plants love it
Putting a plant in the shower not only benefits you, but it also benefits the plant itself. Many plants thrive in humid environments, so you'll see them flourish in your bathroom. If you tend to forget to water your plants for long periods of time, having them in an already moist area will allow you to feel less guilty about neglecting them.

Read more