We spend 90% of our lives indoors, in both private and public spaces. Over the last few years, time that would have been spent in the office, the gym, the supermarket or in bars and restaurants has been spent at home – making home air quality all the more important.
The quality of the air we breathe indoors has a noticeable effect on our physical wellbeing, both in terms of day-to-day comfort and long-term heart and lung health.
In fact, depending on where you live, exposure to indoor pollution may be more harmful than outdoor. The most likely to be affected are children, elderly people and those with cardiovascular disease or respiratory problems.
But we’ve got some practical steps you can take to improve your home air quality.
1. Find out what your air quality is like at home
The first step is to find out what your home air quality is like and that probably means buying an air quality monitor. However, there are some air purifiers that also have air quality monitoring features, so you might want to opt for a two-in-one appliance.
Once you have a good sense of your air quality, you can take steps to improve it.
2. Clean the filters in your appliances
Most of your appliances have filters to trap dust and lint. Once they get gummed up, not only will they make the appliance less effective, risking it heating up or malfunctioning, but they’ll also be less effective in pulling dust out of the air.
Start with your vacuum cleaner. Empty the bag if it has one, and clean the filter. Newer vacuum cleaners may have dust bins that can be removed completely and washed out under the tap.
Emma Rowley / Foundry
Next, check the filters in your clothes dryer, any heaters, fans, air conditioners or existing air purifiers. While you’re at it, you could clean the fans on your PC. All of these appliances can help to clean the air in your home.
We’ve saved the worst but most important job for last: cleaning your extractor fan. Your kitchen is the source of many of the air pollutants at home and you’ll be surprised at how much cooking affects the air quality of your home. A clean extractor fan can make a big difference.
(If you didn’t know they needed to be cleaned, then you are in for a special time of it.)
3. Vacuum your soft furnishings with a HEPA-grade filter vacuum cleaner
Fabrics, carpets, sofas, pillows and mattresses can become repositories of pet hair, dust and dander. It’s time to clean them.
For everyone else, a deep-clean of all of your soft furnishings should make a big difference to your home air quality. Your bed is where you spend the most time, so start there. Strip your bed and vacuum your mattress and pillows.
Curtains should be taken down and put in the washing machine. Then move on to your sitting room and vacuum the cushions on your sofa and chairs. And that brings us to our next piece of advice.
Your cleaning process will be much more effective if you have a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter.
HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters must trap 99.95-99.97% of particulates that are 3 micrometres or larger. Not only is that a really high level of dust removal, and one that’ll get the dust mites out of your mattress, but a HEPA filter will retain the dust it gathers and prevent it from being blown back into the air of your home.
Bear in mind, however, that if you choose a bagless vacuum cleaner, you’ll be releasing some of the dirt and dust you just captured back into your living space. Ideally, if you’re using a bagless cleaner you should empty it into an outside bin. However, many handheld cleaners have a limited dust capacity and need to be emptied frequently. If you also live in a flat, it’s just not realistic to take it outside every time.
If you are, or live with, a dust allergy sufferer, bagged vacuum cleaners are the better option. They make a big difference in trapping dust and keeping it locked away once it’s collected. A budget-friendly bagged option is the Halo Capsule, which we reviewed and rate as one of the best we’ve tested.
Investing in a robot vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter is a great way to keep the air quality in your home at a high standard. In fact, any robot vacuum cleaner is a good option for people with respiratory problems, as it can be set to run while you’re out. By the time you’re home, any remaining dust has literally settled.
You can also buy robot vacuums that automatically empty themselves into a dock, so you can just change the bag every month or so, instead of digging around in the tiny onboard bin every couple of days.
An air purifier will pull air through a filter and then circulate the cleaned air back out into your living space. It’s not the cheapest option, as not only should you run the purifier for the majority of the time, but you also need to replace the filters regularly for it to be effective.
For advice on buying an air purifier and to find the one that’s right for you, have a look at our round-up of the best air purifiers we’ve tested.
5. Start good air habits
The final stage in keeping the air in your home clean is to be more aware of air quality and to change your habits to protect it.
We discussed the reasons you should do this above but the bottom line is: the extractor fan is there for a reason. Switch it on, not only when you’re cooking but also when you’re using cleaning products.
Cleaning: don’t combine products and don’t use a spray
Cleaning products that are safe on their own can become dangerous when combined. Most people know that if you mix bleach and ammonia (for example, bleach and toilet cleaner), you can create toxic chloramine gas. But did you know that bleach and vinegar is another combination to avoid? Blend the two and you’ll get poisonous chlorine gas.
Even products that are safe to use can have a negative effect if you breathe them in. This is why it’s recommended to avoid cleaning sprays and use liquids instead. Long-term use of spray cleaners is associated with an increased incidence of new-onset asthma and other respiratory problems; breathing in bleach regularly is associated with lung disease.
Don’t OD on scented stuff
Plug-in air fresheners and scented candles – especially those made from paraffin – release chemicals into the air as they heat up.
And it’s not just the ingredients that go into them that are the problem. For example, limonene, which is used to create citrus scents, can produce formaldehyde when burned.
Are there enough of these pollutants to cause actual harm? The British Lung Foundation says that candles, when used occasionally, “are unlikely to prove much of a health risk”, but the general advice is not to burn them every day and only in well-ventilated rooms. Incense should be used even more sparingly, as there is strong evidence that links its use to lung disease.
Avoid wood-burning stoves and open fires
Is there anything better than an open fire on a winter’s day? In air quality terms, the answer is: almost anything. Wood smoke is full of the particulate matter that is directly linked to cancer, strokes, heart attacks and other things you don’t want to be thinking about right now.
More people are turning to open fires and wood-burning stoves, not only for reasons of comfort and aesthetics but from the mistaken idea that they are a wholesome and sustainable form of heating.
But that’s not true. A UK Government study found that domestic wood burning causes almost two and a half times more pollution than traffic. It’s not hard to guess from this what effect your cosy fire is having on the air quality in your home.
Open a window
People are much more aware of outdoor pollution and its dangerous effects than of the air quality indoors. So much so that they feel safer when hermetically sealed in their homes. But the best advice, when cooking, cleaning or if food is burned, is to let a little air in from outside.