Breathing Easy: 10 Ways to Clean the Air in Your Home
The comforts of a modern home are myriad -- temperature-controlled rooms keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and carefully engineered windows can even cocoon you from noisy neighbors and nasty drafts. “Newer constructions are more airtight than older ones,” says Alan Barlis, a New York City–based green architect. But there’s a catch. A home that blocks out the outside world also seals in potentially harmful substances -- including dust, dirt, and mold. You also have to contend with microscopic fragments that are released when you cook or light a candle, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are given off by some detergents and paints, and certain materials in furniture. Over time, these things can irritate eyes, skin, and airways, says Neil Kao, an allergist in Greenville, South Carolina. Some researchers also suspect that VOCs could be a contributing factor in higher cancer risks. Fortunately, driving out these elements is easier than it sounds when you do these small tasks on a daily, weekly, and seasonal basis.
Open the windows.
The simplest way to improve your air is to let some in from outside, says Barlis. This is important when you’re air-drying laundry, taking a shower, cooking, or cleaning -- even in kitchens and bathrooms built with ventilation systems that exhaust directly to the outdoors. If yours feature only recirculating fans, be sure to leave the nearest window open as they run. Scrub the filters and degrease screens every six months.
Switch on an air purifier.
It may be worth the investment if letting in a breeze is problematic (if you have seasonal allergies, for instance). This device fits into a central-air system and can catch up to 99 percent of large particulates like pollen and dander. Look for one rated MERV-13 or higher. (MERV, which stands for “minimum-efficiency reporting value,” is a measure of filtering efficiency.) For those without central air, a freestanding HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filtration unit can be very effective within a room, though not over the entire house. Place one where you spend the most time, such as your bedroom or living room.
Twice a Week
Patrol for dust.
While modern houses built away from or high above busy streets may need a dusting just once a week, grime builds up more quickly in older structures or those with poor ventilation. These homes require more-frequent wipe-downs. Make sure to dampen your rag -- dust and water molecules conveniently latch onto each other. For wood surfaces and antiques, break out a microfiber cloth. Don’t forget windowsills, shower rungs, and shelves. Always start high and finish low, says Sabrina Fierman of New York’s Little Elves, a fine interior cleaning company, to get every last speck. Another tip: Adopt a minimalist look—clutter-free surfaces are speedier to tidy.
Twice a Week
Wash towels and mats.
Air-dry them well after each use (when wet, they breed mold). Toss towels into the machine every three or so days; mats half as often. Avoid those with rubber backings, which don’t weather washings. A no-fuss alternative? Lightweight machine-friendly towel mats.
Grab a mop.
“The most effective way to clean the air is to clean the floor,” says Derrick A. Denis, vice president of indoor environmental quality at Clark Seif Clark, a Chandler, Arizona, consulting firm. After all, gravity pulls down particles, which then swirl back up with the smallest crosscurrent. Brooms get at crumbs, but to rein in the teeny-tiny particles that irritate your respiratory system, swab down or squeegee once a week. To reach tight spots effortlessly, choose a mop with an articulated, telescoping handle and a removable machine-washable top.
Vacuum with a vengeance.
For rugs and upholstery, use a vacuum equipped with a HEPA filter; this ensures that what you just sucked up (at least, 99.97 percent of it) doesn’t go right back into the air. Snap on attachments to target furniture, and the small brush for tops of books along your shelves. Then go for the floors. Dense carpets trap more dust -- and require several passes with the machine. Lighter weaves or bare floors make the task easier, as does choosing covered shelves instead of open ones for your library.
Launder your linens.
They trap skin cells that slough off while you sleep, as well as dust and the mites that feed on it. These pests then generate by-products that can trigger allergies. To get rid of them, wash sheets and pillowcases at the hottest setting. Stick with machine-washable bedding. Keep extra pillows in a closet, and minimize decorative ones. Dust mites love bedrooms (and beds) because they tend to be especially warm and humid. Bring in a dehumidifier during the summer, or turn on your AC -- cold air is inherently drying.
Wash your pillows.
Dust and dust mites love the insert, too. Fortunately, you can obliterate them in your washer (check the care label). Do two per load to keep it balanced—once with detergent (use liquid; powders can leave residue), and again without. Then tumble-dry on no heat, with tennis balls to keep them fluffed. To reduce the chore to twice a year, protect pillows with anti–dust mite encasings.
Strip the window dressings.
Curtains and drapes are huge dirt collectors, so cleanse regularly, following care instructions. Custom treatments, especially those with elaborate detailing such as pleats, can often only be dry-cleaned, even if crafted from a typically resilient material like cotton. Vacuum them instead. For the fastest cleanups, opt for blinds; those with smooth textures trap less dust. With a wet cloth, you can restore them to their original glory -- no heavy lifting required.