If you’ve been working from home recently rather than the office, then avoiding the daily commute – and thus reducing your exposure to outdoor air pollution – might seem like one of the few positives that has come out of lockdown. Bad news: the air inside your home might be dirtier than you think.
Lockdown restrictions are easing, but chances are you’re still spending much more time at home than ever before.
And, while we often associate the words ‘air pollution’ with vehicle emissions, a study commissioned last year by charity Global Action Plan found that pollution levels can be more than three times higher indoors than outdoors.
Pollution from everyday household activities, combined with outdoor pollution that’s travelled inside, creates a build-up which takes longer to disperse indoors than outdoors.
Here are five ways in which you might be inadvertently allowing air pollution to build up in your home, and our tips on how to avoid these mistakes.
An air purifier can help reduce your air pollution at home. Check out our round-up of Best Buy air purifiers.
Video: How to control your indoor air quality
We speak to Professor Nicola Carslaw, Professor of Indoor Air Chemistry at the University of York and indoor air pollution expert. Watch the video below for her advice on keeping the air in your home clean.
Mistake 1: Living in a sealed box
On hot days, we naturally rush to open our windows. But the great British weather means these days are few and far between, and on chilly or drizzly days it’s tempting to keep windows tightly shut.
However, ventilating is a free, easy way to improve your indoor air quality, provided you’re strategic about when you open your windows. If you suffer from hay fever, you’ll need to take account of high pollen times too – the Met Office weather app can tell you when the pollen count is high in your area.
- Open your windows at rush hour, if you live on a road that gets lots of traffic.
- Accidentally block off air vents by placing furniture and other items in front of them.
- Open windows while cleaning or decorating, to release chemicals from the products you’re using.
- Open windows when you’re cooking or showering, to release moisture and dampness that can encourage mould, dust mites and other allergens.
- Use your cooker hood when cooking – ideally in extraction mode, if it’s an extracting model.
Take a look at our guide on the best cooker hoods to see the models that do a great job of sucking steam, grease and smells from the air in your home.
Mistake 2: Allowing mould to flourish
Living in damp, mouldy conditions can reduce lung function, inflame your airways, cause chest tightness and throat irritation, exacerbate problems such as asthma and depression, and throw your immune system out of kilter.
- Ignore signs of damp – for example, a musty smell, dark or discoloured patches on your walls or plaster or, of course, visible mould or mildew.
- Neglect hidden spots, if there’s a musty smell and you suspect mould. Check behind the fridge, below sinks, under stacks of newspaper or cardboard and under any carpeting that has got wet due to flooding or cleaning.
- Open windows and use bathroom fans to clear moisture from the air.
- Keep a sharp eye on your bathtub, tiles, shampoo bottles, and in and around the shower head for any signs of lurking mould, and deal with it promptly (wearing rubber gloves).
- Replace shower curtains and loofahs regularly.
How to deal with damp
If your damp problem is only mild, try a cheap moisture absorber, otherwise known as a damp trap.
If that doesn’t do the trick, you’ll probably need to invest in a dehumidifier – use our dehumidifier reviews to make sure you’re buying one that actually works.
If the damp is advanced, check out our guide to dealing with damp.
Mistake 3: Excessive use of harsh cleaning products
Keeping your home hygienic has never been more important, but it’s important to use certain cleaning products safely and in moderation. Some cleaning products can contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs), bleach or ammonia – all of which we should avoid breathing in too much of.
- Use sprays if you can avoid it – the way these work makes it easier for chemicals to get into the air and further down into your airways than solid or liquid cleaning products.
- Assess the products you’re using. Unscented products and allergy-friendly products usually have lower levels of VOCs.
- Read the labels on cleaning products carefully, to make sure you’re using them safely. It may be a bad idea to use more than one product on the same area, for example. Mixing certain chemicals – such as bleach and ammonia – can release harmful gases.
- Consider using natural alternatives such as lemon juice, baking soda or vinegar where appropriate, though we’ve not tested these to know if they remove bacteria as effectively as chemical products.
Mistake 4: Assuming a few houseplants will purify your air
Houseplants are all the rage right now, especially among urban dwellers cooped up in tiny flats and dreaming of the countryside – or, at the very least, a garden.
But, while they can help break down harmful compounds in the air on a small scale, you’d need huge numbers of the right kind of plants, maintained under perfect conditions, to significantly improve your indoor air quality.
- Expect your houseplants to dramatically improve the quality of the air you’re breathing – though every little helps, and research in this field is showing promise.
- Appreciate your houseplants for their own sake and for the health and psychological benefits they can offer.
According to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), studies have shown that having plants at home can reduce blood pressure and improve your mood and reaction-time in computer tasks and reduce your stress – all good things if your home is now also your office.
Mistake 5: Expecting too much from the HEPA filter on your vacuum cleaner or air purifier
If you have allergies or asthma, then it’s important to keep your house as free as possible from pollutants, such as fine dust particles and pollen, which can aggravate your symptoms.
HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters are a feature you may see advertised as being more effective at removing allergens from the air. These filters have multiple layers of criss-crossing fibres, which need to be able to remove at least 99.8% of particles 0.3 microns in size or bigger.
In general, we find that air purifiers and vacuum cleaners with HEPA filters are more effective at trapping common household allergens than those without, but that isn’t always the case. Other factors such as how well-fitted the filter is, how carefully sealed the airways are within the vacuum cleaner also play a part.
- Think that the presence of a HEPA filter means you’ve necessarily got the best air purifier or vacuum cleaner.
- Rely on an air purifier alone to keep air pollution to a minimum – they certainly help, but you’ll need to adopt the other measures we’ve highlighted in this article too.
- Use our vacuum cleaner reviews and air purifier reviews to find the ones that do the best job of cleaning your air.
- If you go for a bagless vacuum cleaner, Allergy UK advises emptying it outside, while wearing a mask and gloves. Otherwise you might undo all the vacuum cleaner’s good work by exposing yourself to allergens.
- Close the door and windows of any room where an air purifier is running, so that it can do an intensive clean without having to tackle new air coming in.
For more ideas on how to keep the air in your home clean, check out our free guide improving your indoor air quality at home.