Cleaning Indoor Air With Plants

Remove carbon monoxide and other pollutants with toxin-absorbing species.


Gerbera daisy plants are among the 10 plants most effective in removing formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene and carbon monoxide from indoor air.

Gerbera daisy plants are among the 10 plants most effective in removing formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene and carbon monoxide from indoor air.

On average, Americans spend 90 percent of their time indoors. Unfortunately, indoor air in today's homes, businesses, and schools is often more polluted than outdoor air. In fact, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation estimates that occupants of new homes may be exposed to many times the maximum allowable limits of indoor air pollutants such as formaldehyde and benzene. Exposure to formaldehyde irritates the eyes, nose and throat, can cause headaches and allergic contact dermatitis, and has been linked to asthma. Benzene irritates the eyes and skin.

Indoor air pollution is caused mainly by synthetic building materials, finishes and furnishings that off-gas pollutants. It is also caused by the use of personal-care products, pesticides and household cleaners and by biological sources such as insects, pests, molds and other fungi.

Both builders and homeowners can improve indoor air quality (IAQ). Builders can help by using green building materials instead of materials that contain volatile organic compounds, as many traditionally manufactured carpeting, cabinets, drywalls and paints do. Builders also can design adequate ventilation systems that effectively remove toxins and replace them with fresher air. Homeowners can contribute to improving IAQ by reducing the amount of synthetics and known pollutants they use at home and by opening windows and doors for fresh air as seasonally appropriate. Another important way homeowners can improve IAQ is to add live indoor plants. Certain indoor plants have been proven to help absorb harmful toxins in the air, such as formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene and carbon monoxide.

10 Best Plants for Cleaning Indoor Air

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English Ivy

Hedera Helix

Beautiful as a groundcover or a houseplant, English ivy is a classically elegant choice that is also excellent for removing harmful chemicals found in the home. It can grow in full shade to full sun, can be trained into shapes, and with proper care, it is likely to survive for several years.

Photo By: Shutterstock/My Imagine

Bamboo Palm

Chamaedorea Seifrizii

Since the bamboo palm, or reed palm, prefers part sun or shade, it makes a great houseplant with the added benefit of aiding in the removal of harmful elements such as benzene and formaldehyde.

Photo By: Shutterstock/Oleg Samoylov

Chinese Evergreen

Aglaonema Modestum

The Chinese evergreen is an easy-care plant that thrives in low to medium light. It generally grows to one or two feet. Though it helps to maintain healthy air quaility in the home, it is important to note that the Chinese evergreen contains an irritant that can be toxic to pets.

Photo By: Shutterstock/Prapa

Gerbera Daisy

Gerbera Jamesonii

When placed indoors, this popular annual is useful in removing benzene and providing mood-enhancing beauty to the home. However, keep in mind that the gerbera daisy does best in warm temperatures, at 75 degrees F or higher.

Photo By: Shutterstock/Anchalee Wiangkao

Dragon Tree

Dracaena Marginata

With a leaf color that ranges from green to purple, this plant would be a gorgeous addition indoors or outdoors. It would also fit right in at the office, as it can tolerate low light.

Photo By: Shutterstock/Boryana Ilieva Photo

Mother-in-Law's Tongue

Sansevieria Trifasciata 'Laurentii'

A hardy succulent, mother-in-law's tongue is a great houseplant for beginners and can survive in some of the toughest conditions, including a wide variety of temperatures and light conditions. However, be careful not to overwater (or to not water at all).

Photo By: Costa Farms

Pot Mum

Chrysanthemum Morifolium

Good for removing benzene, the pot mum is also a colorful addition to the home in fall when many other flowering plants are past their prime.

Photo By: Shutterstock/Job Narinnate

Peace Lily

Spathiphyllum 'Mauna Loa'

Known for its ability to fight against toxic gases such as formaldehyde and carbon monoxide, peace lilies are relatively easy to care for and even show signs of drooping when they need to be watered. They can be mildly toxic to pets and humans, so it's important to wash your hands after touching the plant.

Photo By: Shutterstock/John C. Evans

Spider Plant

Chlorophytum Comosum 'Vittatum'

This easy to care for houseplant thrives in bright, indirect light and works hard to remove the air of harmful pollutants like formaldehyde and benzene.

Photo By: © iStockphoto/itasun

Mass Cane/Corn Plant

Dracaena Fragrans 'Massangeana'

Proven to help remove formaldehyde, the mass cane/corn plant is one of the most popular varieties of Dracaenas for its lovely foliage that ranges from green to yellow. They look stunning in tree form but can also be grown as shrubs.

Photo By: Shutterstock/Elizabeth Fernandez

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) conducted research using popular varieties of ornamental plants to determine their effectiveness in removing several key pollutants associated with indoor air pollution. Their findings include the following:

  • Indoor plants are capable of removing low levels of pollution from the air through the tiny openings in their leaves.
  • Plant roots, assisted by an activated carbon filter and a fan, can remove air pollutants at higher concentrations. The filters around the plant roots remove and biologically degrade pollutants before they accumulate. This is an advantage over advanced-technology carbon filters, which remove pollutants from the air but then require careful disposal.
  • Under some conditions, live plants can effectively remove benzene, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides (undesirable products of burning tobacco and wood) from the air.
  • Philodendrons, spider plants and golden pothos are the most effective at removing formaldehyde molecules.
  • Flowering plants such as gerbera daisies and chrysanthemums are most effective at removing benzene.
  • Spider plants placed in closed chambers with 120 parts per million (ppm) of carbon monoxide remove 96 percent of the contaminant in 24 hours. Similarly, spider plants placed in closed chambers with 50 ppm of nitrogen oxide remove 99 percent of it from the air in 24 hours.

According to the NASA/ALCA research, the 10 plants most effective in removing formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene and carbon monoxide from the air are:

  • Bamboo palm (Chamaedorea seifrizii)
  • Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema modestum)
  • English ivy (Hedera helix)
  • Gerbera daisy (Gerbera jamesonii)
  • Janet Craig (Dracaena fragrans "Janet Craig")
  • Marginata (Dracaena marginata)
  • Mass cane/corn plant (Dracaena fragrans "Massangeana")
  • Mother-in-law's tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata laurentii)
  • Pot mum (Chrysanthemum morifolium)
  • Peace lily (Spathiphyllum "Mauna Loa")

Careful selection of plant type is necessary if anyone in the household suffers from exposure to molds, pollens, odors or dust. Also, overly damp plant soil may actually promote the growth of unhealthy microorganisms. And while live plants add moisture to the indoor air, which can be beneficial in dry climates, it can be problematic in humid climates, spurring mold growth and higher energy use. Each gallon of water used on indoor plants requires about 3.5 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity to remove, which could increase utility costs

While it's true that plants remove pollutants from the air, plants' ability to control indoor air pollution is less well established. For most indoor air quality problems in the home, source control and adequate ventilation are the most effective solutions.

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