Make sure you're breathing clean air at home with these tips on removing air pollutants and balancing humidity.

By Lisa Lewis and Jessica Bennett
Updated April 03, 2020
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You spend a lot of time at home, so it's important to pay attention to the quality of air inside your space. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), indoor air can be up to five times more polluted than outside, which can have serious side effects for your health. Mold, mildew, smoke, dust, and other allergens might be lurking in the air around your home but invisible to the eye. Long-term exposure to these pollutants has been linked to asthma and other respiratory diseases, heart disease, and cancer. Fortunately, a few simple steps can help improve your indoor air quality for a cleaner, healthier home.

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How to Improve Your Home's Indoor Air Quality

Proper airflow, fresh air from outside, and ventilation are essential to indoor air quality, says Lauren Weigel, Broan-Nutone senior director of product for North America. The first step is recognizing the signs of unhealthy indoor air. "The most common indicators include lingering cooking smells, fogged mirrors and windows, damp rooms, clothes or towels, strong chemical odors from cleaning, and mold," Weigel says. Once you've identified an air quality issue, follow these steps to stop air pollutants at the source.

1. Keep Dust in Check

Regular dusting and vacuuming can help keep dust, pet dander, and other debris to a minimum. Patrick Van Deventer, product manager for indoor air quality at Trane, also recommends using dust mite-proof covers on mattresses, pillows, and box springs. He also recommends washing bedding in hot water at least once a week.

2. Use Your Vent Fan

Always turn on your bathroom ventilation fan while showering to prevent mold or mildew growth. To effectively remove moisture from the air, Weigel suggests turning it on 10 minutes before your shower and leaving it on for 20 minutes afterward. If you're not sure if the fan is working, try holding a tissue near the fan. "If the fan is removing air properly, the paper will be drawn against the grill and remain there as long as the fan is on," she says.

3. Practice Healthy Cooking and Cleaning

Turn on your range's ventilation hood while cooking to control smoke, excess moisture, and other pollutants that release into the air while preparing food. You should also turn on your range hood or open a window when using household cleaners, which often contain harsh chemicals that can circulate into the air, Weigel says.

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How to Use Household Machines for Better Air Quality

Certain machines can also help us breathe easier indoors, but simply having an air filter doesn't mean your home's air quality will be perfect. Mold, dust, and other allergens can accumulate in your air conditioner, humidifier, and air filter and pollute the air you breathe. Here's what you need to know to keep these devices clean, efficient, and effective. (Note: In desert regions, mold is typically not an issue because of the already-low humidity.)

Air Conditioners

What they do: As anyone who lives in a warm-weather climate knows, air-conditioning is a must-have summertime comfort. Besides cooling the air inside your home, air conditioners also remove moisture so you feel less hot and sticky.

How to use them effectively: To cool down the entire house, central air-conditioning is usually the most effective way to go. Be aware, though, that when temperatures are mild, your air conditioner might not be running enough to actually remove moisture from the air, Van Deventer says. Additionally, a central air conditioner that's too powerful for the size of the house will cool the air down quickly but won't have a chance to adequately remove moisture. If you just want to cool a single room, a less-expensive option is a window-mounted air conditioner.

Safety alert: Because water condenses on an air conditioner's cooling coils, they can be a potential source of mold.

Upkeep tips: Whether you have central air-conditioning or a window unit, air conditioners should be serviced at the beginning of each season by a heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning professional who can clean the coils and make sure they're not contaminated.

Air Filters

What they do: Air filters remove irritants such as mold spores, pet dander, candle and cigarette soot, and even skin cells from the air, making it easier to breathe, especially for people who have allergies. "Simply opening up a window allows for air exchange, but keep in mind it does nothing to filter out the air and other harmful allergens or asthma triggers that could intrude into your home," Van Deventer says. A filtered ventilator is the best way to bring fresh air in and expel polluted air outside.

How to use them effectively: High-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters generally cost more than ionic filters, but HEPA filters are more efficient at removing all of the airborne particles, says Jay Portnoy, M.D., chief of allergy, asthma, and immunology at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. The best way to filter air for the whole house is with a filter that's placed in the furnace, he says. (In desert regions, the filter may be attached to the air conditioner as part of an electric heat pump.) Be sure to leave the system's fan running even if the heat is not on to allow the filter to do its job.

Safety alert: "Some air filters produce ozone," Portnoy says. "The ozone oxidizes the chemicals that produce smells and makes the air smell fresh, but doesn't remove them." Because ozone itself can be an irritant, he recommends steering clear of ozone-producing devices (most are labeled on the package).

Upkeep tips: Over time, HEPA filters clog up and need replacing. How often you need to change them will depend on how contaminated the air is. Electrostatic filters should be cleaned according to the manufacturer's directions (some have parts that can be hosed off or wiped down, while others use disposable filters).

Additional advice: Don't bet on your air filter to protect you from mold allergens. "Where there's water, there's going to be mold," Portnoy says. The best remedy is to get rid of the source of the mold (such as a leak or damaged drywall) and use a diluted bleach solution to remove the mold spores.

Air Purifiers

What they do: Similar to air filters, air purifiers work to sanitize the air by removing contaminants that may cause odors or make us sick. These stand-alone devices include a filter to capture dust and other allergens and a fan to push clean air back into the room. Some also use ultraviolet light to help trap and kill airborne pathogens such as bacteria and mold.

How to use them effectively: Air purifiers work best in small, closed rooms and are generally not effective for improving air quality across an entire home.

Safety alert: Before purchasing an air purifier, check the packaging to ensure it does not produce ozone, which can be harmful to your health.

Upkeep tips: As with air filters, you should regularly clean or replace your air purifier's filter according to the manufacturer's instructions.

Humidifiers

What they do: Does walking on your carpet give you an electric shock? Those sparks are an indicator that the humidity level in your home is too low. A humidifier can counteract this by adding moisture to the air.

How to use them effectively: Most people rely on stand-alone humidifiers to add moisture in individual rooms, which is fine if you can't attach a unit to the furnace. However, according to Portnoy, the most effective way to humidify the whole house is usually with an evaporative model that can be placed in your central furnace. To give the humidifier enough time to work effectively, you may need to leave the fan running even when the heat is off.

Safety alert: Without regular cleaning, humidifiers can shoot bacteria and mold into the air. Be sure to follow the proper instructions for cleaning a humidifier and fill it with fresh water daily.

Upkeep tips: A diluted bleach solution is the best way to disinfect and deep-clean humidifiers. For more information, refer to the manufacturer's instructions.

Additional advice: The optimal humidity level for your home is between 35% and 60%. "Mold, dust mites, and other air pollutants tend to thrive outside of that range, and our bodies' natural immune systems can be comprised when the air gets too dry," Van Deventer says. A simple way to measure indoor humidity levels is with a digital humidity meter, which can be purchased inexpensively at most home improvement stores.

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