Lots of people know that the vibrant green snake plant can beautify a home. What they may not realize, though, is that it’s one of a number of plants that can also do wonders at clearing the air of potentially hazardous chemicals.
It was NASA that uncovered this seemingly magical ability of houseplants back in 1989, as part of a landmark study aimed at improving air quality for astronauts in space. Scientists already knew that plants absorb carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen, of course. But this study found that some plants were able to seriously reduce the amount of airborne chemicals, too—like formaldehyde and benzene.
These chemicals and others may cause irritation and other health issues, says the EPA; and they’re also the same ones found in items you probably have in your home right now: cosmetics, fabric softener, dish detergent and other household cleaners.
So how do plants work their magic? The secret, says Susan Brandt, cofounder of the gardening website Blooming Secrets, lies in their leaves and roots. They absorb chemicals like a sponge; the roots are particularly capable, working in conjunction with soil microorganisms to neutralize hazardous gases.
Brandt became interested in the health benefits of plants after developing allergies, and she maintains a small forest of indoor plants to help clear the air. “Keeping as much pollution as possible out of my home is vital to my health,” she says.
Just note that while plants can provide health benefits for humans, some can be toxic to dogs and cats. Pet owners should consult the ASPCA’s searchable database of poisonous plants before bringing plants into the home.
Any plant you do bring in will help purify the air to a degree, but some are more effective at removing airborne chemicals. We asked Brandt to share a few of her favorite good-looking, low-maintenance indoor plants that can also help to detoxify the air we breathe.
The long leaves of this popular indoor plant trail downward like a green firework. They also scrub the air of certain chemicals found in household goods like paint, rubber and furniture polish. Ideal for beginning gardeners, spider plants thrive in a wide range of conditions, says Brandt, requiring little more than water and bright, indirect light. “I also love spider plants because you can grow them in water, and they’re so easy to propagate from cuttings,” she adds. This is also the plant on our list to choose if you have pets: It’s nontoxic to cats and dogs.
Renowned for being easy to care for, this shade-loving tropical boasts thick, hearty green leaves along with teardrop-shaped white leaves. It’s effective at clearing the air of ammonia—found in some cleaning products—as well as other chemicals, says Brandt. And it’ll even tell you when it’s thirsty: The leaves will start to droop. Prevent that from happening by watering the plant once a week and spritzing the leaves with water.
This plant’s skinny leaves stretch up toward the ceiling, creating a striking design in your home as they pull a wide range of gases—known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—from the air, says Brandt. This plant also earns major points for its hardiness, though take care not to over-water it.
Sure, it’s shaped like a tree, but the ficus—also known as a weeping fig—doesn’t need to grow in your yard. Anchor a sunny corner with this plant, recommends Brandt, and its glossy leaves can do their work soaking up various types of compounds found in solvents and grease-cleaners.
Nothing brightens up a windowsill like this sun-loving succulent, says Brandt. In addition to clearing the air of chemicals associated with tobacco products and insulation, its leaves contain a gel known for helping soothe scrapes and sunburns.
Read more: Now that you’ve cleared the air, check out our tips on how to eliminate household germs.