plants on a shelf

Do Air-Purifying House Plants Exist?

Rachel Lark - February 19, 2023

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Plants can brighten up a room, improve your mental health and boost your creativity. One oft-repeated myth is that they also remove toxins from your surrounding environment, sucking up everything from dust to formaldehyde. As enticing as this idea is, you’d be better off buying an air filter and opening your windows to remove pollutants. Where did the story of air-purifying house plants from? 

Air-Purifying Plants in Space

Originally, the idea of air-purifying house plants stemmed from a 1989 NASA Study called “Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement.” Often simply shortened to the “NASA Clean Air Study,” it suggested that indoor house plants might be a natural way to remove benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene from space stations, which are sealed environments. 

Unfortunately, the results weren’t replicable. They also didn’t apply to average indoor spaces, since scientists tested the plants in tiny, sealed chambers. NASA quickly abandoned the idea of gardening aboard the ISS, but the general public latched onto the concept of air-purifying house plants. People selling plants used the concept to their advantage and started listing the benefits of individual species. 

Welcome to the Jungle

Of course, plants do produce oxygen, and microorganisms in the soil can even remove benzene from the air. But the effect is so negligible that you’d need 10 plants per square foot of floor space to see any noticeable benefits. You might as well replace the carpet with a lawn. 

If you have to head outdoors to see any air quality benefits, what’s the point of having house plants at all?

Other Advantages of Plants

Air pollution isn’t the whole story. Even if air-purifying house plants are the stuff of Instagram legend, you can still reap the rewards of being surrounded by green.

  1. Home-Grown Food

One benefit of growing plants indoors is to liven up your cooking. You can grow healthy herbs and spices like oregano, mint, basil and chili peppers. Use them to make herbal tea or add extra zest to your cooking. 

There are even several fruits and vegetables you can grow indoors. Onions, carrots and leafy greens tend to do well inside, as do lemon and orange trees. It depends on your climate, but you can typically grow these plants inside with proper lighting, water, soil and humidity. 

  1. Reduced Anxiety and Stress

The positive effects of green spaces are well known, but studies have found that indoor plants reduce stress, too. For example, patients in hospitals experienced lower stress levels when exposed to plants — even just posters with plants on them! Simply having a view of plants, real or fake, is associated with less anxiety. 

One study found that interacting with indoor plants can suppress your autonomic nervous system. Participants who transplanted an indoor plant to a new pot had lower diastolic blood pressure after completing the task and felt calmer afterward, especially when compared to the other group who had to do a computer-related task. 

So, if you aren’t blessed with a green thumb, it’s OK. You can open the curtains, hang up photos of plants or decorate your home with potpourri and dried flowers. And, of course, fake plants can figuratively liven up any space. 

  1. Decreased Depression

House plants can bring a sense of relief and tranquility, especially if you work indoors. In one study conducted during the early pandemic, people with indoor plants had significantly fewer depressive symptoms than those who didn’t own plants. 

Overall, numerous studies have found people are generally happier in spaces with plants, whether indoors or out. The color green might play a role in this mood-boosting effect, with some research suggesting that green environments reduced people’s heart rates. The jury is still out on whether the color of the plants matters. In any case, lush, green plants certainly look better than brown ones!

  1. Improved Cognition

It might sound far-fetched, but having views of green spaces is even associated with better performance in school. A study looked at 318 Chicago public schools and controlled for factors like poverty and minority status. Researchers concluded that the presence of tree cover on campus improved math scores, suggesting that being around plants improves cognition. 

Although it’s unclear whether indoor plants provide the same benefits, they certainly don’t seem to hurt. The smell of certain plants, like lemon and peppermint, can also boost your alertness. 

The Best Plants to Grow Indoors

Feeling inspired to grow some house plants? These species tend to do well inside:

  1. Spider Plant

The spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) is an evergreen perennial species native to the coastal regions of South Africa. This popular house plant prefers lightly moist, but not wet, soil. Spider plants also thrive in humid conditions. 

  1. Rubber Plant

Ficus elastica, commonly known as rubber plant, rubber fig or rubber bush, can grow almost 100 feet tall outdoors. However, it stays much smaller when planted in an indoor pot. It prefers bright sunlight but not high heat, and does best in very humid, tropical conditions. 

  1. Snake Plant

Sometimes cheekily called mother-in-law’s tongue because of how pointed and sharp it is, a snake plant (Dracaena trifasciata) has glossy, upright leaves that may feature a yellow border. It’s drought tolerant and does not require frequent watering. 

  1. Devil’s Ivy

Also called pothos, money plant and even just house plant, devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum) gets its most common name from thriving in even darkness and being hard to kill. It’s famously tolerant of infrequent watering and does well at most indoor temperatures. It also comes in several color varieties. 

  1. Areca Palm

Dypsis lutescens is one of the most popular species of palms to grow indoors. It prefers moist, well-drained soil and bright, indirect sunlight. It thrives in medium to high humidity and does best if you fertilize it in the summer. 

The Benefits of Plants

Although air-purifying house plants may not exist, house plants can improve your mood, boost your focus and reduce stress. They can even decrease your blood pressure, adding to the many benefits of being surrounded by plants. And, at the end of the day, it’s pretty easy to open a window for fresh air. 

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About the author

Rachel Lark

Rachel serves as the Assistant Editor of A true foodie and activist at heart, she loves covering topics ranging from veganism to off grid living.