For our first Valentine’s Day, my husband brought home two dozen long-stem red roses. I told him he wasted money on a cliche that would be dead in a week.
The next year, he came home with a verdant houseplant. I told him how the peace lily would scrub our indoor air for years to come.
I’ve been fascinated by houseplants and their health benefits ever since I stumbled across landmark research conducted by NASA in the 1980s. It documented the ability of particular houseplants to remove harmful substances like formaldehyde, benzene and trichloroethylene from indoor air.
Such substances, collectively known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, are emitted by synthetic materials, NASA explains. So, VOCs plague the air of sealed space stations and energy-efficient homes alike.
The main scientist behind NASA’s research, B.C. Wolverton, went on to conduct further studies and write books like “How to Grow Fresh Air: 50 House Plants That Purify Your Home or Office,” a personal favorite.
Other researchers have since corroborated and expanded on Wolverton’s findings. It turns out houseplants do a lot more than improve indoor air quality. Individual studies suggest that the mere presence of plants indoors also can:
- Reduce levels of airborne microbes like mold spores.
- Reduce the accumulation of dust, which can contain unhealthy substances like microbes and allergens.
- Increase human productivity and decrease stress.
- Improve students’ standardized-test scores.
- Help hospital patients recover from surgery.
Caring for houseplants also has been found to increase happiness and quality of life for retirement-home residents.
The following nine houseplants are among the best at cleansing the air and offering other such benefits. The list also includes several beginner-friendly options.
1. Snake plant
Don’t be deterred by this plant’s common names, which also include “mother-in-law’s tongue.” It’s ideal for folks with a black thumb.
The snake plant can survive, if not thrive, with dim light and sparse waterings. It’s so tough that it’s among a handful of houseplants that Costa Farms, one of the largest wholesale nurseries in the U.S., markets as “Plants of Steel.”
The snake plant is also among few houseplants known for producing oxygen at night. So, consider it for your bedroom.
2. Chinese evergreen
Also referred to as Aglaonema, their scientific genus, Chinese evergreens are another air-purifying Plant of Steel known for tolerating low light.
The particular variety studied by NASA is Aglaonema crispum “Silver Queen,” named for its green and silvery leaves. But there are many varieties of Chinese evergreen, each with different leaf patterns — Costa Farms’ website highlights 11 examples.
3. Aloe vera
This powerful air purifier is also a medicinal plant.
The succulent plant’s thick, fleshy leaves are filled with the aloe gel from which healing products have been made for centuries. Aloe is commonly sold as a sunburn soothing agent — although some aloe gels available in stores appear to contain only imitation aloe.
4. Boston fern
The Boston fern specializes in cleansing air of formaldehyde, which the American Cancer Society considers a known human carcinogen. Of the 50 houseplants featured in Wolverton’s book, the Boston fern ranks No. 1 for removing formaldehyde gas from the air.
Small amounts of formaldehyde are found in nearly all homes and don’t lead to health problems for most people, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But unhealthy levels can be found in homes with smokers and homes with new products made of certain substances.
The CDC says new products that tend to contain high levels of formaldehyde include:
- Some manufactured wood products such as cabinets, furniture, plywood, particleboard and laminate flooring.
- Permanent-press fabrics (like those used for curtains and drapes or on furniture).
- Household products such as glues, paints, caulks, pesticides, cosmetics and detergents.