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Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs): 7 Simple Tips to Reduce Them at Home

by Sophia Ruan Gushée


Volatile organic compounds are chemicals that are emitted from both natural and artificial sources. This article focuses on VOCs from man-made products that pollute your indoor air, especially the sources that are easy for you to avoid.


What are VOCs?

VOCs are released as gases from some building materials and household products at room temperature.

Examples of common sources of VOCs in an average home include:

  • Nail polish and nail polish remover
  • Shampoos, conditioners, hair gel, hair foam, and hair spray
  • Perfume and cologne
  • Deodorant and antiperspirant
  • Lotions
  • Cosmetics
  • Cleaning products
  • Laundry detergents
  • Dry cleaning
  • Mattresses, sofas, carpets, rugs, paints, wallpaper
  • Air fresheners, candles
  • Markers, inks, glues, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper
  • Building materials (like building insulation, floor materials, and more)
  • And more

So, just about most things.


Are VOCs Harmful?

Some VOCs may be harmless. And some can contribute to a range of health effects.

From the US EPA website, some known health effects from VOC exposures include:

  • Eye, nose and throat irritation
  • Headaches, loss of coordination and nausea
  • Damage to liver, kidney and central nervous system
  • Some organics can cause cancer in animals, some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans
  • conjunctival irritation
  • allergic skin reaction
  • dyspnea
  • declines in serum cholinesterase levels
  • fatigue
  • dizziness

Certain VOCs, like formaldehyde, are known human carcinogens. Examples of other serious health effects from VOCs include neurotoxicity and immunotoxicity


Can you Smell VOCs?

Some VOCs have odors, and some are odorless. 

Rather than use words to describe VOCs, I prefer to describe sensations you may feel—headaches, dizziness, nausea, or irritation in the eyes, nose, or throat. 

For example, when you smell new car, carpet, paint, or wallpaper, then you are smelling (and sometimes feeling) VOCs. You also can smell (or feel) VOCs when you smell nail polish, nail polish remover, hair spray, shampoo, markers, and more. When you are exposed to these products, pay attention to what changes you notice in your body, if any. In addition to the symptoms mentioned in the prior paragraph, do you notice changes in your breathing, heart, or nervous system?

Since companies are increasingly using artificial chemicals to disguise odors and create odorless products, recognizing your body's way of expressing its exposures to VOCs can help you protect you and your loved ones from potentially harmful VOCs. 


VOCs can be Higher Indoors Than Outdoors

Indoor air pollution tends to be at least 2 to 5 times higher indoors than outdoors. It can be higher too. According to the US EPA:

Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors.

During and after certain activities, such as paint stripping, some pollutants have been measured to be 1,000 times higher than outdoor levels. 


Indoor and Outdoor Air Quality are Connected

While many of our purchasing decisions affect our indoor air quality, they will also help outdoor air quality. A 2018 study, published in the journal Science, found that many household goods—such as paints, printing inks, cleaning products, fragrances, nail polishes, and hair sprays—now emit about as many VOCs as cars do in U.S. cities.

What's good for our bodies is also good for our planet. When it comes to many things, including pollution and health, we are one planet, one people, one future.

View this post on Instagram

Last week, I hosted 60 people in my home to facilitate a dialogue among faculty from the School of Public Health at Brown University. It was a thought-provoking conversation about how public health can be affected by: the toxic exposures in our environment, food chain, and household products; climate change; and how cities are designed. We also discussed our immune responses to environmental factors. The cover of the latest magazine for @brownpublichealth reminds me of one reason (among many) to vote today: We are one people, on the same planet (our collective home), sharing the same future. Please vote tonight for those who can contribute towards a healthy, safe, promising future! . . . #vote #voted #brownuniversity #publichealth #environment #environmentallyfriendly #oneplanet #onepeople #onefuture

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5 Tips to Detox VOCs

Fortunately, there are simple things you can do to detox your home of VOCs. While building materials are hard to change, the following tips are simple ways for a VOC detox.

1. Avoid fragrance. Fragrance can contain an unknown number and variety of chemicals. But too many known chemicals found in fragrance are also known to be harmful: cancer, neurotoxicity, reproductive harm, and more. Start reading product labels to avoid fragrance, which is a vague term that doesn't disclose anything. This will decrease your VOC exposures and decrease your risks for a variety of health issues.

Click here to read: Fragrance detox for your stuffy nose, runny nose, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and asthma

2. Avoid aerosol and spray cans. If you don't absolutely need aerosol and spray products, then avoid them. Once sprayed, these chemical forumlas can be absorbed through your nose, eyes, and maybe skin. The chemical formula will also be scattered onto surface areas of nearby countertops and floors. And crawling babies and kids, walking feet, and hands can absorb more over time. 

For the few products you can't (or are not ready to) avoid or that you want to use occasionally, then select those thoughtfully by understanding the ingredients that you will be spraying into the air. 

Click here to read: Natural Air Fresheners

3. Choose zero- or low- VOC products. For some products, you will have a choice for zero- to low-VOC products. Paints for interior design, for example, come in these options. Just remember though that zero-VOC may still pollute your indoor environment, but hopefully with a lot less. So still take precautionary measures.

Click here to read: Zero-VOC Paint Means Less Off-Gassing in Your Home

4. Buy just what you need. Since most things contaminate their environments, if you don't need it then don't buy it. And if you can buy just what you need (like paints and markers), then buy just what you will use right away.

5. Discard what you don't need or want. Products that can emit VOCs can do so even when not used, and even when enclosed in its product container. So consider discarding unnecessary household products. But please dispose of it per EPA and other recycling guidelines to help protect our outdoor water, air, and soil quality.

6. Open your windows when outdoor air quality is good. Since toxic fumes get trapped indoors, allow fresh air exchange when outdoor air quality is good. Some key things to consider before opening windows: humidity, precipitation, mosquitoes, allergens, pesticides (if you live among agricultural activities), outdoor construction activities, congested traffic outside your window, and outdoor air pollution.

7. Use an air purifier with a HEPA filter. An effective air purifier can help detox your indoor air. At a minimum, consider those with a HEPA filter, which can trap fine particles. Look at what square footage your air purifier can detox and whether that's suitable for your space. 

Click here to read: The air purifier I use for my family


In Summary

By following the 7 simple tips above, you can improve your indoor air quality. Avoiding fragrance and spray/aerosol products can be applied to many products in your life. And choosing a more minimalist lifestyle is helpful for your emotional and mental energy as well as your budget.

For further support, consider joining Home Detox 101.

Deconstruct to reconstruct.

In 2020, we're deconstructing our home, habits, and things to reconstruct a practical nontoxic and healing lifestyle. We're bringing consciousness to unconscious choices.


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