Air-Purifying Plants Aren’t a Complete Myth (Just a Partial One)

updated Jul 16, 2020
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(Image credit: Margaret Wright)

If you ever click on web articles about houseplants (and you’re reading this, so we’ll assume that’s a yes), you’ve probably come across the idea that houseplants purify the air inside your house by sucking up invisible toxins. If you’re thinking that sounds too good to be true, yeah, it kind of is. But it’s not a complete myth either.

Here’s the deal: Back in 1989 NASA studied the ability of houseplants to clear the air of volatile organic chemicals (VOCs). VOCs, such as formaldehyde and ethylene glycol, are off-gassed from plenty of everyday household products like paint, aerosol sprays, and air fresheners. They can lead to a variety of respiratory problems, liver and kidney damage, and cancer. (So, maybe hold the Febreze next time.)

NASA wanted to know if houseplants could help mitigate the effect of VOCs in space stations, not in houses. The study found that they do a fantastic job… in a lab with perfect growing conditions inside of sealed up boxes. Out in the real world, where the air is always shifting, their impact is certainly less, a later study found—it’s just unclear how much less.

TIME spoke with one of the authors of that original NASA study in 2018, Bill Wolverton. He told the magazine that it’s impossible to know how much houseplants can clean your home, but he generally recommends two large plants per 100 feet of space. Other scientists TIME interviewed were more skeptical of plants’ ability to clear the air, citing the decrease in photosynthesis many plants experience indoors and the natural movement of air from outside to inside your home.

The main takeaway: Plants might make your indoor space a little bit cleaner, although that impact is probably miniscule.

That said, the plants that NASA studied are all beautiful and easy to care for, so why not grow them anyway?

(Image credit: Jessica Isaac)


Pothos are a lovely vining plant that are very easy to grow. They’ll grow in just about any light conditions and are super forgiving if you forget to visit them with the watering can.

(Image credit: Samara Vise)

Snake Plant

Tall and narrow snake plants are perfect for tucking into a corner. They’re subtly pretty and ideal for people who can’t keep anything alive.

Chinese Evergreen

Chinese evergreens have big bushy leaves, and it’s not hard to keep them green and healthy. They’re perfect for a dim spot on top of a bookcase or dresser.

(Image credit: Pablo Enriquez)


Want something tropical and minimalist? Go with a marginata (dragon tree). Marginatas have a bare, skinny trunk topped with a tuft of spiky green leaves. Give it some bright light and you’ll be good to go.

(Image credit: Bethany Nauert)

Spider Plant

There’s something comforting about a tried-and-true spider plant. It might not be flashy or trendy, but this is not a plant that is going to let you down. Stick it anywhere within peeping distance of the window and it’ll be content.

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