Formaldehyde was listed as a group 1 carcinogen in 2011, meaning that it has a likely chance of causing cancer. Even at low exposures, it can add up once it’s in our homes.
After all, this is where we spend most of our time.
So how exactly do we reduce our exposure to formaldehyde in our homes? It comes down to being mindful to not introduce it in the first place by making more natural, organic choices. The formaldehyde that’s already in the home is best eliminated through increased ventilation and air purifying methods.
Let’s take a look at what that would entail.
Know Where Formaldehyde Is Found In the Home
The most important thing is to know where exactly formaldehyde tends to be found inside a home.
These following tips will hopefully help you determine the source.
But if we were to simplify it, we’d find that formaldehyde tends to be most prevalent in these five categories of items:
- building materials made of composite wood – mainly the adhesives and resins
- paints and paint thinners
- soft furnishings and anything else that uses fabrics
- household and beauty products
- anything that is combustible through burning fuel – like vehicles, fireplaces, kerosene heaters, etc.
This doesn’t mean that all the items in your home that happen to fall into those categories will have elevated levels of formaldehyde, but they’re a good starting point.
So, let’s talk about some actionable ways you can reduce your and your family’s exposure.
Eliminate or Reduce Smoking Inside the Home
Formaldehyde is a byproduct of combustion, so it’s found in cigarette smoke. If you or an occupant of your home are smokers, set the rule to smoke outside and prohibit smoking inside.
Then, introduce small activated carbon bags (like these Moso bags from Amazon) throughout your home to take up the lingering smoke, odors, as well as formaldehyde. Great if you’re sensitive to second-hand smoke!
Regularly Clean Out Fireplaces and Wood-Burning Stoves
Since formaldehyde is a byproduct of combustion, you can also expect it to build up and become trapped on surfaces that are used for heating purposes.
Anything that burns wood, kerosene, or natural gas inside your home should be considered as a potential source of formaldehyde. Clean and maintain any of these appliances regularly.
Don’t forget laundry dryers and furnaces that run on natural gas. Test all exhaust fans and make sure the air can properly escape to the outside. This isn’t just a potential formaldehyde hazard, it can even more become a carbon monoxide risk if ignored.
Do Not Let Your Car Idle In the Attached Garage
Finishing off the idea of combustion being related to an increase in formaldehyde levels, make sure your vehicles aren’t left to just idle in an attached garage.
Most building codes require a self-closing door between the attached garage and the rest of the home. Make sure those are always closed and never walk in and out of the garage and home while your vehicles are already running. Seal off any potential ways that the gases could enter the home.
Be Careful of What’s In or On Your Walls
Spray-on urea formaldehyde insulation was a very popular choice inside the walls of older homes. If your home was built around the 1970s to early 1980s, there’s a high chance that this was the insulation of choice.
Although most of the formaldehyde will have off-gassed by now, it might be a good opportunity to redo the insulation next time your home is due for a major renovation project.
Nowadays, these kinds of isolation products are banned and are sometimes used for the exterior only, so it shouldn’t be a concern. Keep in mind, however, that most wall products are quite porous and may eventually take up formaldehyde from new items that are introduced into the home.
Also, eliminate wallpaper and anything that has adhesives. Pick low VOC paints.
Do Not Use Certain Beauty or Household Products
The fact remains that nail polish and hair spray are irritants because of the chemicals they contain. Hair straighteners are also replete with formaldehyde.
Nail polish and nail polish removers are commonly found to contain the highest level of formaldehyde when it comes to everyday consumer products and other items like hair spray are no different. There are non-toxic ways to still enjoy your at-home manicures and pedicures like using vegan, water-based, and acetone-free products like Aquarella, for example.
Be careful about what you wash your own body with as your favorite body wash may have formaldehyde. Target carries formaldehyde-free body wash products, so it may be worth checking out.
Household cleaners are other offenders and usually it’s those products that we’re most used to like Palmolive dish detergent or your favorite laundry detergent. Again, find non-toxic alternatives as there are quite a few choices nowadays.
Eliminate Composite Wood As Much As Possible
We’re mostly talking about furniture and laminate flooring here.
With furniture, it’s better to opt for real wood as opposed to anything that’s pressed together. Since volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like formaldehyde are emitted predominantly while the product is still new, it’s a good idea to buy used composite wood furniture, or at least to let it air out in the backyard before introducing it into the home.
Luckily, the United States flooring industry is moving in a better direction, thanks to new regulations that require lower levels of formaldehyde by manufacturers. This move stems from California’s CARB2 regulations that have now been adopted nationwide.
It has been found that this move by California alone has resulted in the overall formaldehyde levels in pressed wood products to decrease by as much as 90% since the 1980s.
Here’s a video that talks about formaldehyde in the home and the move towards CARB2 standards to regulate it in the United States.
Pay Attention to Sealers As Well
Sealed surfaces will emit less formaldehyde, so look for things with a coat. Be careful that the top coat is actually healthy for you. Sometimes those are made of other chemicals as well and may just be another “regrettable substitution” to appease the current consumer worries.
Acid-cured (Swedish) top coats on flooring are less safe and the US Consumer Product Safety Product Commission recommends against it.
Usually, the longer a finish is marketed to last, the more you have to ask yourself just what kinds of chemicals were necessary to achieve that.
Finishes that are marketed as easy to care for, moisture-resistant, scuff-free, or have some other “convenience gimmick” behind them are less healthy for you.
Wax finishes are natural and healthier, yet they won’t last as long as polyurethane and will attract more dust. Water-based stains are usually the more eco-friendly option when compared to their oil-based equivalents, but are usually more expensive, more difficult to apply, and can only give you a clear finish as opposed to a colored one.
Pick Organic Bedding and Mattresses
You’d think that the place you sleep is free of dangerous chemicals. Not so.
The realization that your mattress may contain formaldehyde is a more recent shift in the consumers’ awareness. There are now non-toxic bedding and mattresses available on the market.
While most of us may be able to afford organic pillows, pillow cases, and the other bedding ensemble parts, organic mattresses are more expensive than regular mattresses. So while those take some time to come down in price, let your new mattress offgas outside and let a good air purifier do the rest of the work for you.
Pick Natural Fibers For Upholstery and Curtains
Besides your bedroom, be mindful to pick out natural choices for the soft furnishings in the rest of your house.
Usually, the more repellent, resistant, or convenient a fabric is, the more likely it was subjected to a chemical treatment of some sort. It may sound great to have wrinkle-free, fire-retardant curtains that let you spill all the wine you want on them, but think about what that fabric had to go through at the fabric mill.
Maybe it’s better to just buy a good steamer and deal with organic, natural fabrics, wrinkles and all.
Buy Air Purifiers with Carbon Filters and Place Them Throughout the Home
I’ve suggested the use of air purifiers throughout this post, so let’s talk about why it makes sense to get one.
You want your air to cycle out in the home so that it doesn’t become stagnant, and this includes chemicals like formaldehyde. Unfortunately, new homes are being more and more air-tight, making this nearly impossible.
A good air purifier will help you fix that problem, but it should do three things to truly be effective:
Match the square footage of the room or space. Many manufacturers don’t take high ceilings into consideration and other important factors. Here’s a resource that will help you determine just how many air purifiers you need and in what size.
Air exchange rate is very important. Your air purifier could have the highest capacity in the world, but if that air isn’t being cycled out a minimum of 3 times per hour (once every 20 minutes), then it isn’t as powerful as it really needs to be.
Only activated carbon filters can remove formaldehyde. The safest way to eliminate formaldehyde through the use of an air purifier is to make sure the purifier has a built-in activated carbon filter. Formaldehyde is a small gas and it will easily pass through the other mechanical filters (even True HEPA filters). But, it gets trapped in the pores of activated carbon filter. The heavier the filter is, the better this will work. That’s because actual carbon beads inside these filters are better than thin, spray-on filters.
Another thing that people often don’t realize is that high humidity levels cause higher VOC emissions. So, buying a dehumidifier in addition to a good air purifier is a must.
Plus, getting the humidity levels inside a home to about 40% will improve health and keep mold at bay. Here is a guide on choosing the right dehumidifier for your own home.
Remember That Natural Ventilation Is Oftentimes the Easiest Solution
It’s easy to get caught up in tech gadgets like smart home air purifiers, indoor air quality monitors, and whatever else may help.
But understand that a lot of times, just making it a habit of opening up the windows and doors to ventilate the home can do the trick of airing out the formaldehyde.
Mother Nature still knows best, sort of. You have to be smart about it.
Fresh air is always a good idea, but sometimes outdoor pollution can be worse than indoor pollution. Find an app on your phone to find the most opportune times when the outdoor pollution and relative humidity levels are low to open up your windows.
Pay Attention to Ozone Levels
The presence of ozone also increases formaldehyde levels naturally, so opening the window may not always be a good idea if ozone levels are high outside.
Many people are tempted to buy an air purifier with a built-in ozone generator. Not only are many of those more likely to be dangerous than helpful, but they will also just worsen the formaldehyde levels.
What are the health symptoms associated with formaldehyde?
Commonly, formaldehyde causes irritation of the eyes, nose, skin, and throat. It can also cause respiratory discomfort and mimic the symptoms of a cold or flu. Allergic reactions are also common.
At its worst, formaldehyde can affect nervous system functions. It’s also a carcinogen, but this requires being exposed to it at high levels for extended periods of time.
How long does it take to fully off-gas formaldehyde in your home?
It will never truly be gone since formaldehyde is also found naturally in things like trees.
But with a powerful air purifier and heavy activated carbon filter, the formaldehyde should virtually be eliminated within the first few air change cycles in the immediate area where the air purifier is being used.
Is there a way to know if my home even has higher than normal levels of formaldehyde?
Formaldehyde is a colorless gas, so it’s invisible to the naked eye. It does, however, have a strong, pungent smell. This is only noticeable at high levels, but not at the low levels that are found in most homes.
Which isn’t to say that it isn’t dangerous since exposure time is also another major factor here, as well as how reactive formaldehyde is at room temperature (which makes it a volatile organic compound, or VOC).
It is generally accepted that formaldehyde levels should remain below 0.03 ppm (parts per million). A good indoor air quality monitor can help you keep track of those levels. You can learn more about those here.