What’s a VOC? And Other Burning Questions.

What’s a VOC?

A VOC is, literally, a volatile organic compound, but unless you’re a chemist, that’s probably not very helpful. “VOC” is an umbrella term that covers a variety of very different organic chemicals that have one thing in common: they evaporate easily at room temperature. Formaldehyde, Benzene, and Acetone are all VOCs.

Why should I care?

VOCs aren’t going to poison and kill you in your sleep; they’re not acutely toxic. But there’s evidence that they can exacerbate allergies, asthma, and headaches. Of course, those are vague and broad conditions, and it’s hard to know for sure whether VOCs are behind them. But you should still care about VOCs because of their compounding long-term health effects. There’s evidence that long-term exposure can contribute to cancer and organ damage.

Can I get rid of all the VOCs in my home?

In a word, no. VOCs are everywhere: in paint, cleaning supplies, common household products, adhesives, scented candles, and more. The list goes on and on. It’s impossible to totally eradicate VOCs from your home, but there are things you can do to reduce VOC concentration (read on for specifics).

Wait, but I love scented candles!!

We get it: a vanilla sugar candle sets the mood like nothing else. But unfortunately, that scent comes from VOCs. If you really can’t part with your sweet-smelling-yet-chemical-laden candle, at least open a window while you’re using it.

If VOCs are so bad, why aren’t they strictly regulated?

Good question. The EPA regulates VOCs in our drinking water and outdoor air, and OSHA regulates VOCs in the workplace. But no government agency is currently on top of regulating them in non industrial indoor air, aka your home.

What are the best ways to reduce VOCs in my home?

1. Ventilate. If you’re using a scented candle, a space heater, painting, or cleaning, crack a window. If you’re cooking, use the fan on your range hood.

2. Don’t smoke in your home. Duh. But also don’t smoke anywhere, because the smoke lingers on your clothes and emits VOCs into your home.

3. Be choosy about the items you purchase for your home. You can check this database of common household and cosmetic products for VOC levels.

4. Get VOC-absorbing plants like English ivy or Boston fern. A single plant isn’t likely to make much of a dent in VOC levels—you want one or two plants per 100 square feet.

5. Get an indoor air quality monitor, like Awair. Everyone’s home is different, and the best way to judge your own personal levels are to measure them directly.