Succulents are cuties and all, but do they offer any other benefits? Like for example cleaning the air? Let’s find out if they do!
No, succulents don’t clean air. While this has been a popular notion since at least the late 1980s, succulents come up short as far as cleaning the air is concerned. Compared to other ways of purifying the indoor air, the amount of pollutants removed by houseplants is negligible.
Most people who believe that succulents clean air cite a 1989 study by NASA which was part of a research program on the best ways to detoxify the space station air. So it’s only natural that we look at this study and why other scientists find it flawed. But before that, it’s important to, first of all, understand what makes the indoor air unclean in the first place.
Volatile Organic Compounds
When we talk about polluted air we’re talking about volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Basically, these are just chemicals that are up to no good with the specific health effects ranging from short term to long term.
Some of the common effects from polluted air include:
- Organ damage (kidney, liver, central nervous system)
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs indoors tend to be at a higher concentration (up to 10 times) than outdoors – and that’s regardless of whether you’re living in the countryside or urban areas.
Common sources of Volatile Organic Compounds in homes include:
- Wood preservatives
- Cleansers and disinfectants
- Paint and paint products
- Aerosol sprays
Cleaning the air simply means getting rid of VOCs. This is exactly what NASA researchers were aiming for when they did a series of experiments in 1989.
The NASA Study
This is what sparked the current widespread claims that plants can indeed suck VOCs from the air thus purifying it.
With the study, NASA was trying to work out the best way to keep the space station pollution-free. This was pretty essential as the volatile organic compounds were a bit through the roof. Eye irritation and breathing difficulties were some of the common effects of this.
So it made sense for NASA to fix or rather try to fix the situation.
The study was titled Interior Landscape Plants for Air Pollution Abatement and featured different kinds of houseplants including, of course, succulents, namely aloe vera, and the snake plant.
These plants were exposed to the three main VOCs – benzene, trichloroethylene, and formaldehyde.
For the actual study, the plants were placed in small airtight containers and the various compounds passed through the plant chambers. The results?
The air inside these plant containers had remarkably less of the VOCs by the end of the various experiments. Succulents – and houseplants in general – were seemingly the best bet in cleansing indoor air.
That conclusion was correct in the kind of environment that NASA conducted the study. But it’s hardly applicable to our day to day living.
The Problem With the NASA Study
You might wonder, if the succulents NASA used in their study did rid the air of VOCs, why can’t that be the case in our homes? Well, here’s why that study isn’t a good indicator of the succulents’ ability to clean air.
Only One VOC Was Used at a Time
NASA experimented with three volatile organic compounds – trichloroethylene, formaldehyde, and benzene. But for each experiment, the researchers used just a single one of these compounds which the plant successfully eliminated.
That’s not what happens in our homes. At any given time, there are several sources of VOCs in your house that plants have to deal with simultaneously.
Of course, we cannot conclude that the results of the experiment are false based on this fact. But we can’t say they’re true either since the environments are different.
In the VOCs case, sorption simply means the attachment of the pollutant compounds on the airtight container surfaces.
True – the percentages of formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene reduced. But that cannot be entirely pegged on the cleaning capabilities of the plants tested. That’s something that researchers didn’t consider.
VOCs Were Introduced Only Once
In the entire study, each of the test plants was exposed to only a single dose of volatile organic compounds. Again, this isn’t typical of an apartment or office setting. The pollutant compounds are continually released as long as the paint/aerosol or any other source is around.
Additionally, the space in which the plants were tested was pretty small compared to your usual indoor space. That combined with the single VOC dose might have amplified the purification abilities of the succulents and other houseplants.
But surely, there has to be a study where plants are tested in a home setting. What does it say?
The Ability of Succulents to Clean Air – Not as Impressive
A study was published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology that really helps us understand just how good succulents are in filtering out volatile organic compounds.
Unlike the NASA study that took place in a highly controlled environment, this was set up to closely mimic conditions in an apartment.
The researchers found out that it was true – houseplants did filter out VOCs. But the rate at which this happened was too slow to have any effect on the quality of indoor air. To make a significant difference, you’re going to need a boatload of succulents.
Tentatively, about 10 plants per square foot would be enough which works out to about 5,000 plants for a tiny 500-square foot apartment. Good luck with growing that many plants.
You’re definitely better off using AC or opening windows if you want clean air.
That being said, it doesn’t mean that succulents don’t have any other benefits than merely looking pretty.
Benefits of Growing Succulents
Check out these nice benefits that you can get from having a succulent or two in your house or office.
The benefits of having succulents close by include:
- Improved focus
- Reduced stress
- Quicker healing
- Improved humidity
A study published in Science Daily found that adding a bit of green life to office space boosted focus and thus productivity by 15%.
The team of researchers looked at things like staff’s concentration, how they perceived air quality, and how satisfied the workers were with their workplace.
Spending time out in nature is an important activity in reducing stress. But you know what’s close to taking a walk in the woods?
Having succulents around you.
A study published in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology suggests that any interaction with indoor houseplants lowers both physiological and psychological stress levels.
This ties into the second point above about reducing stress. A patient being stressed isn’t going to help him/her which is where succulents and plants come in. According to Scientific American, spending 3-5 minutes among plant life and nature, in general, promotes relaxation which is extremely important for recovering patients.
A drier than usual environment can be a recipe for several problems like dry itchy skin, sore/dry throat, and dry cough. These are more pronounced during winter when there is generally less moisture in the air.
Succulents like most plants release bits of moisture which can be quite helpful in alleviating the common problems associated with low humidity.
Yes, unfortunately, succulents aren’t going to clean the air in your house – at least not significantly. That popular notion is due to a misrepresentation of a NASA study that took place in the late 1980s.
The conditions under which this study took place are remarkably different from what you’d expect in an apartment or office building.
That being said, there’s still more to nurturing a few succulent beauties than their mere dashing looks.
Hello! I’m Oscar, a freelance writer from Kenya. Among other topics, I also love writing about houseplants – succulents to be specific. I prefer them because they’re so much easier to care compared to other plants and they also offer so much variety in terms of shape, size, and color.