Which houseplants should you buy to purify air? None of them.

Photograph by Rebecca Hale and Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

It’s a myth you almost wish hadn’t been busted. Houseplants, though charming, do little to purify the air in a room, say the scientists who study the air we breathe.

From a quick internet search, you wouldn’t guess that was the case. Popular home décor websites list a number of plants that promise to remove toxins and dangerous chemicalsfrom the air, and several online retailersmarket air-purifying plants to consumers.

“We decided to study it more in depth in response to all the internet articles and wellness blog posts that tout plants as an indoor air quality magic bullet,” says Michael Waring, an environmental engineer and indoor air quality expert at Drexel University.

In a study recently published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, Waring and his study coauthor reviewed 12 previously published scientific studies that tested 196 plants over the past decade.

The studies, which concluded that a small houseplant could remove a range of toxins, were conducted in labs. Waring says a typical experiment involved placing a plant in a small chamber and subjecting it to gaseous molecules called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Experiments ranged in density and time of removal. One showed that in just 24 hours, common household ivies could remove two-thirds of the formaldehyde they were exposed to.

The problem with those experiments, says Waring, is that the densely gaseous chambers in the lab didn’t mimic the typical household or office environment.

Many of the blogs and vendors marketing air-purifying plants point to...

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