What is a volatile organic compound (VOC), and why are they polluting the air in your home?

What is a volatile organic compound (VOC), and why are they polluting the air in your home?

What-is-a-volatile-organic-compound-voc

Whether you realize it or not, the air in your home is more than likely polluted. You probably don’t realize it because you get used to it after a while. Dust, pet dander and hair, smoke (from cooking or cigarettes), and daily use of cosmetic and household products pollute and contaminate the air we live and breathe in.

Although you can usually see dust, pet hair, and smoke in your home, it’s you and your family’s daily cosmetic and household product use that is probably not seen but smelled that pollutes your indoor air the most without you knowing it. When used, cosmetic and household products emit what is called a volatile organic compound (VOC) into the air.

There are actually more VOCs emitted in your home than outside your home according to a study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA’s “Total Exposure Assessment Methodology (TEAM) Study” found that about a dozen common organic pollutants are 2 to 5 times higher inside homes than outside of them.

The reason this should be of concern to you and your family is that volatile organic compounds not only affect the quality of air in your home, they also affect the quality of your health.

In this post, we will address what a volatile organic compound (VOC) is, the health effects of exposure to VOCs, the cosmetic and household products that emit VOCs, and how to help reduce and protect yourself and your family from them.

What is a volatile organic compound?

A volatile organic compound (VOC) is a chemical compound in gas form. Another way of thinking of a volatile organic compound is

Volatile – means that the chemicals evaporate or can easily get into the air at room temperature.

Organic – means the chemicals are carbon-based.

To read the environmental protection agency’s technical definition of a volatile organic compound, click here

Many VOCs are human-made, although there are VOCs that occur naturally in flowers, plants, and fruit. VOCs also range from highly toxic to no known toxicity.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has put indoor organic pollutants into the following classifications:

Very volatile (gaseous) organic compounds (VVOCs). Examples: Propane, butane, methyl chloride

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Examples: Formaldehyde, d-Limonene, toluene, acetone, ethanol (ethyl alcohol), 2-propanol (isopropyl alcohol), hexanal

Semi-volatile organic compounds (SVOCs). Examples: Pesticides (DDT, chlordane, plasticizers (phthalates), fire retardants (PCBs, PBB)

There are many VOCs, but some of the most common that you will find in your cosmetic and household products are

  • Formaldehyde
  • Benzene
  • Ethanol
  • Acetone
  • Butanal

How volatile organic compounds affect your health

Exposure to volatile organic compounds can cause short and long-term health effects. These health effects depend on the length of time and how often or level of exposure.

Short Term

  • Headaches
  • Nose, eyes, and throat irritation
  • Skin irritation
  • Asthma symptoms
  • Nausea and dizziness

Long Term

  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Central nervous system damage
  • Suspected to cause cancer

What everyday cosmetic and household products contain VOCs?

Your body has a reaction when you use or come in contact with a cosmetic or household product such as strong-smelling paint, nail polish remover, or bleach. If you get too close to it and if you are around it for too long, you may get a headache or feel dizzy. These products emit VOCs that cause short-term effects on your body. But what about the products that don’t have a strong smell or are masked by a fragrance?

Those are the cosmetic and household products that seem harmless but contain VOCs, and overtime, if exposed to enough, may cause health problems.

Here are some of the everyday cosmetic and household products that may seem harmless but contain volatile organic compounds.

Cosmetics

Many of the cosmetics that contain a scent and you use on your body everyday contain VOCs such as

  • Perfume, cologne or body sprays
  • Deodorant products
  • Hair products
  • Nail care products

study of the indoor concentrations of VOCs in beauty salons found that the main VOCs were aromatics (toluene, xylene), esters, and ketones (ethyl acetate, acetone, etc.) used as solvents, and terpenes (pinene, limonene, camphor, menthol) to provide desired odors.

Although you probably don’t have the type of concentration of beauty products in your home as a beauty salon does, this gives you an idea of the VOCs that are being released in your home when you use cosmetic products.

Household Products

Household-products-contain-VOCs
Photo by JESHOOTS.COM

The results of a study done by the Environmental Defence of Canada found that the levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) went up 120% after cleaning when using store bought conventional cleaners.

Albeit these types of cleaners clean your home, they also pollute the air in your home.

Furniture polish

According to a study, furniture polish may contain one or more of the following VOCs: nitrobenzene, petroleum distillates, phenol, and diethylene glycol.

Oven cleaners

Oven cleaners may contain Ethers, Ethylene Glycol, Methylene Chloride, or Petroleum Distillates.

Carpet, rug, and upholstery cleaning products

Some carpet, rug, and upholstery cleaning products contain formaldehyde, petroleum gases, and 1,4-DIOXANE.

Dishwashing liquid and dishwasher detergents

Some dishwashing liquid may contain methanol, formaldehyde, petroleum-based soaps at low levels, while dishwasher detergents contain low levels of ethanol.

Air Fresheners

According to an article authored by Anne C. Steinemann, air fresheners emit over 100 different chemicals. These chemicals include volatile organic compounds (terpenes such as limonene, alpha-pinene, and beta-pinene; terpenoids such as linalool and alpha-terpineol; ethanol, formaldehyde, benzene, toluene, and xylene) and semi-volatile organic compounds (such as phthalates).

This article also pointed out that these chemicals and VOCs can cause a range of short to long-term health effects previously listed as well as adverse effects on neurological, cardiovascular, respiratory, reproductive, immune, and endocrine systems.

Scented laundry detergent and dryer sheets

In another study done by the same Anne C. Steinemann, she found that 25 volatile organic compounds were found in the dryer vents after scented liquid laundry detergent and scented dryer sheets were used to wash and dry clothes. The analysis also found seven hazardous air pollutants, including acetaldehyde and benzene, which are classified by the EPA as carcinogens.

To find what VOCs and other ingredients are in the household products you use, visit the Environmental Working Group’s household product guide.

How to reduce volatile organic compounds in your home

It will be hard to remove all the VOCs from your home. But don’t get discouraged because there are still things you can start doing today to reduce them.

Here are seven things you can start doing today to reduce the VOCs in your home.

ventilation-reduces-volatile-organic-compounds-in-your-home
Photo by Anna Dudkova

1. Whenever you use a product, make sure you have plenty and proper ventilation while inside your home. Also, store any opened household items that contain toxic VOCs in well-vented areas or outside your home.

2. Always follow the directions and suggested amounts on the manufacturer’s label.

3. Do not mix household products unless stated on the manufacturer’s label.

4. Stop smoking cigarettes or smoke them outside.

Product changes

5. Non-scented products: Think of it this way every household product you use that has a scent has a volatile organic compound. So to start reducing VOCs, use cosmetic and household products that do not contain or are free of scents and other toxic VOCs.

6. Natural scented products: Product labels sometimes contain the word “Fragrance” on them. The reason for this is to hide the manufacturer’s “trade secret” for that fragrance. If you want to use an air freshener or other scented household product for freshening the air in your home, avoid products that use this term. Purchase products that list natural ingredients on the label. That way, you know what is in the product and if it contains a harmful volatile organic compound.

7. Green household cleaning products: Use green household cleaning products instead of conventional, store-bought cleaning products. Look for the Safer Choice or Green Seal label on the product. If a product has one of these labels, it’s VOC content has been reviewed.

Safer-choice-label

For more in-depth ways to reduce the VOCs in your home, visit the EPA website.

Conclusion

Cosmetics and household products can emit volatile organic compounds. But they are also part of everyday life, and it will be hard to go without using them. So be aware of the products that release VOCs and follow the seven things to do to reduce them in your home’s air, and you will help protect your health and your family’s.

Were you aware of the health effects volatile organic compounds have on your health? Let us know in the comments below.

Want to reduce the chance of carbon monoxide poisoning in your home? Check out How to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning in your home this winter.

Sources:

Response to "What is a volatile organic compound (VOC), and why are they polluting the air in your home?"

  • Hey Justin, thanks for this informative post. I had no idea there were so many VOC’s in the products I use. Now that I know I’ll try to reduce the amount of store-bought cleaning and household products I use. I’ll look into more natural sources for use in the home.
    The information was easy to read and understand, thanks again.

    Mikhail

  • This is an interesting article. I’m actually not aware of the health effects volatile organic compounds have on our health. In fact, I didn’t know what is volatile organic compounds until I come across your article. This is really a new knowledge to me.

    I’m quite surprised for long term effects can be so serious! I love product with nice scent as it’s always feel good to smell something nice. So now I have to be more aware of it and choose product with natural scent.

    Thank you for sharing this informative article.

    • You’re welcome Janet. I don’t think a lot of people are aware of the volatile organic compounds in the products we buy and that end up in the air in our homes. I’m glad you know now.

  • Thanks for sharing, that’s really crazy to see how many products contain VOC. Very informative. To be honest I am trying to be really eco and all I use in the household is water+vinegar and alkaline water.

    • You’re welcome. Using eco-friendly cleaning products and water+vinegar and alkaline water are great ways to start reducing the VOCs in your home.

  • Quite informative…you also avoid exposure to VOCs by controlling their source. Use materials and products that do not give off VOCs. For instance: Consider storing furnishings and building materials for at least a few weeks. This will allow gases to be given off before you bring them into your home. If this is not possible, increase the ventilation by opening windows and doors in your home for a few weeks

    • Yes, you’re right. Another source of VOCS in your home is furniture and building materials and doing as you suggested will help reduce the VOCs they emit. Thanks for sharing.

  • Hi,

    I’m absolutely amazed at how many VOCs are around the house and in the air.
    When you break it all down it can be a scary thought! As you say, always try to maintain as much ventilation as possible to give the place a sweep of fresh air!

    Very useful information mate. Thanks.

    • Yes, you’re right, there are a lot of VOCs around your home, but getting lots of ventilation is going to help reduce them. I’m glad this information has helped you.

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