Indoor houseplants are great for adding a touch of nature to your home, but for those with allergies, they can present some challenges. While some plants have been proven to reduce pollutants like formaldehyde and benzene, those same plants can trigger allergic reactions in others.
If you’re considering adding indoor plants to your home and you have known indoor allergies, it’s a good idea to start with researching the best plants for you. You also want to keep in mind other allergens like dust and mold that can build up in the plants and exacerbate allergy symptoms.
This article will talk about what are the best indoor houseplants, what plants you should avoid, research on how they help, and common allergy symptoms to houseplants.
- Indoor houseplants can cause or irritate allergy symptoms.
- Plants can cause an allergic reaction via pollen, fragrance, sap, dust, or mold.
- Plants are very effective at cleaning the indoor air and provide mental health benefits as well.
Health Benefits of Houseplants
There is something very comforting about being surrounded by plants. But beyond the aesthetic benefits of livening up a living space, there are real physical benefits to keeping house plants as well.
Many plants are great at absorbing things like formaldehyde, benzene, and trichloroethylene (also known as volatile organic compounds, VOCs) and other harmful toxins from the air. This can dramatically improve indoor air quality.
NASA has done extensive testing of the role plants play in cleaning the air, something especially useful in a space station! These studies have shown that plants are very good at cleaning the air. NASA recommends having up to 18 plants for an 1,800 square-foot living space. But even just a few can be very effective.
What is a Houseplant Allergy?
A houseplant allergy is when the body’s own immune system thinks that plants (or some aspect of them) are a threat. This triggers an autoimmune response called an allergic reaction.
These reactions can range from a mild irritation (think watery, itchy eyes) to a life threatening anaphylactic reaction.
A true allergy is one that triggers an IgE response. However, you can also have sensitivities to plants that don’t cause this IgE reaction.
Some people are more likely to have a houseplant allergy than others. These people include:
- People with known allergies to:
- Dust, mold, outdoor pollen allergies
- People with Oral Allergy Syndrome
- Having asthma
- Having allergies in general
There are a few different manners in which a person can react to houseplants.
Pollen / Spores
All plants produce either pollen or spores, some with more or less frequency than others. The pollen is released into the air which can be easily breathed in and cause problems. Some pollen is lighter than other types which can linger in the air. Other types of pollen are heavier and stickier, and can then be picked up by hands and transferred to the eyes or mouth.
Spores are a tiny seed-like reproductive cell that is capable of developing into a full plant without another reproductive cell. The six main types of spore bearing plants are: Ferns, mushrooms, mosses, liverworts, and horsetails, and hornworts. The spores are released from the underside of their fronds.
Just like with pollen, spores can easily be breathed in or be picked up and transferred to the face via the hands.
These allergic reactions to pollen and spores can come in the form of respiratory problems like a runny nose, allergic rhinitis, difficulty breathing, watery eyes, and asthma symptoms.
Although beloved for their scent, many flowers can cause an allergic reaction with their fragrance alone.
For example, I’m personally very sensitive to smells, especially flowers like roses, lilies, and jasmine. The fragrances overwhelm me, causing asthma attacks, coughing fits, and a runny nose.
Sap is the “plant juice” flowing in their stems and leaves. This can contain many compounds like sugars, amino acids, and latex. For most people, coming into contact with this sap can cause a contact dermatitis reaction, especially if you have sensitive skin.
Latex is a more complex compound and has many properties that are helpful, like being used in rubber bands or sterile medical gloves. However, latex allergies are some of the most severe.
Latex sap is found in the following family of plants: Euphorbs, Milkweed, Mulberry, Dogbane, and Chicory of the Sunflower family. There are many plants that contain this latex sap in them.
Fun fact! Monarch caterpillars and butterflies are very bitter tasting and poisonous to birds due to the fact they eat the leaves containing latex sap from the Milkweed.
When you are working with plants, no matter what the type, it is advised to wear gardening gloves to protect your skin.
Dust is a problem not because of the plant itself but because dust particles can collect and gather onto the leaves of the plant and the dirt of the pot. Strangely, a study from Virginia Tech showed that having multiple houseplants actually reduces the overall amount of dust in an indoor environment. Just make sure to dust them weekly with a damp cloth to remove any dust. Wear gloves to help avoid skin irritation.
Finally, you can be allergic to not just the plant but what it grows in. Potting mixes are often made with peat moss which is decaying moss from the peat bogs in Europe and Canada. While very nutritious for plants, it can cause severe mold allergic reactions in some people.
My current favorite place to purchase peat free dirt is from RePot Me. (Not sponsored, I just really like them!)
No matter what type of potting mix you use, mold can spring up from overwatered, soggy soil.
The best thing to do is purchase potting mix material that is free from peat moss. Demand for peat free dirt is growing as peat bogs are being over harvested and ruining the natural environments.
Symptoms of a Houseplant Allergy
- Irritated, itchy, red, watery eyes
- puffy , dark circles under the eyes
- General hay fever
- Runny nose, congestion
- Skin rashes, hives, red welts, or bumps (contact dermatitis)
- Asthma attacks, breathing problems
- Anaphylactic reaction
Anaphylactic reactions to indoor houseplants are rare, however, they can still happen.
If you have an anaphylactic reaction, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
Signs and symptoms of an anaphylactic reaction include:
- Swelling and tightening of the throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain or tightness
- Trouble swallowing
- Dizziness or fainting
- Change of the normal coloring of the skin in the mucous membranes (inner lips, gums, around the eyes, and the nail beds)
- Light skin, check for signs of a dark blue tint in the mucous membranes
- Medium skin, check for signs of a gray-green tint in the mucous membranes
- Dark skin, check for signs of a gray or white tint in the mucous membranes.
If you have had an anaphylactic reaction in the past, talk with your doctor and/or healthcare provider about receiving an epinephrine auto-injector (commonly called Epi-Pens).
Things to Consider When Looking for Houseplants
Some plants produce more pollen than others.
Plants that frequently flower will produce more pollen than those that don’t. Stick with plants like palm trees, pothos, and snake plants that flower less frequently.
You can have allergies to any plants
Even though NASA has discovered that some plants can clean the indoor air better than others, it doesn’t matter if it is a plant that is causing you allergy problems.
Best Indoor Plants
Although this list contains plants that generally don’t cause indoor allergy symptoms, you and your body may react differently to any of them.This list was put together not from a cleaning the air standpoint, but rather, from an allergic point of view. Please be careful and use your best judgment.
- Peace Lily – Use with caution if you have pets as it can be toxic according to the ASPCA
- Dracaena aka Corn Plants – Use with caution if you have pets as it can be toxic according to the ASPCA
- Janet Craig – A type of dracaena
- Snake Plant
- Golden Pothos
- Marginata aka Dragon Trees
- Parlor Palms
- Aloe Vera
- Bamboo Palm
Worst Indoor Plants
Although this list contains plants that generally do cause indoor allergy symptoms, you and your body may react differently to any of them. This list was put together not from a cleaning the air standpoint, but rather, from an allergic point of view. Please be careful and use your best judgment.
- Living Christmas Trees – Sap, dust, and fragrance
- Bonsai trees – Often small cedar and juniper trees which contain sap and strong fragrance.
- Ficus benjamina – Any fig has latex sap
- Male Palms and Yuccas
- Ferns – All ferns produce vast amounts of spores
- African Violets – The flowers and leaves collect dust.
- Chrysanthemums – Related to ragweed, flowering
- Orchids – Pollen, flowering, contact dermatitis from touching leaves
- Spider plants
- Euphorbs, including Poinsettias
- Chinese Money Plant
- Gerbera daisy – Flowering, pollen, fragrance
- Chamomile – Related to ragweed, flowering
- Crown of Thorns
- Star Jasmine
- Rubber Plant, including True Rubber Trees
- Weeping Fig
- Fiddle leaf Fig
- African Milk Tree
- English Ivy – Poisonous to pets
Plant Tips + Tricks
If you have plant allergies and still want to keep them in your home, here are a few tips to help you manage the allergies.
- Wear gloves when watering and handling the plants, especially when repotting.
- Use a damp cloth to gently dust the plants each week.
- Don’t overwater the plants.
- Use an air filter when they are flowering to control pollen in the air.
- Use a peat free potting soil to reduce the amount of mold.
- Use chemical fertilizers with great caution and always outside in a well ventilated area.
More Allergy Articles to Explore
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