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4 Common Brain Toxins Hiding in Your Home

Here's what the research says about air fresheners, new furniture and more

By Austin Perlmutter, MD



  • A number of hidden, common household products may damage the brain

  • Air freshening products produce VOCs and PMs linked to worse overall and brain health, minimizing their use is a good idea for brain health.

  • A number of new products can also off-gas VOCs, but there are easy strategies to help decrease this risk

  • Incense and cooking are major contributors to brain damaging indoor air pollution. Using less incense and ventilating while cooking can help.

Why care about brain toxins in your home?

Having a healthy, well-functioning brain is a great priority for all of us. And each day we get to make decisions that either vote for brain health, or against it. Many of the variables that contribute to the health of our brains are located within the walls of our homes. All too often, we’re unaware of hidden brain toxins lurking in our kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms. Here are 4 of the top hidden sources of brain toxins in our homes, and how to help decrease the risk they pose.

1. Air freshening products

In grocery stores and drugstores, it’s common to find an aisle with large groups of “air freshener” products. From scented candles to “fresh smelling” sprays to “natural” plug-in air diffusers, we’re told by marketing to use these products to cover up stinky odors and get our homes smelling great again. There’s a big problem here: these products typically contain a host of chemicals that when released may directly damage our health, including our brain health. Air freshening products are packed with molecules called “volatile organic compounds” or “VOCs” which are potent air pollutants and include known carcinogens like formaldehyde and benzene. In addition, scented candles and aerosol sprays may release high levels of particulate matter that is a known brain toxin. If you chose to freshen your air, consider simmering some spices and herbs in water on your stove. Additionally, look for unscented cleaning supplies and candles.

2. Cooking smoke

Cooking at home is an amazing way to make sure you’re feeding your brain quality ingredients. Yet research shows that indoor cooking is one of the top contributors to indoor air pollution, which in turn is a known risk factor for worse brain function. You can help mitigate this risk by keeping windows open when cooking, using a hood or other ventilation strategies, cooking less high-heat smoky dishes and using an air purifier. There’s a debate over gas stoves right now, and while there are pros and cons gas stoves, electric and induction stoves may be better options purely from the air pollution perspective.

3. New furniture, paints and chemicals

We all get excited thinking about a new home, renovations, a new piece of furniture or a new paint color. Yet research shows that all of these things may increase our exposure to “off-gassing” of VOCs and other air pollutants. Exposure to indoor VOCs is a known health risk, and has been shown to correlate with worsened cognitive testing. Risk for off-gassing appears to be a more significant risk for certain groups of purchases including new carpets, pressed/engineered wood furniture, new foam mattresses and paint/liquid chemicals. Here are a few strategies to help minimize risk:

  • Store paints and other chemicals or items covered in chemicals outside your house

  • Limit purchases of new potentially high off-gassing home items to one or a couple items at a time

  • Choose real wood for furniture when possible

  • Increase ventilation in rooms with new furniture or other high off-gassing products

  • Look for certifications on your furniture, paint and mattresses that designate lower or no emissions

  • Buy used furniture

4. Incense

Incense has been used for a wide variety of purposes in homes and in buildings for thousands of years. It’s usually made from a mix of elements including wood powder, adhesive and chemicals that provide scent. When incense is burned, it creates a host of tiny particles as well as potentially toxic gasses like formaldehyde and benzene, none of which are doing your overall or brain health any favors. This is especially relevant as it relates to PM 2.5, tiny pollutants generated by incense that are known to spike when incense is burned. PM 2.5 exposure is now believed to increase risk for everything from depression to dementia. If you choose to use incense, minimize the amount burned, and use good ventilation.

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