What Are VOCs and How Do They Affect Your Health?

By Marilee Nelson |

What Are VOCs and How Do They Affect Your Health?

What is a VOC (volatile organic compound)?

What do a fragrant rose, a new car, a new home, fresh paint, air fresheners, or new clothes have in common? All of these things release VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Anything that smells fragrant releases VOCs into the air (usually giving it that “new” or “fresh” smell) - even a rose! While VOCs can come from both natural and synthetic sources, inhaling them can be harmful to your health, depending on the chemical makeup, the amount of exposure, and the ventilation in the space.

How VOCs can affect your health

Sick building syndrome

A buildup of harmful VOCs in the home can result in what is called Building Related Illness or Sick Building Syndrome.1 Sick Building Syndrome can cause symptoms that include headaches, difficulty concentrating, irritability, brain fog, depression, dizziness, nausea, allergies, asthma, irritated skin, eyes, nose, and throat.2 Removal of these harmful VOCs often results in rapid relief in symptoms. Beyond the immediate symptoms you might experience from exposure to VOCs, there are longer term effects to human health. These long term health hazards include degenerative conditions such as cancer and heart disease.3 Reducing harmful VOCs (which can be detected by our sense of smell) can be an important immediate and long-term preventative healthcare measure.

What’s the difference between an SVOC and a VOC?

VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are aromatic compounds that generally reduce over time by outgassing. SVOCs (semi volatile organic compounds) are odorless compounds that ride on dust and increase over time as they are slowly released from materials such as insulation, furniture, certain cookware, pesticides, and many other products. VOCs may be released into your indoor air from cleaning and personal care products, air fresheners, scented candles, new furniture, new clothes and fabrics, freshly applied paints, finishes, and building materials. Homes that are well-sealed and energy efficient with poor ventilation are especially vulnerable to a toxic buildup of harmful VOCs and SVOCs.

VOCs and outgassing

Outgassing (also known as offgassing) is the process a material or solution goes through as the VOCs release into the air. For example, a new air mattress may have a strong smell when you first unroll and inflate it. The smell you experience is from the VOCs releasing into the room - this is the smell of the vinyl material outgassing. As it ages, the air mattress continues to release VOCs into the air until it eventually no longer contains any VOCs.* At that point, the air mattress would smell neutral. The VOCs that you smell are an indication of potential harm. Another common example of VOCs is the smell of freshly applied materials, such as paint. After painting, proper ventilation is recommended to flush out the VOCs being released. Ideally, avoid the area until all smell has gone to avoid chemical exposure. You can actually speed up the outgassing of these VOCs by increasing heat and air flow and by putting purchased goods in the sun for a few hours. Many times just one afternoon in the sun will completely clear (outgas) all harmful VOCs in a material. *Unfortunately, after a plastic air mattress outgasses all VOCs, odorless SVOCs called plasticizers are still present.

How do you test for VOCs?

An item is truly outgassed once it has emitted all VOCs into the air. If you have a good sense of smell, determining if an item still contains VOCs (and therefore is outgassing) is actually easy. The best way to test a product is to see if it gives off an odor. Many products you buy at the store have their own VOCs to outgas, or they may have picked up VOCs from the store itself. Sniff a bag from a major retailer and you will smell a mix of VOCs coming from various products throughout the store. The bag will likely have a different smell than the item you purchased, which has its own VOC profile. These VOCs easily attach to every item in the store, especially porous ones.

What are the best ways to avoid breathing VOCs?

Certain materials are more prone to release VOCs than others. Plastics and synthetic materials typically contain multiple VOC-releasing chemicals from manufacturing. Even natural fibers and materials may be processed in a way that the end products contain VOCs. When possible, opt for natural fibers rather than synthetic blends (for example, a shower curtain or bed linens). For cooking and food storage, choose glass or stainless steel rather than plastics and nonstick materials. Shopping at thrift stores and yard sales can be a great way to find quality secondhand items that have already outgassed VOCs. When in doubt, try sunning a new purchase to speed up the outgassing process. Whenever you encounter VOCs in an indoor environment, you should ventilate the area (open windows and turn on fans) as the VOCs release, which helps you avoid trapping the VOCs in the air you are breathing.

Further reading

Break the fragrance habit. Use these Nontoxic Air Fresheners instead of the synthetic variety to remove odors. Keep reading about chemicals to avoid in your home: Common Chemicals to Avoid – A Branch Basics Series. Address SVOCs with a HEPA Vacuum. HEPA filters are indoor air pollution's worst nightmare. Here's How to Choose One for Your Home. Going on a trip? Check out our Healthy Travel Guide for our favorite travel snacks and tips for preventing sunburn, jetlag, and more! Improve your indoor air quality by using The Official Branch Basics Deep Cleaning Method. Ready to streamline your routine? Read Clare’s tricks in Safe + Simple: Tips from a Minimalist Mama. Want another trick for improving indoor air quality? Find out why we’re loving Himalayan Pink Salt Lamps!
Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson

Marilee Nelson is an Environmental Toxins expert who has spent nearly 30 years advocating for the chemically-sensitive and chronically-ill. She is a Board Certified Nutritionist, Certified Bau-Biologist and Bau-Biology Inspector and specializes in Food As Medicine. She has helped thousands of families and individuals identify, heal and recover from toxic exposures and is on a mission to revolutionize the way American families view their health.