Vegan interior design is very much intertwined with healthy interior design which in turn is very much related to low-toxin, allergy-friendly design.
And while many people with allergies look into the nutritional side of allergies, just like with veganism, and like to heavily use nasal sprays and antihistamines during pollen and hay fever season, they are not aware of the extend of health influencing factors in their immediate surroundings and how our homes and the finishes and materials we choose impact the air quality and our wellbeing. Not all vegan materials and furniture items are allergy-free but most of the natural, organic and vegan products that I recommend are far more allergy-friendly than conventional, non-vegan products. I recently gave a talk at an Allergy Conference and presented three basic steps to create an allergy-friendly (and of course vegan) home.
STEP 1 CLEAN AND DETOX YOUR SPACE
With every good design comes the all important maintenance of our spaces and to create an allergy-friendly space it is important to detox and clean what is already there.
Windows and doors are where the outside world is coming into the homes and while fresh air is very important, it is good to remember to close windows during pollen season and more importantly clean any dust, mould and condensation that is sitting on frames and sills regularly. A thick door mat keep a large amount of toxic dust out of the home. It may sound trivial but wiping window and door screens down makes a big difference because a lot is accumulating there and making its way into your space.
AIR CONDITIONING & DEHUMIDIFYING
Hot and humid houses are breeding grounds for dust mites and mould which are both very bad for people with allergies so as a guideline, it’s recommended to maintain the temperature between 20-22 C at all times if possible and the relative humidity no higher than 50%. Air conditioners and dehumidifiers are very useful for that. If using a dehumidifier, make sure to clean it once a week with vinegar as they can grow mould themselves over time and release it back into the air.
Equally as important and helpful are air purifiers that help filter allergens like pet hair, dander, pollen and smoke. The most important detail is the HEPA filter of course which stands for ‘high efficiency particulate air’ and which can theoretically remove at least 99.97% of dust, pollen, mould, bacteria and any airborne particles from indoor spaces.
Vacuuming at least once a week and investing in a good vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter will make a huge difference.
This is one that never sits very well with keen decorators but it is a trade off between your health and your visual comfort. If you can remove or at least minimise items that collect dust such as decorative items, knickknacks, books, magazines or at least put them behind glass doors that will be very beneficial.
Most of the ingredients used in conventional cleaning products will not only expose your family to potentially toxic and known allergens and carcinogens, they also have the capacity to mutate bacteria so they become resistant and potentially more dangerous. Ingredients that definitely need to be avoided at all cost though are phthalates, perchloroethylene (PERC), phosphates, urea, triclosan, formaldehyde, ammonia, sodium and potassium hydroxide, chlorine and bleach. Most of these are not very easy to remember but you should get in a habit of reading ingredients lists of everything that enters your house. Each of these chemicals can cause serious adverse health effects such as skin rashes, extreme headaches, asthma, ADHD or damages to liver, kidneys, lungs and reproductive system, to only name a few, so it really is important to keep them far away from the home. And because it is a fact that they unfortunately can be found in most commercially available and well known and marketed cleaning products, the best alternatives to conventional cleaning products are the ones made from common household staples such as castille soaps, baking soda, white vinegar, lemon, essential oils or cornstarch. It may seem like a lot of extra work and just not as effective as shop bought products but there are many great recipes out there worth trying to keep the home as chemical free as possible – it is not rocket science, it does not take long and it is actually cheaper too.
It is, of course, important to keep all of spaces clean but considering we spend about 1/3 of our adult lives in bed and many allergies are dust mite related, bedding should be one of the main focuses. No matter what bedding material is chosen, it is important to expose bedding to direct bright sunlight as much as possible because sunlight kills dust mites which are one of the major allergens. If possible, put your duvet and pillows out in the garden as often as you can. If you have a balcony, put it out when the sun is around. Beat or shake well afterwards to remove the dead mites. If you have neither let as much sunlight into your bedrooms and onto your bedding and mattress as possible.
Wash sheets, pillowcases & blankets once a week at 60 C.
A good way to clean a mattress is to strip it off, sprinkle a mixture of bicarb, tea tree and lemon essential oils on it and leave it for half an hour then vacuum it all off and put fresh sheets on. Mattresses are exposed to sweat, drool, shed skin flakes, hair and skin oil, urine, bodily fluids, allergens and pet hair and cleaning them at least twice a year is a good idea.
STEP 2 KNOW YOUR FINISHES
Most people would not even think twice when buying wall paint and focus on picking the right colour rather than suspecting allergens as well as many animal ingredients hidden in it. In building biology, walls are referred to as our ‘third skin’ which reflects how closely we are connected to our built environment.
If we think of our walls as our third skin, it is definitely worth considering what we put on them. It is important that the walls can breathe and are not completely sealed off with toxic chemicals and also that they do not off gas toxins that will give you a hard time and health issues. Unfortunately, most commercially available paints have a list of nasty ingredients despite saying low VOC. Vegan paints come with big health benefits: they are generally less toxic with a lower concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), using plant-based solvents and zero VOC colourants.
There are two views on carpets. One group thinks that carpets are breeding grounds for dust mites, dust, dirt, sometimes mould and should be replaced by hardwood or linoleum flooring and washable area rugs. The other group is of the opinion that floor board allow dust to move around freely in the room while carpets collect and keep the dust contained until vacuumed. It comes down to what you believe and prefer. If removing carpets is not an option, the use of low-pile instead of high-pile carpeting is definitely recommended.
The more natural and the less man-made the flooring the better which means leaving aside vinyl flooring and picking bamboo, cotton, hemp, sisal or recycled yarn instead.
CURTAINS AND BLINDS
Washable curtains are the most favourable option, the ones made of plain cotton are the easiest to clean, the most sustainable and the healthiest but as long as they are washable synthetic fabrics are ok too. Making sure to replace horizontal blinds with washable roller-type shades keeps dust and mites out of the home.
Up to 8000 chemicals are used in textile production worldwide and with chemicals it is important to realise that they are not just used in the production of textiles and materials but that remnants of them remain in the material. There was a study done in Germany which showed that any fabric we look at, about 73% of it is actual fibre and the other 27% are residual synthetic chemicals which is a real concern because most of these chemicals do not just have a benign toxicity and allergen profile but are rated as ‘unsafe’ or ‘unknown’ which are both not what we want to have in textiles and materials around ourselves and our loved ones.
It is also important to note that an organic fibre does not make an organic fabric. Bamboo upholstery and bedding for example is often marketed as hypoallergenic and organic. As a natural resource bamboo has all these natural properties such as being antifungal and antimicrobial. However, when you buy bamboo fabric, that is not what you are getting because a lot of chemicals are added in the process of making a workable fabric. So what to buy?
The most straightforward is to look for certifications such as GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) and OEKO-TEX Standard 100.
The Global Organic Textile Standard ensures that every step of the textile production adheres to a strict standard from field to end usage. Hazardous pesticides are banned and carcinogenic or toxic chemical residues are not allowed in GOTS certified materials.
Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified textiles are tested to be free from harmful levels of more than 100 substances known to be harmful to human health.
STEP 3 ALLERGY FRIENDLY FURNITURE
If you can, avoid upholstered bedheads and bases as they are generally filled with either wool, feathers and down or high-density foam made of a blend of polyurethane with a tendency to off-gas. Either way, make sure that the upholstery fabric is made from organic and natural fibres.
Look out for GOTS and/or OekoTex Standard 100 certifications for all fabrics you buy. Buying certified sheets avoids the risk that the textiles have been treated with chemicals such as formaldehyde, which is known to cause cancer and can off-gas for many years.
Avoid down or feathers in your bedding, not only to steer clear of animal cruelty but because they are one of the most common sources of allergies due to not being washable and a perfect breeding ground for dust mites. Natural fibres that are GOTS and/or Oeko-Tex Standard 100 certified are the best choice and include kapok, organic cotton, linen, bamboo, buckwheat hull, millet hull and hemp.
Stay clear of memory foam and synthetic latex. Memory foam mattresses contain toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, benzene, naphthalene and isocyanates which can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, throat and skin and lead to respiratory issues such as bronchitis, tightness of the chest and asthma. The chemical flame retardants in memory foam have also been linked to developmental brain disorders, cancer and obesity. The marketing for memory foam is amazing but the health credentials really are not!
Synthetic Latex is a man-made compound that mimics the properties of natural latex and is produced from petrochemicals that are highly toxic to the lungs, liver and brain and can cause a long list of health issues: headaches, fatigue, weakness, depression, hearing loss and increased risk of leukaemia and lymphoma. In addition to the off-gassing, petrochemicals do not deal well with moisture. The moisture given off by your body while you sleep becomes trapped in the synthetic latex, creating a breeding ground for mould, mildew and dust mites.
Look for mattresses and casings made from natural fibres such as certified organic cotton, hemp, eucalyptus fibres or organic natural pure latex, which is inherently hypo-allergenic, dust mite resistant and very durable. A good certification for pure latex is GOLS, the Global Organic Latex Standard. Healthy mattresses are not cheap but you have to weigh up the price with the value of your own health, endless medication, specialist visits, etc.
Consider replacing upholstered chairs with easy-to-clean furniture made of untreated wood, metal or plastic and stay clear from sofas with down filling opting for certified high resiliency foam instead.
In essence, the three-step approach encapsulates the essence of a home that is not only safe but also welcoming, compassionate, and considerate. It is about creating an environment where every being who enters can flourish and enjoy their surroundings without the burden of allergies. Such an environment is not just a physical space but also an emotional and psychological refuge where residents and guests alike can truly feel at home.