Home Design Tips for Battling Indoor Allergies That Sneak up on You in Winter

Home Design Tips for Battling Indoor Allergies That Sneak up on You in Winter

Home is a safe haven. It’s the place where we retreat to feel most sheltered and snug, and especially in winter—if you live in a cold climate—to escape the chill. But what happens when spending time in your own digs induces symptoms like sneezing, coughing or even eczema flare-ups? Suddenly that haven doesn’t quite feel so safe, and instead is more of a hotbed for allergy triggers. 

Your home can play host to triggers like mold in pipes, pet allergens and dust mites, which can hide in textiles, upholstery, carpeting and those knick-knacks lining your shelves, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

While indoor allergies can be a year-round issue, we tend to notice them more during the winter months because most of your time is spent inside if you live in a cold-weather city. What’s more, keeping out cold air by shutting doors locks allergens indoors and circulates them thanks to home heating systems. 

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All that said, as homeowners (and interior designers) have become more conscious about the health of the home and its daily impact on the people living in it (as well as the planet), conditions like allergies are now being considered more often in the initial design process. For example, Amber Guyton of Blessed Little Bungalow in Atlanta, includes questions about allergies in her initial client questionnaire and virtual and in-person consultations. “If there is an issue, we are often selective in furniture fabrics and rugs to ensure new additions are meeting their needs,” she said.  

While there are certain dos and don’ts when it comes to considering allergies in the design process, a stylish and healthy home needn’t be mutually exclusive. 

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Get Picky Underfoot

One of the biggest considerations for allergy sufferers is the materials used throughout the home. Reducing the materials palette is one of the best ways to control and ensure the application of healthy materials, said Dijana Savic-Jambert of Maredi Design in Chicago. “That means incorporating fewer textiles, and the ones we do use need to fall within the natural fiber category, avoiding as many synthetic options as possible,” she said.

A kitchen designed by Dijana Savic-Jambert is kept clutter and knick-knack free.

Jamie Kelter Davis

For rugs, Savic-Jambert prefers fabrications including cotton, linen, jute and wool. “There can be some debate about wool because it’s an animal byproduct, but in that case, we look for transparency labels and certifications,” she said, noting that companies such as Revival Rugs prioritize mostly natural-fiber, vintage rugs.  

Designer Laura Freeman, of Merits Design Group in Atlanta, forgoes wall-to-wall carpeting in favor of hardwood floors, FSC-certified or recycled engineered hardwood and area rugs. “Wall-to-wall carpeting is luxurious, but it is the worst choice when it comes to trapping allergens in corners and baseboards,” Freeman said. “Natural fiber rugs are great choices as they don’t off-gas any toxins, their pads can be more environmentally friendly and there are terrific options made from recycled fibers. Synthetic rugs made from polypropylene are also good, durable choices.” 

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Marisa Bettencourt, founder of North + Fair design in Southern California, suggests choosing a low-pile rug with natural fibers to prevent the build-up of allergens like dust. “Dust and other allergens are less likely to settle into wool and cotton and they are much easier to vacuum,” she said. “Unless you are specifically allergic to it, wool is a great material for rugs because its natural oils repel dust mites and mold.” 

Designer Marisa Bettencourt utilized hardwood flooring and wood and leather furniture to keep allergens at bay.

Courtesy of Marisa Bettencourt

Mind the Materials

Upholstery can be the enemy if you have indoor allergies because it traps allergens like dust mites. Deirdre Doherty of Deirdre Doherty Interiors in Los Angeles opts to use materials including leather for sofas and chairs, as well as wood, metal or glass tables. But from an aesthetic perspective, she warns against going overboard. “Be thoughtful and don’t do too much of one material,” she said. For example, a leather sofa with a wood coffee table and a metal side table would be a great mix. A dining room with wood chairs and a glass top is another stylish way to go, Doherty said.  

A minimalistic living room with leather, wood, and marble furniture designed by Deirdre Doherty is ideal for allergy sufferers.

Deirdre Doherty

Bettencourt is a big fan of the Sloan Collection from Interior Define for allergy-friendly furniture options and “specifically, their sofas and chairs in the Antimicrobial Chenille and Performance Velvet fabrics. They are a breeze to clean and vacuum—and not to mention stylish and modern in design,” she said.  

Since down can be another big allergy trigger, look for alternatives such as faux down duvet inserts and silk or cotton comforters for bedding. Doherty prefers Scandia Down hypoallergenic down pillows and comforters as well as luxurious silk pillows and quilts from Cozy Earth. For sofas, she recommends using foam inserts with a hypoallergenic trillium (faux down) envelop “so you aren’t sacrificing the comfort of traditional down.” 

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Keep the Air Fresh 

When considering indoor air quality, air filters can do wonders for purification. 

“Air purifiers are a great way to reduce allergens in your home because they actively remove pollution, pollen and bacteria from the air,” Bettencourt said. “Even a small tabletop model with a HEPA filter like the B-MOLA personal air purifier will do the trick without taking up excess space.” 

Air purifiers have come a long way in attractiveness. Savic-Jambert prefers Molekule air purifiers, as does Guyton for their style and discreteness. “They can easily be tucked away in the corner of a room,” Savic-Jambert said. 

Designer Amber Guyton chose a leather sofa, easy-to-clean fabric chairs and a low-pile rug to minimize allergens in this living room.

Brittany Bah

Dyson air purifiers are another option, which are “sleek, quiet and come in a variety of finishes and sizes,” Freeman said. She also likes Blueair filters, which offer washable covers in a selection of neutral colors.

To maintain fresh air indoors, it’s also important  to understand what materials can have harmful phthalates and VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) that off-gas toxins, which are proven to contribute to respiratory issues, Freeman noted. “These are found in everything from fabrics and wood sealants to paint and plastics used in manufacturing.” This is why it’s necessary to seek a designer who is well-versed in how to check and source materials that are safe. 

Additionally, Freeman suggests outfitting your home with live plants, which “provide oxygen that improves air quality, reduces stress and enhances wellbeing.”  

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Clean Regularly 

While you can’t get rid of indoor allergens just by tidying alone, cleaning can help control the situation. “Everyday cleaning and routine weekly and monthly deep cleaning can help prevent the amount of dust collected in your home,” Guyton said. This means, wiping surfaces and sweeping and vacuuming regularly. 

In fact, the vacuum you use can play a big part. “Using a certified HEPA filter vacuum will pull more of the dust mites and air pollutants out of the air,” Freeman said, noting the importance of checking and cleaning your filters often to ensure your vacuum can do the job efficiently.  

She also suggests editing dust magnets like papers, magazines and catalogs, or anything you don’t touch on a weekly basis—once a month. 

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Diminish Dust 

The two most common elements Freeman sees when she first goes into a home are the heavy use of layered window treatments and faux plants—both major dust attractors. 

“When I design with window treatments, I prefer to stick to natural materials, such as linen, bamboo cotton or silk that are easier to vacuum, as well as simple panels or roller shades,” she said.   

“Many faux plants are made from plastic, often manufactured from non-eco-friendly products like petroleum and artificial dyes, and they are non-recyclable. They also invite the perfect resting place for lots of dust,” Freeman said. She prefers to incorporate live plants “that provide air quality benefits and use biophilic design strategies that increase productivity and overall happiness.”  

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When selecting between window shades and blinds, Bettencourt opts for Roman shades and cordless window shades, which are the least likely to collect dust. However, she cautions, “avoid putting Roman shades in the bathroom because the natural fibers, when continuously exposed to moisture, can begin to collect mold.”  

Doherty forgoes large open bookcases, bed skirts and drapery that puddles on the ground. 

“We recommend a wood or leather headboard, drapery that just kisses the ground, or a simple shade that wouldn’t attract dust,” she said. 

She also avoids fabric or paper shades for chandeliers that are out of reach and opts for metal shades or bulbs instead.

While allergy-proofing might sound like a complete overhaul for your pad, even employing just a few of these strategies can help you be happier and healthier right in the comfort of your home.