Just when we’ve finally gotten used to the fall weather, it seems that Old Man Winter is nipping at our toes. This will mean some chilly days playing outdoors, but, if your family is anything like mine, it also means plenty of hot chocolate and hanging out inside. And, while I’m hoping that my clan’s movie nights, card games and indoor basketball tournaments (yes, we have those) are all entertaining, I know that there’s another aspect of our experience indoors that is of utmost importance: the quality of the air in our home. The stuff we breathe in, day in and day out, affects our health and, considering how much time we’ll be spending indoors, the stuff better be clean. Southerners are not off the hook; even if your kids are often in bathing suits while others are in snow suits, you still go home, sleep at home and spend lots of time in your home.

According to the EPA, indoor air is many times more toxic than outdoor air — a result of products in our homes and toxins we bring in. So, make it your business to defy the odds and make your home as sweet as it can be — naturally. If you’ve heard some of these tips before, that means the good word is getting out. And if you haven’t, now’s your chance to learn and make some easy changes. Either way, these ideas are worth repeating – to yourselves, your friends, your kids and to anyone who would want to make a positive difference in their family’s short and long-term health.

Take Your Shoes Off in the House

I’ve always instinctively hated the idea of tracking whatever was on the bottom of my shoes into my kids’ bedrooms, but once I learned what might actually be on the bottom of said shoes, I realized I was factually on target. Bacteria is just the start; our soles can be laden with, among other things, pesticides and herbicides, heavy metals, gasoline and coal tar. These contaminants, which are linked to cancer and neurological problems, can be brought into the home where they become dust particles and are then breathed in, as well as absorbed through the skin. Young children are regularly on the floor and are therefore more apt to come into contact with whatever has settled there. Additionally, carpets are an especially perfect resting ground for these toxicants. So leave your shoes – and all the junk that’s on them – near the front door and keep your air and floors free from unhealthy substances.

Avoid Conventional Air Fresheners

Who doesn’t want a fresh-smelling home? But don’t hand me “Mountain Fresh Scent” in a can or any of those wall plug-ins. I’d go for pure cinnamon, coffee grinds or essential oils over hormone disruptors and respiratory toxicants any day…and you should, too. Conventional air fresheners either mask smells by coating your nasal-passages (ugh) or spew out none other than endocrine disrupting phthalates, carcinogenic formaldehyde, unhealthy petroleum distillates and a host of other goodies. So ditch the synthetic chems for lavender sachets or bowls of odor-absorbing baking soda and the air in your home will be fresh…and healthy.

Switch Over One Cleaning Product

It’s been many moons since my laundry room cabinet was stocked with bottles containing brightly colored liquids for all of the many cleaning jobs in my home. Long ago I did away with jugs that said “Caution” or “Harmful if Swallowed.” My secret weapon is now a vinegar and water combo. I use it for everything – kitchen, bathrooms, floors, you name it. But I appreciate that, although it’s effective and totally safe, not everyone feels comfortable using vinegar to clean an entire home. With that in mind, it would still be very worthwhile to choose one of your cleaners – say, your toilet bowl cleaner (which can be particularly caustic and dangerous) or your sink cleaner (which is likely full of respiratory toxicants) – and switch it over for a 1 cup vinegar to 1 cup water combo (you can even do a 1/2 cup vinegar to 1 cup water mix if you’re still a bit vinegar-shy). It’s effective, the smell dissipates within minutes and your kids will be breathing in many less toxicants even for this single change.

Air Out Your Dry Cleaning

The chemicals that are used for dry cleaning – specifically perchloroethylene (perc) – can be some nasty stuff. Perc can irritate the eye/nose/throat/skin and, with high levels of exposure, can lead to neurological problems, In addition, perc has been labeled a likely human carcinogen. If possible, dry clean your clothes at a “wet-cleaning” shop or one that utilizes CO2. If your dry-cleaner touts itself as organic, make sure to ask what they use in place of perc. But if a conventional dry cleaner is your only option, be sure to pull the plastic off of freshly dry-cleaned clothes and air them out for a few hours before bringing them inside. Otherwise the chemicals that might still be emitting underneath the plastic could contaminate the air in your home.

Open Your Windows

You’d have to be at the mouth of a coal-burning factory for the air outside your home to be more toxic than the air indoors. Which is why opening windows, even for just a short time every day, can really improve the air quality in your home. Just as Mom always said, there really is a benefit to getting some “fresh air.” Even when the thermometer dips into those unhappy numbers, buck up and open up. It’s one of the great defenses against unhealthy air buildup in the home.