Our homes are basically our second skin — protecting us and our families from the outdoor elements. Yet while we often spend time and money on making our homes beautiful and comfortable, we pay less attention to whether they're healthful. Truth is, much of what threatens our personal health isn’t what’s out there, but what’s inside our homes.


Environmental experts agree that houses, filled as many are with toxins, have the potential to contaminate our bodies in the forms of illness, chronic headaches and even depression. According to the EPA, indoor air is significantly more polluted than outdoor air and is considered to be one of the top five hazards to human health. This fact is not surprising considering that the average American spends 90 percent of their time indoors.


But home detox is both simple and affordable, says certified building biology consultant Robert Steller, who helps residents detect health hazards. It often has more to do with what you should not do than what you should. And it starts at the front door.


1. Take off your shoes

Steller says the first step to home detox is as simple as taking off your outdoor shoes when you come in the house. And this isn't about muddy shoeprints.


According to the EPA, people unwittingly carry lawn and garden pesticides into their homes on their shoes. Those chemicals are especially hazardous for young children and pets because they spend a lot of time on the floor. And get this: The EPA reports that pesticides tracked in on shoes are more to blame for children’s exposure to them than eating non-organic fruits and vegetables.


But it’s not only pesticides that stow away on soles; lead and other contaminants frequently cross the threshold, too. The solution is simple and free. Remove shoes at the front door. A pretty basket filled with slippers might be further incentive.


2. No vinyl and that’s final!

What’s ubiquitous in our community, has a distinctive smell and is one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created? The answer is vinyl, otherwise known as polyvinyl chloride or PVC, and it's likely hanging from the curtain rod in your shower right now.


The Oregon Toxics Coalition warns us that the chlorine in PVC creates dioxins when produced, used or burned — in other words, from manufacture through disposal. Dioxins are considered potential carcinogens and, according to the Environmental Working Group's "Body Burden" research project, have been linked to reproductive and developmental health problems.


What’s more, PVC frequently contains notorious phthalates to make it soft. According to the Children's Health Environmental Coalition, these phthalates are known to cause liver and kidney damage, endocrine disruption, reproductive system damage and, possibly, cancer, and they can easily leach out of PVC. And finally, harder PVC often contains lead and cadmium, two heavy metals that have also been linked to a host of health issues, including cancers.


Clearly, PVC needs to be evicted — and now! Choose a vinyl-free shower curtain and check your kids’ toy box, their backpacks and the blinds on your windows, for starters. PVC is identifiable by the #3 in the chasing arrows, by the letters PVC or by that distinct smell.


3. Go for a greener clean

The American Lung Association asserts that the indoor air in our homes on cleaning day can be 10 times — sometimes a hundred times — more polluted than the outdoor air in the nation's most polluted cities. And much of that is thanks to the cleaning products that release VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, every time we spray, squirt or spritz our chemical cleaning products.


The EPA says the average household contains as much as 25 pounds of toxic cleaning products. But you likely won’t find this information on the labels, because many ingredients aren’t listed — they're protected as “trade secrets.” The real secret is that these cleaners frequently rely on petroleum distillates to dissolve grease and grime. Not only is your car addicted to oil; your cleaning routine is, too!


Furthermore, says Annie Bond, author of Home Enlightenment, we re-pollute our homes each time we clean. But there is a greener, cleaner way to home detox and get a clean sparkling home.


Bond recommends choosing environmentally friendly cleaning products that rely on plant-based rather than petroleum-based ingredients and make specific claims of biodegradability. Some easy-to-find, tested-and-true green cleaners include Seventh Generation, Mrs. Meyer’s, Begleys’s Best (from actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr.) and the newer GreenWorks products from Clorox.


Easier and cheaper still is to make your own, says Bond, who offers up her favorite recipe for a make-it-yourself soft-scrub: 1/4 cup of baking soda mixed with enough eco-friendly liquid dish detergent to create a frosting texture. Apply to a sponge, then wipe away. “It works beautifully,” she says, “and rinses in a snap.”


4. Plant yourself

If they're good enough for NASA, which is using plants in self-contained filter systems for space stations, then leafy greens are good enough for your home! Bringing nature indoors — in the form of plants that clean the air — is a beautiful way to boost the healthiness of your home.


Plants help by absorbing toxins from the air through microscopic openings called stomatas. These pollutants are then used as building blocks by the plant itself for food. Some of the best “filtering” plants include ficus, English ivy and spider plant.


5. Get a breath of fresh air

Your house can be more energy-efficient when every crack and crevice tightly sealed, keeping heat in during cold months and cool in during warm months. But opening the windows, even just a crack, once a day, says Steller, can ensure that you're not sealing in germs and indoor pollutants.


Yet the EPA cautions that this only works if the outdoor air is fresh. In other words, if you live near a busy road, power plant or manufacturing facility, you might want to keep those windows firmly shut.


Bond adds that you can further avoid polluting indoor air by airing out dry-cleaned clothing in the garage or outdoors, using zero-VOC paints and finishes, using cedar and lavendar in closets and drawers instead of mothballs, and steering clear of plug-in air fresheners in favor of essential oil–based air fresheners. She also recommends sealing any pressboard or particle-board containing formaldehyde with her favorite product, AFM’s SafeCoat Safe Seal.


Leslie Garrett is an award-winning journalist, mother of three children and author of The Virtuous Consumer. Visit her at www.virtuousconsumer.com