New York designer Robin Wilson specializes in eco-friendly homes, rooms and products. She has written two books on creating wellness and health-focused living environments, is an expert on topics including sustainability and has ideas on design for allergy and asthma sufferers. Wilson joined Washington Post staff writer Jura Koncius for an online chat. Here is an edited excerpt.
Q: I often see furniture that’s made with eco-friendly materials labeled to indicate that. But I don’t see these labels on smaller home furnishings, such as pillows or decorative accessories. Where can I find eco-friendly, smaller decor?
A: There are few labels on decorative items. One online resource is the Sustainable Furnishings Council (sustainablefurnishings.org). The SFC is the leading nonprofit that guides consumers to the best companies that have eco-friendly practices and products. All the information there is free, and it provides a scorecard for furniture and furnishings.
Q: I’m getting a dog, but I’m allergic. What can I do inside of my home to keep my allergies from flaring up?
A: Most people who have animal-dander allergies clean their spaces more frequently or train their animals to refrain from curling up on certain chairs, so that piece remains free from dander. I recommend that you consider a room vacuum and program it to sweep during the day to remove pet hair. You should also Swiffer regularly to pick up dust, hair and dander. Ask your physician and local veterinarian which dog species are best for those with allergies.
Q: I’m buying a couple of small area rugs to layer over a carpet that’s the size of the room. What type of pad should I use to keep the area rugs as secure as possible?
A: I recommend felt rug pads. They can be cut easily to size, and most come with varied thickness. I don’t recommend options that have a petroleum or vinyl base because they sometimes discolor a hardwood floor. Look at Wayfair (wayfair.com) or Rug Pad (rugpadusa.com).
Q: We are temporarily in a very old rental home. We have baseboard electric heat that we have no control over, so I purchased an air purifier for our bedroom for the winter. Should I be concerned about the air in other rooms?
A: The bedroom is the most important space to consider for an air purifier. Make sure to change the filter regularly. If you are working from home or use your living room, you might want to consider an air purifier for those rooms too. I also recommend opening your windows for five minutes each day to let fresh air in, especially in a home office, where volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, may be emitted by your printer or other electronics.
Q: I’m concerned about chemicals in my laundry detergents. What should I look for in terms of killing germs and being environmentally friendly?
A: My top choice is the Seventh Generation product line, because it’s plant-based and concentrated, so a little goes a long way. Many Earth-friendly options are safe for those with allergies and chemical-sensitive skin. I recommend considering ultra-concentrated liquid detergent that does not have extra packaging. Your goal is to rely on plant-based surfactants, such as coconut, instead of synthetic ingredients to wash away dirt and grime. And make sure your appliances have Energy Star certification.
Q: What are the best types of rugs and carpets to get to avoid off-gassing and chemical residue? Are area rugs better?
A: I recommend natural wool rugs and carpets (for example, from Berber) and suggest you stay away from the less expensive polypropylene options, which are petroleum-based, unless you are using them outdoors. Area rugs are good if you have a choice, because during your annual spring clean, you can take them out and shake them. If carpet is your only choice, ask for a jute or rubber backing instead of vinyl.
Q: I have allergies, and I know curtains are basically dust catchers, but I dislike blinds. Are there any inexpensive curtains that aren’t giant dust catchers?
A: I often recommend Smith & Noble (smithandnoble.com), because it offers free measuring and inexpensive installation. It has a product called Sheer Shadings, which has the blind inside the shade, so you can control the amount of light, and it can be customized to the size of your window. Shades are a great option, because they’re flat and you can vacuum them.
Q: What are your thoughts on robotic vacuums? Do they remove a lot of allergens?
A: Although robotic vacuums are relatively new for most consumers, they’re a great alternative for those who have limited time and are working from home. The iRobot Roomba 960 Robot Vacuum has a high-efficiency filter to trap pet dander, and it works on your smart devices and WiFi. It’s a great feeling hearing the vacuum whirring in the background and knowing your space will be clean after your Zoom meeting.
Q: What eco-friendly products are also tough on germs?
A: The most eco-friendly options are old-fashioned: vinegar, bleach, baking soda and lemon juice, plus toothpaste to clean crayon markings off walls. But using most of these options requires elbow grease. My favorite store-bought cleaners are from Caldrea, Mrs. Meyer’s, PUR Home, Method and Seventh Generation. Review each product’s ingredients, because the terms “eco” and “natural” are not regulated by the government.
Q: We’ve had an artificial Christmas tree for more than 15 years; I prefer artificial to natural for allergy reasons. Should we clean it? It’s put in plastic bags and then stored in an air-conditioned basement. I’m curious if after all these years, it’s necessary to remove some dust and particles. The tree is in good shape, but is it time to get a new tree?
A: It’s time to get a new tree. Some older trees have chemicals that off-gas, and the older the tree, the greater the possibility that it may contain lead. Do your research to select the best new artificial trees. Ikea has done a lot of testing of its trees because of European standards. Also use LED bulbs to lower the risk of fire hazard. Store it the same way you have been, and vacuum it annually.