Last Updated on March 10, 2023 by The Filtery
You’re probably well aware of the debate about which is “better”—real or artificial Christmas trees. Which is healthier and safer for kids and pets? Which one is better for the environment?
Unfortunately, there is no straightforward answer to the question. There are several different factors to consider, which will help you make the best decision for you, your family, and your home.
So to help you make your choice, we’re giving you the lowdown on everything you need to know about potential environmental toxins in real and artificial Christmas trees. We’ll also give you suggestions on how to reduce your exposure and then some ideas for unconventional Christmas tree alternatives as well.
Let’s get into it.
[P.S. Be sure to check out our guide to non-toxic, lead-free Christmas lights, holiday family pajamas, organic gifts ideas, non-toxic winter candles, and our holiday deals roundup!]
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Are All Artificial Christmas Trees Toxic?
Unfortunately, pretty much all artificial Christmas trees contain toxins. Here are the main chemicals we’re dealing with:
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Most fake Christmas trees are made from PVC, which is one of the most toxic types of plastic.
PVC contains chlorine. Chlorine creates byproducts called dioxins and furans—two chemicals that can be extremely toxic. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), dioxins “can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system, interfere with hormones and also cause cancer.”
Not only that, but PVC almost always contains phthalates (which are used to make the plastic more flexible). Phthalates are endocrine disruptors, which means they can interfere with one’s natural hormone function and lead to infertility and developmental toxicity. They’re also linked to things like diabetes and asthma, and also may be carcinogenic.
What to Look for Instead: Polyethylene (PE) or Polypropylene (PP)
There are a few brands (like Basalm Hill and IKEA) that are beginning to reduce the amount of PVC in their Christmas trees by replacing it with polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP). These types of plastic, although not perfect, are better than PVC.
(Many of the trees from Basalm Hill are made of PVC though, so just make sure to check the product description of the specific tree you’re looking at.)
On top of the plastics, most artificial Christmas trees contain added flame retardants. Although the idea of flame retardants in our household products initially sounds like a good idea, research has found that they don’t actually do much of anything in terms of stopping or slowing the spread of flames, should a fire occur.
Although some recent legislation has been put into place that bans flame retardants from certain goods such as children’s products and upholstered furniture, most these laws don’t apply to artificial Christmas trees.
The chemicals used as flame retardants have been linked to a variety of negative health effects, including:
- endocrine disruption
- thyroid dysfunction
- lower IQ
- altered sexual development
- neurodevelopment impairment
- fertility issues and other adverse pregnancy outcomes
Tiny flame retardant molecules can “off-gas” from your plastic Christmas tree and end up in the dust in your home. From there, these chemicals are breathed in and stored in our bodies, where they can potentially contribute to negative health effects.
In humans as well as in the environment as a whole, flame retardants are bioaccumulative and persistent, which essentially means that they stick around and build up over time. They are not easily “detoxed” from our individual and collective systems.
Most of us know that lead can do a lot of damage, especially for babies and young children. Even though U.S. laws involving lead in children’s toys, paint, and food have gotten stricter, the use of lead in plastic consumer goods has not been banned completely.
Lead is actually uses as a stabilizer in many kinds of PVC products, so the two environmental toxins often come together.
Unfortunately, almost all artificial Christmas trees contain some amount of lead… the question is how much.
The state of California requires that any product that causes exposures to more than 0.5 micrograms of lead per day be labeled with a Prop 65 warning, so that’s one thing you can look to give you some more information about the tree. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the tree company or manufacturer to ask whether or not they do independent, third-party testing to make sure that lead stays at a minimal level.
Are There Any Non-Toxic, PVC-Free Christmas Trees?
Unfortunately, it’s really slim pickings when it comes to less-toxic artificial Christmas trees… IKEA is the only brand we’ve been able to find so far that offers artificial Christmas trees that are free from both PVC and flame retardants.
IKEA for the Win
For the 2022 holiday season, IKEA carries five full-sized artificial Christmas trees along with several different table-top trees.
They are made out of a combination of polyethylene, polypropylene, and steel—so they are PVC-free.
One of the trees is made out of partially recycled plastics, plus some sugarcane. The product details state that no BPA has been added to the product. This is because when it comes to recycled plastics, it’s almost impossible to tell whether or not there was any BPA in the original plastic that’s being recycled (without testing, of course).
The other great thing about IKEA is that they have pretty robust policies on flame retardants and PFAS. They banned intentionally-added PFAS (aka “forever chemicals”) all the way back in 1991. And they only use chemical flame retardants in areas of the world where it’s still required by law. That does not include the U.S., so if you’re shopping in the States, it’s safe to assume that your artificial Christmas tree from IKEA is NOT made with flame retardants! Woohoo!
If you’re interested in learning more, you can read our full breakdown of IKEA’s chemical policies here.
Balsam Hill also carries some artificial Christmas trees, some of which are made almost entirely of PE and others that are made with PE + PVC. Unfortunately, however, these do contain flame retardants.
(NOTE: To find Balsam Hill’s mostly PE trees, you can click here and then under the “Realism” filter category, choose “Most Realistic.” The trees in their “Most Realistic” collection are the ones made with mostly PE. Balsam Hill has explained that the trees in this collection are made with “99.999999% PE”, but they do have a “PVC wrapping on the inner trunk and/or the very top of the tree, which is removable and for aesthetics only.”)
Several other brands, such as ALEKO, Grandin Road, King of Christmas, and Onfleek, also carry some trees that are made out of a blend of PVC and PE. But like Balsam Hill, they unfortunately use flame retardants.
When in doubt, always feel free to contact the company you’re thinking of purchasing from and ask for more information about the materials used to make their artificial Christmas trees.
Keep reading to find out more about how to reduce the amount of toxins brought into your home from an artificial tree.
How to Reduce Toxin Exposure With Artificial Christmas Trees
If choosing an artificial tree turns out to be the best option for you, there are some things you can do to reduce your toxin exposure:
1. Buy made in the USA
Products that are made in some places like China are more likely to be recalled due to lead contamination. Try to look for trees that are manufactured in the USA or Europe, as the laws tend to be more strict regarding things like allowable levels of lead.
2. Wash your hands after handling and decorating
Washing your and your kids’ hands after putting together and decorating your tree is another small way to reduce how many toxins you end up absorbing and ingesting.
3. Keep your home clean
As mentioned above, one of the primary ways flame retardants, VOCs, and other toxins are ingested by humans is through household dust. Tiny toxic molecules drift from your Christmas tree and into the dust, where it’s then inhaled by the people and pets in your home. So regularly wet dusting and vacuuming your house can help to reduce your and your family’s exposure.
Using a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter can help to capture the smallest particles, and using a robot vacuum can help you keep things clean while reducing the amount of work you have to do! Brands like Dyson, iRobot, and Eufy all have options with HEPA filters.
4. Use an air purifier
Indoor air pollution can actually be two to five times worse than outdoor air pollution. This is mostly because of all of the chemicals that we bring inside our home (not just Christmas trees, but furniture, paint, etc.). Once inside, the chemicals off-gas but then just sit there since there is so little airflow.
Using an air purifier like AirDoctor can help to collect and trap fine particles and reduce indoor air pollution. Again, you’ll want to look for one with a HEPA or HEPA equivalent filter.
And if you get a warmer winter day, don’t be afraid to open up the windows and get some fresh air circulating!
Are Real Christmas Trees Safe?
So now that we’ve addressed artificial Christmas trees, the natural next question is: are real Christmas trees better?
The short answer is: probably… but it depends! What’s important is that you take all of the factors into consideration and make the best decision for you and your family. So let’s look at the potential toxins you might find in a real Christmas tree.
Pesticides & Herbicides
Trees that are grown using conventional methods can bring pesticides and herbicides into your home. These types of chemicals have been linked to everything from cancer and ADHD to infertility and Parkinson’s and more.
Doing a quick search for “organic Christmas trees in [your area]” can help you locate farms that are growing their trees using organic methods, without the use of pesticides and herbicides.
Real Christmas trees also have the potential to bring mold inside. Although many people can co-exist just fine with many types of mold, those with chronic inflammatory response syndrome (CIRS), multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), Lyme disease, asthma, and/or other allergies or inflammatory conditions may want to take this into consideration when choosing what kind of Christmas tree is best for them.
Those with allergies should also keep in mind that real evergreen trees can come with things like pollen and sap, which can potentially trigger sneezing, skin rashes, or other allergic reactions.
How to Reduce Toxin Exposure With a Live Christmas Tree
1. Go organic
Going with an organically grown Christmas tree is perhaps one of the safest options of all. Here is a (somewhat outdated) list of organic Christmas tree farms in the United States. Or you could just do a quick search for “organic Christmas trees in [your area].”
2. Spray off your tree before bringing it inside
If you do go with a conventionally grown tree, you may want to spray down your tree with the hose and let it air dry before bringing it inside. Although it’s not likely to get rid of all of the pesticide residue, it will help to reduce it.
3. Keep your home clean and use an air purifier
Just like with artificial trees, keeping your house clean of dust can help to decrease the amount of toxins and allergens you end up ingesting.
Are Real Christmas Trees Bad for the Environment?
There is, of course, another common question regarding Christmas trees: which one is better for the environment?
On one hand, an artificial tree seems like it could be more eco-friendly because it can be used year after year and it won’t contribute to deforestation.
On the other hand, fake trees are made from non-renewable, petroleum-derived plastics which will end up in landfills and never biodegrade. Real trees, on the other hand, not only help to capture carbon and contribute to healthy ecosystems as they grow, but they can also be composted at the end of their life.
Therefore, one of the most sustainable and eco-friendly options is to buy a real tree that was grown organically and harvested sustainably. Another great option is to buy a potted or balled tree and then plant it in the ground after the Christmas season is over!
One more option that’s available in some locations is to actually rent a living Christmas tree. You can either pick up a balled tree or get one delivered and then send it back to the farm when the season is over where it can continue to live its life. Then you can rent the same tree the next year!
Unconventional Alternatives for Non-Toxic Christmas Trees
If you or someone in your family is very sensitive to toxins and neither a plastic artificial tree nor a real evegreen tree will work well for you, there are still plenty of other out-of-the-box options:
Handcrafted Wooden Tree
One Two Tree is an eco-friendly Christmas tree that’s handcrafted from untreated high-grade Australian hoop pine. It’s easy to assemble, kid-friendly, and can be reused year after year.
Or if DIY is more your thing, there are so many tutorials for different wooden trees. You can make your own wooden tree using timber dowels, make a flat wooden tree that displays your holiday cards, or just use paint and plywood.
Cardboard Christmas Tree
This EZ-Tree Deluxe cardboard reusable “tree” is made in the USA out of cardboard and can be used year after year. Being super thin, it’s great for smaller spaces.
Or, you can make your own giant cardboard Christmas tree—it’s easy and cheap!
Buy or Make a Driftwood Tree
Similar to the wooden trees above, you can also get or make a tree made from reclaimed driftwood. These are really beautiful, and there are so many sizes and variations you can do. If you don’t have much space, you can get a smaller table-top tree, or you can hang one on the wall.
Or, instead of driftwood, you can just use regular branches from the forest—like this or this!
Use a Different Kind of Potted Tree
There are many varieties of trees that you can decorate during the holiday season and then enjoy as a regular houseplant during the rest of the year. Consider a fiddle leaf, a ficus, a bamboo tree, a citrus tree, a pine, or a palm.
Clear off your bookshelf, stack your books into a pyramid, and decorate with lights and ornaments. There are so many different ways to make books into a beautiful tree shape.
Celebrate With An Outside Tree
If you want to stick with a real tree but can’t deal with the allergens, you might want to consider decorating a tree outside your home. If you have a spot outside of a main window, you can still enjoy the glow of the lights from inside! Plus, it can be fun to watch your tree slowly get a little bit bigger each Christmas.
Switch to Succulents
You can buy or make a beautiful tabletop tree made of succulents, which will keep looking beautiful throughout the whole year.
Decorate a Ladder
Perhaps one of the most affordable options, you might be surprised about how pretty you can make a step ladder! Check out this tutorial from Funky Junk Interiors.
One Last Note (Don’t Get Too Stressed!)
When you start paying attention to all of the toxins in your home, personal care products, consumer goods, and environment, it can quickly become pretty stressful! Try to remember that it’s not always about doing things perfectly; but rather focusing on what you can control by reducing exposure to toxins when possible. Also, keep in mind that chronic stress can cause or contribute to long-term health conditions as well.
Even though there may not be any “perfect” solution to non-toxic Christmas trees, try not to become too overwhelmed, and just do the best you can. We hope that this holiday season can be one of gratitude, rest, good food, and quality time with loved ones. When it comes to choosing a Christmas tree, just make the best decision you can for you, and then relax and enjoy the season. 🎄
Most artificial Christmas trees are made from plastics like PVC and contain toxic additives like flame retardants. Real trees are a better option for many, but can come with things like pesticides, mold, and allergens like pollen. Buying a real tree from an organic and sustainable tree farm is one of the best options. Or, you can switch it up this year and consider one of the creative and unconventional Christmas tree alternatives above!
Image Credits: Any Lane, Elina, Kevin Turcios
Your ideas are very useful. Actually one of my friends is planning to work in this field, so I’ll definitely recommend your post to him. Many thanks to you.
Looking at Christmas trees for 2022! Do you happen to know if the IKEA tree uses flame retardants in US? Thanks 😊
Hi Laura – Thanks for asking! IKEA has now released their 2022 Christmas tree collection, so we just updated the article with more info. IKEA actually doesn’t use flame retardants in their products except in countries where it’s required by law, so if you are buying in the US, you are good! 🙂
Hi there, I’ve been on the phone and chatting with Ikea for awhile trying to confirm this. Still no answers directly from anyone there…..did you get this information direct? Thank you.
Yes, we confirmed with IKEA a while ago… You also may find this and this helpful!
I found a tree on the Balsam Hill website that is 100% PE. They said they use Antimony Trioxide for their flame retardant. Do you think wiping the tree down or vacuuming it would remove some of the flame retardant? This particular tree doesn’t have a lot of needles so not as many nooks and crannies
Vacuuming/wiping down the tree likely won’t remove most of the flame retardants, but it could help! If you’re going to get an artificial tree, you’re going to have to choose the “least bad option,” so at the end of the day, you have to make the decision that’s best for you and your family, and then try not to stress too much about it!