The holiday season is upon us, which means it time to get your decorations up! Just like with other products, Christmas trees can bring unintended contaminants into your home. So which trees, plastic or alive, are the safest for the air quality in your home? You’ve trusted Mamavation to bring you topics like our 2020 non-toxic gift guide, best & worst cookware, & best & worst air purifiers, now join us as we bring you the best (and worst) parts of real versus artificial tress for you this holiday season. And stick around for the very end where we rate the best & worst artificial trees available today.
Researched and fact-checked by Rebecca Elizabeth Sherrick Harks, RN, BSN.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.
Live Christmas Trees–That Is, Once Alive
Taking a family outing to pick out a live Christmas tree is so ingrained in many of us as a part of the holiday season that we simply can’t bear the thought of buying an artificial tree. But surely, there must be some problems with live Christmas trees or we wouldn’t be having a discussion about real versus fake holiday trees.
Personally, I still purchase a live holiday tree every year. You may choose differently than me based on the positives and negatives below.
The Benefits of Having a Live Christmas Tree
- Pleasant Smells— first and foremost, the smell of a freshly cut tree in your home is something that most fragrance companies have been trying, in vain, to replicate for decades. It’s a heavenly scent for most and gets a lot of us in a festive mood.
- Tradition–the whole process of picking out and purchasing a live tree is a dearly loved family tradition for so many of us, and in uncertain times, it’s highly important to stick to as many traditions as possible, especially for kids.
- Small Business Support–You’re supporting a small business that, especially in this economy, really need our help. The whole Christmas tree industry provides at least 100,000 jobs per season.
- It’s Not Plastic–Right now, most plastics are not recycled and end up in landfills, so purchasing a live tree avoids adding plastic to landfills.
- Sustainable Farming–Considering Christmas trees are grown in types of soil that other plants cannot grow in and are replaced after every tree is cut down, the sustainability of the system is similar to bamboo. They can regenerate quickly.
- Low Carbon Footprint to Aquire–Providing you go to a local tree farm or booth, your carbon footprint is relatively small.
- Recycling Programs–Most cities do have a Christmas tree recycling program that will take care of your tree after the holidays. Here is a searchable list of tree recycling options in your area (in the US).
The Drawbacks of Having a Live Christmas Tree
- Expense–Christmas trees can be extremely expensive – especially buying them year after year – depending upon your area.
- Real Trees are Fussier–They drop needles, creating a mess, especially as they age. Plus, real trees do require frequent watering to keep the tree fresh-looking.
- Chemicals–Conventionally grown trees are often sprayed with chemicals that can be toxic to children and pets. These chemicals may include pesticides, like glyphosate (Round-Up) which is classified by the WHO as being a probable carcinogen. Other pesticides that may be used that are linked to allergies, cancer and/or birth defects, including benomyl, captan, captofol, chlordane, lindane, and/or methoxyclor may be used on real trees. These chemicals can also lead to environmental problems as they end up in our rivers and bodies of water and can disrupt our ecosystem.
- Safety Around Animals—Animal dangers include animals who are apt to drink the water from the tree which may contain the chemicals listed above which may cause anything from stomach upset to death. Additionally, some pets may eat the needles of the tree which may lead to intestinal perforation and death.
- Safety Hazard for Children–It can be a safety hazard for small children or animals who may play with or chew the lights on the tree, which can cause anything from a major shock to burns.
- Fire Hazard–As live trees age, they dry out and can cause a fire if something around them sparks.
- Allergy Sufferers–Some people notice that they are allergic to the trees in their homes, which is thought to be caused by oleoresins of the tree balsam, which is the scent that most fir trees can give off.
- May Contain Mold–People with mold allergies may also notice symptoms, though of the studies of mold on Christmas trees, none showed the ability for the mold spores to be made airborne.
Mamavation is most concerned with the chemical applications that can off-gas from your live holiday tree. So we recommend you either purchase an organic tree, a smaller live tree that you keep alive year-round, or pick up a professional air purifier to clean the air in the room around the tree.
Organic Christmas Trees
Given that most people who prefer real Christmas trees are still going to be obtaining real trees, Mamavation has a solution for you: organic Christmas tree farms. Though these types of Christmas trees may be hard to find, it’s worth a look to see if you have any organic Christmas tree farms in your area as they tend to sell out more quickly than standard Christmas trees.
- If you don’t live near an organic Christmas tree farm, you can order from Silvertip Tree Farm, which will ship organic Christmas trees to you. They are currently working to obtain their organic status but are currently grown organically.
- Local Harvest is a great resource and website that helps you to determine if you have any organic tree farms (and other delicious goodies) in your area.
- This website may help you search for organic Christmas trees, but a word of warning: this site hasn’t been updated in 4 years and many of the links appear to be dead.
- This list from Naturalbabymama.com will help you easily navigate to find out if your state has an organic tree farm.
Smaller, Live, Year-Round Christmas Tree
Buy a fully-alive Christmas tree, not one that’s been cut, but one that you can enjoy year-round.
These come in all sizes and shapes, and while some may look like the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree, there are plenty that are fuller and bigger – providing that your home has the room.
You can easily find living Christmas trees wherever you find regular and artificial trees: Walmart, Home Depot, Lowe’s and just about any big box store should have these, as well as the smaller, mom-and-pop shops that pop up.
Here’s some information about selecting and caring for your living Christmas tree, year-round.
Air Purification Technology, Opening Windows & Dusting Can Clean Indoor Air Pollution
If you decide that you want an artificial tree or a live tree that could have been treated with chemicals, we recommend you open the windows every day, dust at least once per week, & get a professional air purifier to clean the indoor air. Not only will a good professional air purifier remove the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that may be off-gassing from your holiday tree, it will also be removing contaminants in the air from other products as well.
The Intellipure Ultrafine 468 & Air Doctor professional air purifiers have the ability to remove all the things that worry you like furniture off-gassing, viruses, fungi, bacteria, paints, solvents, aerosol sprays, cleansers, air fresheners, nail polish, pollen, mold, dust mites, & pet dander from the air.
Mamavation investigated the air purification industry and settled on Intellipure & Air Doctor as the best overall professional systems, but please take a venture over there to learn more about the best way to clean indoor air. Here’s a sale on the Intellipure & Air Doctor you can take advantage of this holiday season.
- Air Doctor ($629)–(Use this link for an automatic $280 off each system) We rate this model the highest for the family room next to the entertainment center. Offers 3rd party results on particle efficiency, filters down to 0.003 microns, effective at killing SARS-COVID-2. Air Doctor sent a study conducted in September 2021 looking at how their machine handles particle efficiency. This machine was studied against the EXACT virus (SARS-COVID-2) that troubles us now and passed with flying colors. Here is the study for you to see yourself.
- Intellipure Ultrafine 468 ($999, but use MAMAVATION10 for $100 off and free shipping)–We rate this model the highest for the family room next to the entertainment center. Offers 3rd party laboratory results on particle efficiency, filters down to 0.007 microns, effective in killing coronavirus H1N1 which is smaller than SARS-COVID-2.
- Intellipure Compact ($459, but use MAMAVATION10 for free shipping)–smaller unit for 500 square foot office or bedroom. Offers 3rd party laboratory results on particle efficiency, filters down to 0.007 microns, effective in killing coronavirus H1N1 which is smaller than SARS-COVID-2.
- Intellipure Whole House Ultrafine Cleaner ($2,495, but use MAMAVATION10 for $249.50 off and free shipping)–up to 5,000 square foot home provided there is only one HVAC machine, offers 3rd party laboratory results on particle efficiency, filters down to 0.007 microns, effective in killing coronavirus H1N1 which is smaller than SARS-COVID-2.
If You’re Getting A Fresh Christmas Tree (Organic or Not) Follow These Steps For A Safer Holiday Season
Here are some basic rules of thumb to follow to keep your family safe while you have a live tree.
- Water It. Fresh – i.e. full of water – trees don’t tend to light on fire as often as dry ones. If the tree you have your heart set on has needles falling off? Don’t buy it. Find one with needles that are hard to pull off.
- Watch the Heat. Make certain that you place your tree away from any and all heat sources (even the ones you don’t think about) including fireplaces, radiators, heat vents, festive candles, or lights.
- Certified Lights. Ensure sure all your indoor and outdoor Christmas lights have been tested in a lab by the UL/ANSI 533 or ETL/ITSNA for safety, and throw out any damaged lights and/or light sets.
- Candles Be Gone. Keep all your holiday candles away from your Christmas tree, surrounding furniture, and décor.
- Lights Out! Bedtime means lights off! Trees too! Turn off your Christmas tree just as you do your house lights.
All About Artificial Christmas Trees
Had enough needles from your Christmas tree making a mess of your home over the holiday season? Are you totally over mucking through the cold, wet tundra to find your perfect tree? Maybe you’ve hit the time to abandon the real-deal cedar, fir, pine, or spruce and buy an artificial Christmas tree.
You certainly won’t be alone. More than 80 percent of American households with Christmas trees are celebrating with an artificial tree, according to the American Christmas Tree Association.
The Dangers Of Artificial Christmas Trees:
Recently, artificial trees have made headlines for all the bad reasons: namely being made of toxic materials.
Most artificial trees are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), an extremely widely used plastic that often contains dangerous chemical additives including phthalates, lead, cadmium, and/or organotins.
Per the National Institutes For Health (NIH) and the World Health Organization (WHO), vinyl chloride, the chemical used to make PVC, is a known human carcinogen and is a major source of phthalates, a hormone-disrupting chemical.
These chemicals are released into the air, which exposes us to inhalation, ingesting, or touching of these particulates. The state of California has a Prop 65 ordinance for all types of PVC, which often contains lead.
What’s Up With PVC & Christmas Trees?
While most artificial trees were once (and some still are) made with 100% PVC, nowadays, most trees now use a combination of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene (PE), which is a less toxic form of plastic.
Most people who are concerned with these nasty chemicals are opting for a tree that has the least amount of PVC or is made from 100% polyethylene (PE). However, and this is important, PE trees are not toxin-free, though they are considered to be a safer plastic.
A word of warning: it is nearly impossible to find a 100% PE tree. Do NOT believe online claims that their trees are PVC-free – contact them and make sure you’re talking to someone who actually knows information about their trees, not just a customer service representative.
Most of the trees we looked at headed under the PVC-free category still contain some amounts of PVC, and often these ratios are not provided. In addition, all of the trees we found contained fire retardant chemicals.
Flame Retardants and Artificial Christmas Trees
Flame retardants are chemicals that are applied to many materials (including Christmas trees) to prevent the start or slow the growth of a fire. While many flame retardants have been taken off the market, we could find no artificial trees that didn’t include flame retardants of some kind.
While flame retardants can offer benefits for certain things, there is a growing body of evidence showing many of these chemicals are associated with health problems in humans and animals, including:
- Endocrine and thyroid disruption
- Impacts upon the immune system
- Reproductive toxicity
- Adverse effects on fetal and child development
- Damage to neurological function – most notably in infants and children.
There are hundreds of different flame retardants available today, and they are grouped together based upon whether they contain bromine, chlorine, phosphorus, nitrogen, metals, or boron.
Balsam Hill, one of the manufacturers we contacted, carries Christmas trees with a PE or PE/PVC combination material. You should know though, that Balsam Hill informed Mamavation that they do use antinomy trioxide (a common type of fire retardants that can lead to major lung damage) for all their trees to make trees flame retardant.
Safety Measures For Artificial Christmas Trees
If you decide to buy an artificial Christmas tree and it has PVC inside, there are certain precautions you can take:
- Open your tree outside and let it off-gas for two days before you bring it into your home
- Pick up an air purifier for your home. Here are the best & worst air purifiers.
- Don’t let kids touch the tree. It’s made of PVC, remember?
- Specifically, don’t let toddlers and babies hang out around the base of the tree – because that’s where the toxins drop and tiny specs will be on the floor right there. If this happens, make sure to wash their hands.
- Wash your hands thoroughly after handling.
- If you’re pregnant, avoid setting up and touching the tree. We aren’t joking, it’s PVC, remember?
- Damp-mop/HEPA vacuum thoroughly every week around the tree.
- PVC plastic releases more harmful chemicals once it starts to degrade. Take pride in reusing year after year but don’t hold onto your tree forever. Know when it’s time to get a replacement which is usually 8-10 years. Ask the manufacturer when buying the tree.
- While the State of California now requires trees containing PVC to display a warning label. However, even with these warnings, it can be difficult to tell what is really in your tree.
The good news is you don’t have to give up the beloved Christmas tree tradition.
Mamavation’s Investigation of Artificial Christmas Trees
Mamavation searched far and wide for the largest and most well distributed artificial Christmas trees we could find. There was only ONE brand we found that didn’t use any polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and that was Ikea.
Not Our Favorite Holiday Trees
These trees contain primarily polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other nasty contaminants. They are either not transparent with consumers about what their trees are made from OR are almost exclusively PVC.
- Alightup Fiber Optic Artificial Christmas Trees
- Best Choice Products Premium Artificial Spruce Christmas Tree
- Beachcraft Home Norwood Fir Green Spruce
- Bed Bath & Beyond Branded Pre-lit Artificial Tree
- Birch Lane Caroline Pine Green Artificial Tree
- Birch Lane Dunhill Fir Green Artificial Tree
- Birch Lane Nordic Spruce Green Spruce Artificial Tree
- Birch Lane North Valley Blue Spruce Artificial Tree
- Brylane Home Artificial Christmas Trees
- Christmas Time Artificial Christmas Trees
- Evergreen Classics Artificial Christmas Trees
- GE Prelit Artificial Christmas Trees with Energy Smart LED Lights (at Lowes)
- Giantex Artificial Christmas Trees
- Goplus 5′ Green PVC Artificial Christmas Tree
- Gymax Artificial Christmas Trees
- Haute Decor Artificial Christmas Trees
- Hobby Lobby Artificial Christmas Trees
- Holiday Living Fairmont Pine Pre-Lit Traditional Artificial Tree (at Lowes)
- Home Depot Home Accents Sparkling Amelia Holiday Trees
- Hammacher Schlemmer The World’s Best Prelit Noble Fir (with LED Lights)
- KI Store Christmas Trees
- Ktaxon Artificial Christmas Trees
- Pottery Barn Artificial Christmas Trees (mostly PVC)
- Segmart Outdoor Spruce Artificial Christmas Tree
- Target Brand Wondershop Artificial Christmas Trees
Better Holiday Trees
These trees are better than the list above in terms of materials used, but these trees contain an unknown ratio of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to polyethylene (PE). This concerns us because the trend is to have more PVC, which is more potential disruption for hormones. Unfortunately, most Christmas trees use a combination of both PVC & PE.
- Bee & Willow Artificial Trees
- Birch Lane Tiffany Fir Green Artificial Christmas Tree
- National Tree Company Downswept Douglas Fir
- Puleo International Inc Unlit Fir Tree
- Wayfair Laurel Foundry Modern Farmhouse Christmas Tree
- Wayfair The Holiday Aisle 4 Green Artificial Pine Tree with 150 Lights
Best Holiday Trees
These trees have the least amount of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) inside them. They are either composed of 64% or more polyethylene (PE) OR they don’t have polyvinyl chloride (PVC) at all. Ikea was the only product we could verify that did not have PVC. We have linked up all options for you to choose from.
- Balsam Hill Premium Unlit Artificial Trees on Amazon (64% PE & available on Amazon. Confirmed they do not use antinomy trioxide fire retardant)
- Birch Lane Prelit Aspen Green Fir Artificial Tree (82% PE)
- IKEA – Vinter 2020 (NO PVC at all)
- Tree Time Trees 65% PE trees
- Tree Time Trees 72% PE Trees
About the Author
Leah Segedie is a consumer watchdog, author, entrepreneur, environmental activist, and mother of three boys.
She wrote Green Enough: Eat Better, Live Cleaner, & Be Happier (All Without Driving Your Family Crazy!) in 2018. She’s consistently been featured in the media for the past 15 years in media outlets like ABC, CBS, CNN, Yahoo, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Reader’s Digest, Ladies Home Journal, Shape Magazine, Fitness Magazine to name a few.
Follow Mamavation on Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter or join the Mamavation Community Group.
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Excellent solutions. Thanks for sharing, although we’ve seen it a bit late.
Nice blog.thank you
I agree, those are the worst Christmas trees ever. What we have at home is only artificial tree but we decorate it with ornaments to be more beautiful.
Very nice, indeed.
Most of the artificial trees are not available this year, furthermore the ones that are, are small and not a true sized Christmas tree. Do you have updates to this investigation with other Christmas trees for this year?
I came across your article while trying to find some information on potential for off gassing from artificial Christmas Trees, not sure I’m going to trust the information now that I looked at your facts about chemicals used in growing real Christmas Trees. I work for a University in a state that grows a large number of trees and am involved in working with those who grow and do research on production practices. 3 of the chemicals you quoted as being used, have been illegal for use for as many as 30 years. Most people aren’t spraying fungicides (3 listed) Yes, Roundup is often used, but it used on the ground, doesn’t contact the tree nor is taken up by the tree from the ground so a consumer would not be exposed. Growers want to spray as little as possible because it is expensive so most are not sprayed more than 2 time a year, some not at all. If you are interested I could provide you with some better university based links on what is used and statistics on cancer rates where the trees are grown.
Hello! Do you have any suggestions on SAFE christmas tree lights? LED or incandescent safe ones? Thanks!
fireboy and watergirl
I miss Xmas time. They are so incredible and warm moments.
”Balsam Hill informed Mamavation that they do use antinomy trioxide”
”Confirmed they do not use antinomy trioxide fire retardant”
Which statement is correct?
Thank you so much for bringing light to this issue…..something I have never thought about!!!
Actually, both are true. That chemical is used as a fire retardant in plastics, https://www.p65warnings.ca.gov/fact-sheets/antimony-trioxide
They DO use Antinomy trioxide
Thanks for this post Leah! For the last two years I’ve been trying to decide if I should go with an artificial tree. Looks like I should stick with real for now. Although the IKEA option sounds promising!
Hi Mamavation! I have to comment because I’ve been developing an artificial Christmas tree (that’s kind to people and planet) for the past almost 5 years. I’m Hayley Burke founder of Conscious Christmas Tree. I decided about 5 years ago that I wanted to solve the yearly Christmas tree sustainability debate. The Conscious Christmas Tree, Eva Green is the first Cradle To Cradle inspired artificial Christmas tree that is completely PVC free, designed in a way that all her parts can be easily repaired if broken and therefore easily recycled at the end of her long life and will contain an antimony free and halogen free fire retardant. (Because you can’t sell artificial Christmas trees without a fire retardant unfortunately).
The thing that makes our Christmas tree different is our branches do not contain any metal. In fact all the materials we use will be kept separate from one another. Because once you start to combine different materials, this makes recycling very difficult, if not most of the time, impossible. ‘Thermal recycling’ the nice name for burning trash for is where all current artificial Christmas trees end up. I know I don’t have to tell you that this is catastrophic for our planet.
If you’re interested in learning more, here’s my crowdfunding campaign page. *The campaign ends today but will be available to look up until the end of the year’. Maybe you and your readers would like to know more about Eva Green
If anyone has has questions, Just let me know and hopefully I can answer!
Best wishes a merry Christmas.
Founder Conscious Christmas Tree
If you are around next year, I’d love to add you to the investigation. You can reach out to me at leah at bookieboo dot com.
I’m so glad we can just go out and cut our tree down in the forest. Don’t people do that anymore? You’d avoid just about everything on these lists.