The bathroom can be a terror to clean, with sinks, toilets, showers, and bathtubs all collecting grime. Making matters worse, when you use bathroom fans to try to manage moisture issues, you have the side effect of dust being pulled in.
A bathroom fan is necessary for proper ventilation. However, true ventilation includes replacement air entering the bathroom once steamy air is removed. Unfortunately, this air can come from a number of dusty spaces. Happily, there are solutions to this problem beyond continuous cleaning!
When bathroom fans operate, they remove air from the room. This air must be replaced. Sometimes, this air is pulled from dusty places like the spaces behind walls and ceilings, attics, HVAC ducts, and outside. The airflow also disturbs dust hiding or originating in bathrooms (dryer lint & toilet paper dust).
Bathroom Fans Create Airflow
In order to prevent water damage, poor air quality, and mold growth, bathroom fans must take air from the bathroom and exhaust it to the outdoors.
However, you cannot remove air from an area without it being replaced somehow.
When air is removed, a vacuum is created, and a negative pressure system is formed. Because of this, air from the surrounding areas—this could be nearby rooms, the hallway, or outdoors—is pulled into the bathroom.
This happens because air will always move down a pressure gradient (unless some external force is acting against it).
Areas of high pressure, such as neighboring rooms or the outdoors, will lose air to areas of low pressure, such as a bathroom from where the air is being exhausted.
The flow of air down a pressure gradient fills the vacuum and restores the air pressure balance (in the bathroom, at least). In restoring the balance, the room is also being supplied with non-steamy air, which is one of the conditions of successful ventilation.
In some cases, this inflow of air is not enough to restore air pressure balance, and makeup air may be necessary. However, having to supply makeup air to a bathroom is not common.
In other cases, the air that enters the bathroom balances the air pressure but isn’t as fresh as we would hope. In fact, it can be rather undesirable, and very dusty air fits this description.
Sources of Replacement Air Can Be Dusty
Undesirable replacement air can come from a variety of places as long as these are areas of higher pressure than the bathroom while the fan is operating. One common pollutant in many of these places is dust.
Spaces Behind Walls and Ceilings
Although modern homes are very sturdily built, this does not mean that there are no empty spaces in the home’s infrastructure.
Building strategies have been developed to use as few materials as possible while still creating a structure that can withstand age and wear from weather events and earth movements.
As such, buildings will have empty spaces behind their walls and in their ceilings. Filling these spaces would be a waste of material and isn’t necessary for structural integrity. Moreover, the spaces are incredibly useful for containing things like wires, ducts, and pipes.
However, dust can build up in these spaces, and because they’re so hard to access, they are not easily cleaned.
Even in what we would consider to be a weathertight house, air can still enter the house, often passing through these dust spaces on its way into the house proper.
So, when the air pressure in the bathroom falls below that of the outside and the spaces behind walls and ceilings, air is drawn into the bathroom, bringing with it whatever dust is airborne or becomes airborne as the air starts to move out of the hidden spaces.
Very often, attics are actually excluded from the building envelope. We add insulation between the attic and the ceiling below and leave it at that.
Despite being excluded from the controlled environment, or maybe because of this, we tend to either leave attics empty or use them to store items that don’t need to be accessed very often.
Unfinished attics are typically ventilated through means of openings to the outside. This helps to regulate the heat that collects in the attic, preventing it from influencing the temperature in the rest of the house.
However, these openings mean that dust can enter the attics, and since they are seldom accessed, they are seldom cleaned.
When a bathroom is located on the upper floor, below the attic, this dusty room can readily become a source of replacement air when the bathroom fan is running.
The ducts used for heating and cooling in the home see high volumes of air passing through them over time.
With this much air traffic, some of it is bound to contain dust, not all of which will be trapped by the air filters.
This dust can be deposited and accumulate in various parts of the HVAC duct, or it can be released into rooms with the conditioned air.
While keeping your HVAC ducts clean should be part of regular maintenance, it’s a pain to do, so many people put it off.
When the bathroom fan is operating and the pressure in the bathroom falls, air can be pulled out of the HVAC system, even if it’s not running. If this air is dusty, your bathroom will also become dusty.
Additionally, if there are vents or registers in or near the bathroom, the dusty air released by a dirty HVAC duct can enter the bathroom and accumulate.
Outdoor dust is often composed of tiny particles of dry soil and pollen.
This kind of dust will be far more prevalent when high winds pick up loose, dry soil and transport more pollen.
Spring and summer outdoor air will also have a higher concentration of pollen due to plants being the most active during these times.
Outdoor air and its dust can enter the home via gaps and cracks in the infrastructure, windows, and doors since no home is perfectly sealed. Obviously, if the windows and doors are open, the entrance of dusty air is even easier.
Weather permitting, we often open the bathroom window to help air out the bathroom while the fan is still running, providing the perfect opportunity for dusty outside air to fill the vacuum being created by the fan.
Air doesn’t have to originate from outside of the house to be dusty. Fluff from clothing, dryer lint, and pet dander are just a few of the sources of dust inside the home.
If you are struggling to keep on top of the vacuuming and dusting in your home, then air pulled into the bathroom from these other rooms will be dusty, too.
You might not even think that your other rooms are that dusty, but once the air starts moving, it picks up the particles from those corners and hidden crevices that you don’t usually notice to clean.
Solutions to Dusty Replacement Air
Although there are many ways that dust can infiltrate your bathroom through this replacement air, there are also many ways to reduce dust in the bathroom.
As mentioned before, no house is perfectly sealed. A perfectly sealed home would come with a whole smorgasbord of problems, including sewer gas being pulled from drains and difficulty leaving the house (doors and windows must have some gaps in order to be opened)!
However, a home can be well-sealed. One way to reduce outside air infiltration is to use weatherstripping around doors and windows.
- This can prevent nicely conditioned air from leaving the home and, as if more pertinent to this discussion, prevent air that is carrying dust from entering the house.
Another strategy to reduce dust buildup in the bathroom is to clean areas that accumulate dust, such as attics and HVAC ducts, more regularly than you have been.
- Cleaning an attic can be a pain, but dusting and tidying as a part of your spring cleaning routine can positively impact the air quality of your home.
- The cleaning of air ducts can also be difficult, but it is wise to do so at least once a year. Interiors of air ducts should be vacuumed out but vent grills must also be dusted since this is where a majority of dust will get caught.
Another way to decrease the amount of dust entering the bathroom via makeup air is to improve airflow to the bathroom.
- This may seem counterintuitive since airflow is what allows dust into the bathroom, but allowing air with less dust to infiltrate the bathroom rather than air from hidden spaces, like those behind walls, can decrease dust accumulation.
- One way to do this is through louvered doors. These allow privacy but encourage airflow from surrounding rooms to enter the bathroom. As mentioned, these rooms can also get dusty, but they are almost definitely cleaner than your ceiling space.
One more way to reduce dust infiltration through replacement air is to introduce conditioned makeup air through active means.
- This will prevent outside air, air from hidden spaces, and attic air from infiltrating since the vacuum will be filled through conditioned makeup air with no dust.
Airflow Can Cause Settled Dust to Become Airborne
Sometimes, the dust actually comes from the bathroom itself.
When the fan is operating, air in the bathroom starts to move, and any dust that has accumulated on surfaces in the bathroom can become airborne, which you may notice more readily, or it can subsequently settle on surfaces that are more visible.
This dust is not necessarily from a lack of cleaning. It may just be misjudging how often you need to be cleaning (often this happens when you move into a new place with a new environment).
It could also be because you don’t know where the dust is coming from to stop it from accumulating or you miss hidden spaces where dust can settle out of sight.
Sources of Dust in a Bathroom
Corners of sinks, baths, and showers are popular places for dust accumulation despite often being wet. Damp conditions may cause dust to group together more rather than washing it away since the water is often stagnant.
The tops of toilets and shelves are also popular places that can be hard to reach but provide nice, flat surfaces for dust to settle on.
If you have a clothes dryer in your bathroom, this can be a significant source of dust as well.
Clothes fibers that accumulate as lint are one of the components of indoor dust. You may notice dust particles becoming airborne when you change the lint filter of your dryer.
Another major source of dust from within the bathroom is toilet paper.
Toilet paper is made of very small particles of paper that have been fused together. These particles can become loose and airborne when they are handled or exposed to heat.
These paper fibers can let loose dust particles, which can lead to dust accumulation in your bathroom.
As far as the most common places that dust likes to accumulate, it is most important to know where these are in your bathroom and to clean them regularly to prevent airborne dust when the bathroom fan is on.
Identify where dust likes to settle in your bathroom, whether it’s in corners or on shelves, and make a cleaning plan to prevent dust accumulation.
Every other week is good, but weekly cleanings are the best.
For the problem of clothes dryer lint forming dust, there isn’t much you can do other than move the dryer to another location if the dust is creating a problem in the bathroom.
If moving the dryer is not a viable option, it would be best to clean the dryer vents at the recommended frequency of at least once a year.
Cleaning the lint filter in the dryer after each load would also prevent lint buildup in undesirable locations in the dryer where dust can accumulate.
For the toilet paper problem, purchasing higher quality toilet paper can lead to fewer particles being let loose and accumulating as dust in your bathroom.
Additionally, a bidet would mean that toilet paper is not needed and, therefore, dust from toilet paper particles would not occur.
Using a bidet would also be environmentally friendly since you would use significantly fewer disposable paper products.