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Best Non-Toxic Christmas Tree Options

Written by Irina Webb

Is it possible to find a safe Christmas tree in today’s market?  One may think that a live tree is definitely safer than an artificial tree.  Yet, it is not that simple – not all artificial trees are that bad, and neither are all real trees good.  There is a lot to consider, and it may cause an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty.  A wrong decision can cost you wasted money and unnecessary exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.  However, I believe that knowledge helps us make informed decisions and allows us to avoid the pointless hassle.  In this post, you will learn about the main types of Christmas trees and my experience with a real tree.  This information will help you in your search of a non-toxic Christmas tree to find the one that will work for you.

Best Non-Toxic Christmas Tree Options. A photo of a Christmas tree with cones and ornaments.

We do your research for you.

Instead of touting a specific safe Christmas tree option, let me do something better for you.  As a full-time consumer product safety consultant and coach, I realize that knowing your options is very helpful.  Spoiler alert: no option is 100% ideal and safe for everybody, and this is especially true for Christmas trees.  It is all about knowing your choices and their pros and cons.  In short, some products may be safer as compared to others, but none of them is safe in absolute terms.  

By the way, I have been studying the consumer market and product ingredients since 2012.  When I realized that the information I was discovering was too valuable to keep just to myself, I established the I Read Labels for You blog.  Today, we are a team of hardworking researchers who spend hours investigating the markets and the ingredients, so you do not have to.  We are here to read labels for you and give you all the necessary information to make informed consumer decisions.

Further, our website offers tons of free educational blogposts, unique consulting services, e-books, Savvy Consumer Circle membership, and a shopStart here to navigate our website and learn about the plethora of credible sources we use in our research.

And now, as I promised, I am sharing with you my experience with a real tree.

safe Christmas tree. A picture of a real tree with Christmas tree ornaments.

Here is why a live tree is not a fully non-toxic Christmas tree.

To begin with, some potential issues with a real tree prevent it from being called a totally safe Christmas tree.  Namely, the issues are:

  • chemicals
  • mold
  • allergies.

First, real Christmas trees may have pesticides and herbicides on them.  A solution can be trees from organic tree farms or trees with chemicals sprayed around them, not directly on them.  

Second, molds found in real Christmas trees can set off reactions like severe asthma attacks, fatigue, headaches, and sinus congestion (source).

Third, tree sap, pollen, or terpenes can trigger allergies that can develop within 24 hours or even after several days.  For instance, this study reports that seasonal syndrome includes sneezing, wheezing, and transitory skin rashes.  In fact, my colleague shared that within a few days of getting a real tree, she broke out in a full-body rash that required medication.  On top of that, her cat developed asthma and had to get medical attention, too.  Once she got rid of the tree, the symptoms went away.  Indeed, this study reports that household cats share environmental exposures to aeroallergens with humans.  They can spontaneously develop airway inflammation similar to human allergic asthma.

Thus, even an organic Christmas tree may not be a fully non-toxic Christmas tree.

Non-toxic Christmas tree. A picture of a cat looking at a safe Christmas tree.

Renting a living Christmas tree seemed like a good idea.

Once, looking for a safe Christmas tree for my family, I came across The Living Christmas Tree company.  The idea of renting and returning a real tree seemed very clever to me, even though you cannot really pick your own tree.  You just rely on what they bring you.  Hence, there is always a dash of surprise and anticipation involved.  So, we did that for three years in a row.

The first year was good (see pictures below).  The workers showed up on time and hauled the tree up the stairs into our home.  They placed it in a watertight container on the drip pan my husband had set up earlier.  Despite a flat spot in the tree, we liked the fact that it would not end up as firewood or in a landfill in a month.

The second year was a bit different.  At first, the tree looked fine, but then it got dry and lost many needles.  Putting ice cubes in it every other day per the instructions did not appear helpful.   

The third time was even worse – the tree lost what seemed like most of its needles.  This time, too, we emptied an ice tray every other day into the bucket in which the tree sat.  Later we learned that true pines need cold winters to thrive.  It simply could not make it in our warm home. In sum, our living Christmas tree experience turned out to be pricey and not very successful.  

A living Christmas tree. A picture of a pine in a pot as an option for a non-toxic Christmas tree.

An artificial tree made of PVC is not a non-toxic Christmas tree.

When a real tree is out of the question, we turn to artificial fir trees.  Can an artificial tree be a good option for a safe Christmas tree? 

To start, conventional artificial trees are normally made of polyvinyl chloride (PVC).  This type of plastic is made of vinyl chloride that is associated with an increased risk of cancer (source).  Also, PVC may contain lead (linked to neurotoxicity and cancer) and phthalates (linked to hormone disruption and cancer) (source).  In fact, the state of California requires that trees with PVC carry a warning label regarding lead.

Additionally, there is a possibility that an artificial fir Christmas tree may contain flame retardant chemicals.  In humans, halogenated fire-retardant chemicals are linked to:

  • infertility,
  • thyroid disruption,
  • oxidative DNA stress,
  • reduced IQ (similar to lead poisoning),
  • adverse effects on the immune system,
  • and, possibly, cancer (source). 

Importantly, there is an indication that antimony, found in flame retardants, might cause cancer in occupational settings (source).  Consider reading this Proposition 65 Fact Sheet about how to reduce your exposure to antimony trioxide.  Some measures are as simple as mopping, dusting, and handwashing.  Finally, learn more about flame retardants in my free blogpost TB 117-2013: What Does It Mean for You?.

So, neither a real tree nor a PVC tree seems to be a good option for a non-toxic Christmas tree.  What other options do we have?

Non-toxic Christmas tree. A picture of PVC made Christmas tree foliage.

Polyethylene and polypropylene are safer materials than PVC.

As you can tell, it is best to look for a PVC- free Christmas tree.  And instead of relying on the manufacturer’s claims, I suggest contacting the company and asking them directly.  Surprisingly, the information in the product description may not always coincide with what the manufacturer will tell you.  In my experience, this is particularly true about product descriptions on Amazon.  Therefore, it is always a good idea to confirm.

So, is a PVC-free tree a safe Christmas tree?  As I mentioned before, the concept of safety is relative and has a lot to do with comparison. 

Thus, artificial Christmas trees that are PVC-free are normally made of polypropylene (PP) or polyethylene (PE).  As compared to PVC, these are safer plastic types.  However, there is no guarantee that PP and PE trees will be free of lead and flame retardants.

If you already own an artificial fir Christmas tree, you can find out if it is lead-free by contacting Tamara Rubin of Lead Safe Mama.  She tests artificial Christmas trees for lead with XMF equipment that shows the total amount of lead in a tree.  As for the flame retardants, it is a good idea to contact the manufacturer and ask them for this information.

Actually, it is quite easy to differentiate between polyethylene (PE) foliage and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) foliage.  Most websites selling Christmas trees describe the PVC trees as “traditional” or “classic,” and the PE ones as “realistic” or “most realistic.”  Compare the pictures below.

Closer to non-toxic Christmas tree options

Costa Farms Live Indoor Christmas Tree Costa Farms Live Charlie Brown Christmas Tree  A good real tree option for a safe Christmas tree is Norfolk Island pine, native to the South Pacific.  This tropical plant looks like a true pine and thrives in warm temperatures.  It can grow indoors all year round and can be as tall as 200 feet.
Balsam Hill Most Realistic Artificial Christmas TreesIn personal correspondence, Balsam Hill told me the following: “Our trees can range from all-PVC (“Traditional” trees) to 100% PE/True Needle (“Most Realistic” trees).  A 100% PE tree does still have PVC wrapping on the inner trunk and/or the very top of the tree, which is removable and for aesthetics only; as such, it is technically composed of 99.999999% PE, but we round it up to 100%.”  They use antimony trioxide as a flame retardant (read about the precautions here).
IKEA’s TreesIt looks like they sell in local IKEA stores rather than online.  For example, Vinter 2021 Tree is described as made of “polyethylene, steel, polypropylene, PET plastic.”
Treetime Most Realistic Christmas TreesThey describe their most realistic trees as made of PE 65%+.  Remember, it is always a good idea to call and confirm.
Treetopia Realistic Christmas TreesTheir website says that realistic trees are made with “lifelike needles molded from PE to make them appear just like the real thing.”  Please, contact the company to ask about the percentage of PE in the tree of your interest.
Non-toxic Christmas tree. A picture of safe Christmas tree options.

You can reduce exposure to real tree and artificial tree toxic chemicals.

As it happens, there are no clear-cut answers as far as a non-toxic Christmas tree is concerned.  The closest we have come to having a safe Christmas tree is by decorating a pine tree in our yard.  Of course, the downside is that we cannot enjoy its beauty while we are inside, which is most of the time in winter.  On the plus side, there are no potential allergens in the house, and the tree is there year after year.   

Regardless of the tree you decide to go with – real or artificial – here are some ways to reduce your exposure to allergens and potentially harmful chemicals:   

  • Do not let kids touch the tree.  
  • Do not handle the tree if you are pregnant.
  • Wear gloves when setting it up and decorating. 
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after handling.
  • After setting the tree up, clean the area thoroughly with a damp mop or a HEPA filter vacuum.

I would like to emphasize the importance of cleaning and washing your hands.  In fact, this article describes a study that reported a significant decrease in the levels of flame retardants in the urine of women after increased cleaning and handwashing. 

In addition, an air purifier can work for both real and artificial trees and help improve your air quality.  To choose the right one, please read our free Comprehensive Guide to Mobile Air Purifiers.  You can also read their descriptions in our shop.  If you still find it overwhelming, consider booking a personal consultation.

Summary of your safe Christmas tree options

To sum up, there seem to be drawbacks at every turn – be it a real tree or an artificial one.  Bottom line, when shopping for a non-toxic Christmas tree, look for the one that is PVC- and lead-free and not treated with flame retardants.  However, know that you might not find a tree that meets all three criteria.

To reiterate, there is no 100% safe Christmas tree in absolute terms.  Thus, real trees may contain allergens and even trigger asthma in both humans and pets.  And artificial fir trees may contain potentially harmful chemicals, including flame retardants.  Yet, PVC-free artificial trees, usually made of polyethylene (PE) or polypropylene (PP), seem a safer option than PVC trees.

Rightfully so, Christmas without a tree seems dull, to say the least.  We need a tree to create the holiday season ambiance and, plainly, have fun.  Therefore, the goal of this post was not to spook you.  On the contrary!  The goal was to educate you.  Now, you have all the information you need to find what works best for you.  Although your choice might not be ideal, it is okay – life is not perfect.

Besides, those potentially toxic chemicals that may be in your house do not have to end up in your body.  There are things you can do to prevent that from happening (e.g., use an air purifier).

If you have any experience to share, please tell us in the comments – we would love to hear from you. 

44 thoughts on “Best Non-Toxic Christmas Tree Options”

    1. Luckily, there are options for lead-free Christmas lights. Lead is in chandeliers too. That would be a good topic for another post.

  1. All Natural Katie

    Great post! I have always wanted to have a living Christmas tree to bring it inside for the holidays, then place it back outside. I would probably have to put it in a decorated pot and it would probably have to be smaller in size as my husband and I would be the ones bringing it inside.

    For the past couple of years, we have been shopping at a local nursery (1 mile away) to our live Christmas tree. Yes, it does cost more than at a Lowe’s or Home Depot, but they trees always look better, smell better and last longer.

    Our neighborhood picks up the trees and mulches them. I would throw it in our compost pile, but evergreen trees take a lot longer to decompose.

    Maybe next year, I will start a tradition with a smaller living tree.

  2. lovely idea! do you know if they spray the trees with any insecticides. I LOVE this idea it it was available here. Merry Christmas

    1. They assured me that they do not spray with any insecticides and the trees are organic. The downside is you may get a few extra bugs in your house, which I personally do not mind. 🙂

  3. We have had a real living christmas tree the last couple of years.. It didn’t cost us much to buy and gets planted every year after christmas in our garden and dug out again the next christmas. It is not big but i feel better about having a living tree in the house, I can reuse it every year and it is cheap. May be worth considering over hiring a tree in a pot?

  4. I have a live Christmas tree. It is on the small side, but has pretty needles. I put it up on a stool and drape the bottom so it still looks quite festive and above eye level.

    This is my 4th. Each one gets used 3 Christmases and then planted so the price is about similar to buying a cut one. I keep it inside for just 1 week though, then it goes back outside, preferably in part shade because of how dry and hot it gets in the summer in San Rafael. One died before I could plant it but a bird had made a nest in it, so it was cool that it got to be used in that way. This one is on its third year and has lost its top, so we will have to be creative. It requires some loving care all year and that’s kind of nice too. I have to find someone to plant it at higher altitude, not in the Bay Area. My other trees were planted by a friend in San Leandro.

  5. Isn’t it rather good for the carbon footprint to cut down a living tree? Especially since they will only get planted for the Christmas industry…lots of young trees grow (which are able to absorb more carbon than old trees) get cut down for Christmas and then end in compost. For years I thought I’m doing at least no damage environmentally by buying an organic tree and put in in compost after?

  6. Do you know If there been any breakthroughs with an “eco friendly tree” since you wrote this article? For the past few years we have had a wooden driftwood tree but it is very small and my 3 little boys would love a “proper” Christmas tree this year.. I just can’t stand the thought of bringing all those chemicals into the house.

    1. I am also interested in updated info on Christmas trees! Had a severe reaction a couple years ago to an artificial tree made with PVC

  7. Another few options would be to buy a living pine tree from a nursery and then if you have no place to plant it after Christmas (you live in an apt or have a smaller yard) you can donate it to a group that plants trees in your area (if you have one). Like here in Fresno we have a group called Tree Fresno who go around planting trees in public parks, school yards, & along streets. Or perhaps a friend with a larger yard would like it? Or another option is to get a living Norfolk Island pine which is a tropical plant (not technically a true pine) that can be grown indoors year round. Starting with a small one is very inexpensive & each year your tree will be a little bit bigger giving you more to decorate. Also, part of the reason your rented trees may have struggled is because true pines need the cold winters & so don’t do well in our warm homes for long. True pines should only be kept indoors for a week (or maybe two) tops.

    1. Hi, Kayleigh! It is so nice to hear from you. I hope you are making a good progress with your health. Thank you so much for these helpful suggestions. I did a search and found this Norfork Island pine, which looks quite attractive. Thank you! ~Irina

  8. I buy a cut tree and then hose it off really well in the back yard before bringing it inside (after letting it dry for a few hours). Do you think that will remove the pesticides and herbicides? I haven’t found a single bug in my house since I started hosing off my trees before bringing them in! I also buy my trees from stores that don’t store them on parking lots with nasty oil and transmission fluid stains.

    1. It sounds like the right thing to do. I think it removes some pesticides and herbicides off it. Probably not all of them though. Thank you for sharing, Dusan. ~Irina

    1. Same! Would like a recommendation please!! Anyone? I can’t find a PVC and one that doesn’t have flame retardant. Thanks!

      1. Ikea’s trees are made of polyethylene and polypropylene. I have read they also are free of flame retardants, but have not received confirmation of that from Ikea. They are very sparse trees, though. I would really love one that is fuller looking.

    1. Thank you for asking this question, Sandy. I understand IKEA carries some PVC-free trees but you have to confirm that with them. ~Irina

  9. HI. I’m loving this discussion and it’s exactly the reason why i’ve been creating the Conscious Christmas tree for the last almost 4 years. For me, the biggest point after PVC (which is super scary) and the fact that they contain an array of inappropriate chemical additives, is the fact that all current artificial Christmas trees are NOT recyclable. Even if you keep them for 20 years + they will still end up in landfill or in an incinerator. If you think that between 15 and 18 million are sold every year in the USA alone that’s a lot of waste!

    The Conscious Christmas tree will be fully recyclable and won’t contain any PVC or harsh chemicals like halogenated Fire retardants. We believe we’ve found an antimony free, halogen free and organohalogen free fire retardant and are shortly beginning trials! The tree is modular so if a piece breaks you can easily repair the tree. My hope is that this tree will never need to be thrown away! (my website is off line at the moment – it’s getting a long over due revamp!)

    The trees will be made firstly in the UK and I won’t be shipping to the USA yet, unfortunately. However, during the next years we hope to bring proudction to the US to serve the US market. We understand that people are becoming more consicous about products they buy and we have to support that.

    I love your blog and often see your posts on IG. Thank you for all that you do in raising awareness and supporting people on their journey to a healthy non-toxic lifestyle. Best wishes, Hayley

    1. That sounds amazing yes please keep in touch!! I look forward to their US arrival! I wish/ hope more companies in the US would get down with non- toxic living!

  10. Those should be “RoHS compliant” products, European standards. I bought mine years ago at “Environmental Lights”, but they discontinued.

  11. Thank you for the information. Sadly, the more I learn about our options for choosing a Christmas tree, the more I realize that I am dealing with an “inconvenient truth”: This wonderful custom that I have enjoyed since childhood may have some very bad unintended consequences.

  12. I know this is an old post but thought it was important to share that I just called balsam hill (nov 2020) and they said all of their trees now contain antimony trioxide. So sad!

      1. I know, total bummer!! I’m trying to find out now if west elm’s cashmere tree is free of flame retardants, but am getting mixed answers from their customer service. Will keep you posted as it may be interesting for your readers.

        Love your site!!

      2. Wanted to share… I ended up ordering the cashmere tree from West Elm (they assured me no pvc or flame retardants) but it came and clearly has pvc and glitter so it’s going back!

        I found one from home depot that says 100% Pe but says it’s flame resistant… but their customer service says it doesn’t have flame retardants and no prop 65 warning … fingers crossed it’s actually all pe.. may order and let you know what I t

    1. what a shame! Antimony trioxide is a cheap and effective fire retardant, I guess that’s why it’s used most in the artificial Christmas tree industry. It took me two years and a lot of resources to find and test a good fire retardant that was halogen and antimony free. Downside is, its way more expensive, but I never set off on this journey to make any compromises with the peoples health.

      Thanks to Irinas insights I believe more and more people are realizing new ways how they can have a healthy home environment.
      Best wishes and merry Christmas 🎄
      Hayley Burke
      Founder Conscious Christmas Tree

  13. Do you know if Christmas lights made with polyethylene are lead-free? Target sells a lot of Phillips lights that I noticed don’t have PVC, but I can’t figure out if that means they are lead-free or at the very least low-lead (under 100ppm).

    1. Hi, Allie: Polyethelene lights are certainly safer than PVC but that does not mean that they are lead-free or lead-safe. ~Irina

      1. Thank you. Where would lead be contained in lights made of polyethylene? I know with PVC lead is a component contained within it, so lead can be on the surface with those lights. Curious about Polyethylene lights though.

        1. Hi, Allie: Polyethylene does not have the same heavy metal concerns as PVC. However, heavy metals can be in the paint, too. ~Irina

  14. Hi Irina, I have found this information recently. I just bought an ikea tree that has : Polyethylene, Steel, Polypropylene. It is still in the box. I’m concerned about opening it and keeping it though since I found this article on Polyethylene. What are your thoughts? (The article is on the Naturalpedia.)

    “Polyethylene, one of the most widely produced plastic in the world, is a thermoplastic polymer that has a variable crystalline structure. It is commonly used in cosmetics and personal care products, food packaging materials, and medical devices.

    Polyethylene may cause slight skin irritation, asthma, and even cancer.

    Polyethylene, if inhaled, may cause proximal scleroderma, Raynaud phenomenon, joint involvement, pulmonary manifestation, and esophageal involvement in some people.

    Polyethylene may be toxic to the integumentary system, respiratory system, immune system, skeletal system, and muscular system.”

    1. Hello, Julie! Thank you for reading our post! In a word, there is no safe Christmas tree in absolute terms – even real trees may trigger allergies in some people and pets. As for artificial trees, some materials are “better” than others, e.g., polyethylene would be “better” than polyvinyl chloride (PVC). One of the ways for you to have peace of mind and enjoy Christmas with a tree is to run an air purifier in the area where the tree is set. Check out our post about air purifiers: https://ireadlabelsforyou.com/mobile-air-purifiers-guide/ If you feel like having a personal consultation regarding Christmas trees, air purifiers or any other healthy-living subject, Irina will be happy to help you: https://ireadlabelsforyou.com/services/consultations/

  15. I got a Balsam Hill Christmas tree a few years ago. I have been very happy with the purchase.
    For me, the smell of a live tree can trigger a migraine. I am interested in safe lights. I think Rohl lights were rated well. Still gathering information on Rohl lights.

    1. Hello, Elle! Have you tried the other brands listed in the table in the post? Balsam Hill, Treetopia, and Treetime? The other day I thought I saw a PE tree in Hobby Lobby. There may be something in At Home store chain, too.

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