Museum Air Can Make You Feel Better. Here's How To Get It At Home.

On a record-cold day this January, the line for the coat check at the Metropolitan Museum of Art snaked around the grand entryway, past ancient statues and freshly-made bouquets. Outside, it was 5 degrees Fahrenheit and the walk from the train had left my skin as stiff as a Madame Tussauds wax figure. But inside the sprawling New York City museum, the air felt like silk.

For weeks, I’d been suffering from a pernicious case of viral bronchitis. With no clear remedy (viruses are unresponsive to antibiotics), I’d slowly come to accept my new reality. I needed naps to get through the day. A dry cough announced my presence before I’d even entered the room. My head felt like a dormant tree whose sap had stopped circulating, or a river stoppered up with ice.

But somewhere between King Tut’s floral collar and a Mughal tiger claw necklace, my face turned on like a faucet. My lungs stopped rattling and began forcing mucous to the back of my throat. I was thoroughly disgusting—and absolutely thrilled. “Wintertime sickness pro tip: Don't pay money for a humidifier,” I tweeted later that afternoon. “Instead, go to the Met, which is always the perfect humidity, and let your nose drain on an Etruscan statue or Persian carpet.”

This was, of course, a very good joke. But some casual reading about museum science—and our dependence on humidity to remain healthy humans—led me to contemplate seriously if what’s good for art really was good for me.

I first turned to Dr. Marc Gibber, a physician in the Montefiore Health System in the Bronx. An ear nose and throat specialist, he’s used to hearing complaints about bodily secretions. He told me the winter plague I was experiencing was, unfortunately, quite normal—and that finding relief in a museum made reasonable sense. “The airway is very prone to getting dried out, which essentially creates a stickiness,” he told me. The same is true for other hygroscopic surfaces, which absorb water from the air, like our skin.

Doctor’s visits for dryness shoot up each winter. While a New York City summer can see upwards of 80 percent humidity, when I called Gibber in January, it was just 45 percent. But the real problem is indoor heating. Turning the furnace up effectively pushes the relative humidity down—sometimes as low as 10 percent. And because it’s cold outside, people tend to hunker down inside these arid artificial climes all day and all night.

That’s why people smarter than me invest in humidifiers for their homes. “What the humidifier essentially is doing is softening the mucous,” Gibber says. While dry air allows irritants like pollen, mold, and dust to crystalize in your nasal cavity, artificial humidity keeps things moving. Most humans thrive at a relative humidity of 45 percent. Anything lower, and you feel like a bag of vacuum-sealed space food. Anything higher, and you promote microbial growth.

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Museum air can make you feel better. Here's how to get it at home.
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Museum air can make you feel better. Here's how to get it at home.