There seem to be a lot of devices that help improve the quality of the air inside our home, which makes sense considering that pollution levels are now at an all-time high. Humidifiers and air purifiers are two such devices and, while they’re both aimed at improving air quality, they actually perform very different roles.
Someone who needs an air purifier won’t get much use out of the humidifier (and vice-versa), so let’s talk a little bit about what each of them does.
What Are They?
Air purifiers are units designed to cleanse indoor air from several types of contaminants using mechanisms and filters that are more or less efficient for certain types of airborne contaminants. Basically, these machines will draw in polluted air from your room, pass it through a series of filters, and release it back into the room once it’s cleaner.
They are typically efficient in removing allergens, dust mites and particles, smoke odors, pet dander, allergens, and more. Some of the best models have HEPA filters (a type of filter that’s famous for being able to trap even the smallest of contaminants, being 99.97 percent in trapping them on its surface).
What Types Are Available?
Air purification systems can be portable or whole-house. A portable unit is better for some people because it’s most cost-friendly and focused on purifying one room inside the house. Whole-house systems, on the other hand, can handle larger air volumes and are recommended for homes with a lot of airborne contaminants.
Air purifiers are usually divided into categories based on their air cleaning functions or the filters that one can find inside them:
- Purifiers with HEPA filters are common and recommended, as a true HEPA filter is considered to be the best option out there for trapping contaminants that are as small as 0.3 microns.
- Air purifiers with carbon filtration use activated carbon to trap VOCs, chemicals, odors, and gases. Their goal is to reduce toxic air substances and keep the home smelling fresh.
- Purifiers with negative ionization will emit charged ions in the air which latch on contaminants, adding to their weight and changing their structure. This way, the airborne contaminants are easily captured by the filters inside the purifier.
- UV purifiers use this special light to destroy the DNA structure of airborne contaminants.
What Are the Health Implications?
Generally speaking, air purifiers are good for your health as long as you choose a product that’s right for you. Otherwise, you might end up feeling some discomfort, with some people claiming that the wrong purifier can cause health issues.
What this statement actually refers to is the controversial purifier known as an ozone generator. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, ozone has chemical properties that allow it to bind with organic materials inside your body (since air purifiers based on this technology are designed to react with organic material inside the room).
Simply put, inhaling ozone can be damaging for the lungs. Even lower amounts can potentially lead to shortness of breath, irritated throats, and even chest pain. It can worsen conditions such as asthma and stands in the way of the body’s capacity of fighting off respiratory infections.
Be very skeptical about marketing claims that imply an ozone generator releases some type of healthy purified air. The reality is that ozone is a toxic gas. Scientifically speaking, an ozone is a molecule that consists of three oxygen atoms: two of them are needed to form an oxygen molecule, while the third one can detach and bind to all kinds of organisms, modifying their chemical structure.
A very important thing to mention at this point is that the ozone generators available on the market don’t usually exceed the maximum recommended ozone that a person can breathe. However, testing has also revealed the fact that this particular type of air purifier is less effective compared to one that uses a HEPA filter. Long story short, don’t fall for ozone generators that promise to destroy airborne contaminants because evidence shows that is simply not true.
Who Are They For?
Air purifiers are design to cleanse the air inside the house, making them for suitable for:
- Those who have pets. One of the biggest upsides of using an air purifier is the fact it can remove pet dander and make air easier to breathe, especially if you’re allergic to pet hair.
- Those with respiratory conditions. Both air purifiers and humidifiers can help alleviate symptoms of asthma or other respiratory problems, even if they fulfill different roles.
- Those who smoke/cook often. It is a well-known fact that air purifiers can reduce smell and odors inside the room, especially those related to cigarette smoke or smoke as a byproduct of cooking.
- Those that live in polluted areas. As much as we try, it is impossible to always stop outdoor pollution from entering our homes. That would literally mean never opening the windows and entrance doors. An air purifier can reduce the chances of polluted air coming from outside lingering in your home. It works if you live next to high-traffic roads too.
What Are They?
Humidifiers are units that are designed to increase the air humidity inside your home. According to experts, the best humidity levels are between 40 and 60 percent, with anything below that being considered dry air, and everything above that being highly humid. That means that humidifiers are suitable in homes where air humidity is below 40 percent.
Unlike air filters, humidifiers don’t actually clean the air. Instead, they have a reservoir that needs to be constantly filled with water in order for the unit to release the mist that increases the humidity in the air. If you already have high humidity in your home, humidifiers will raise it up to a paint where mold growth is encouraged, and that’s something you want to avoid.
What Types Are Available?
There are five main types of air purifiers, each with different modes of operation and suitable for different types of budgets:
- Central humidifiers are part of your home’s air conditioning systems or heating units. They are the most expensive category but they are also the most efficient when you have to raise the humidity in your entire house. Since they don’t work by emitting steam, there are no potential burn risks.
- Evaporators have an integrated moisture filter and fans that blow out the humid air from inside the unit. They are more affordable compared to central humidifiers, but they can’t be used in multiple rooms simultaneously. It is believed that these units expel too much moisture in the air, which can be threatening to people who suffer from asthma.
- Impeller humidifiers have high-speed rotating disks. They are child-friendly devices because they emit cool mists, so there are no chances of warm mist buns. They will only work in one room at a time and can also be problematic for people with breathing problems if they are used too often.
- Steam vaporizers use the power of electricity to heat up the water in the reservoir, and then cool it before releasing it into the room. They are portable and quite inexpensive, and could easily be found at your local drugstore. However, since the unit heats up, it poses a burn risk for children that are still exploring and won’t stay away from it.
- Ultrasonic humidifiers use ultrasonic vibrations to create a cool mist. They are available in multiple sizes, so it’s likely that you will find one for the room you’re interested in. Ultrasonic humidifiers are available in warm and cool mist versions (with cool mist humidifiers being recommended if you have children).
What Are the Health Implications?
There are two potential risks that we have to talk about when reviewing humidifiers as a whole: having too much humidity in the air and not cleaning the units properly. When you use a humidifier for extended periods of time, chances are you might exceed the recommended air moisture threshold.
So, what happens when there is too much humidity in the house?
- It favorizes the growth of mildew and mold. These fungi thrive in environments with high humidity, so if you ever see grey patches forming on tiles or shower curtains, that’s mildew. Mold appears in the form of black or dark green spots that can go deep in the building materials of your house. Mildew can weaken the structure of materials, while mold can trigger asthma attacks and causes a bunch of health problems.
- It can cause furniture to rot. Even with the best coating, it’s best if you avoid exposing wooden structures and objects to high humidity levels. High air moisture can cause furniture decay, can damage hardwood floors, and weaken wooden fittings.
- It can cause wallpaper to peel. Furthermore, it can also lead to artwork damage and even causes paint to crack.
Another problem worth addressing when it comes to humidifiers focuses specifically on cool mist models. We all know that hot water kills bacteria, but these usually thrive in colder humid environments, which is why a cool mist humidifier requires weekly cleaning.
Failing to do so can cause mold and bacteria formations in the water tank or in other parts of the humidifier, eventually leading to their release in the air inside the room. Humidifiers are great if the water inside the tank is sterile, but if that still water is exposed to bacteria growth, we’re dealing with a serious health threat.
If the humidifier is not cleaned on a regular basis, it will start to distribute pathogens that, once inhaled, can lead to a series of infections and respiratory diseases. When released in the air, these pathogens seek warm places to reside, making your sinus cavities the perfect places to do so.
Who Are They For?
Humidifiers are meant to solve the problem of dry air inside your home. The benefits that come from using such a device are basically related to the downsides of living in a dry air environment, making humidifiers suitable for:
- Those who have respiratory issues. People who have bronchitis, asthma, or other respiratory problems and like in low humidity environments will have their bronchial tubes less hydrated, leaving airways open to irritation.
- Those with irritated eyes. When you spend too much time in an environment with low humidity, dry air can affect the tear film that protects your eyes, leaving your cornea more exposed to damage.
- Those with a sore throat. This doesn’t just have to be a consequence of having the flu, so if you ever woke up in the middle of the night with a sore throat and found it difficult to swallow, it could just be a symptom of having dry indoor air. If the problem isn’t fixed, it can lead to throat inflammation.
- Those with dry skin. Researchers have discovered that people who live in dry air environments are likely to have rough and dry skin. This causes the skin to be less elastic and weakens the skin’s barrier function. As a consequence, coming in contact with irritants and allergens produces faster damage to the skin.
- Those who often feel dehydrated. Another consequence of living in a home with dry air is quick depletion of your body’s fluids. That’s another situation where a humidifier can help you a lot.
Since we’re talking about two devices that perform very different tasks, it’s impossible for us to say which is better for you. Consider the problem that you’re trying to solve and think about whether or not a humidifier or an air purifier has the technology and mechanisms necessary to help you deal with the issue. Air purifiers are oriented at helping one get rid of as many airborne contaminants as possible, while humidifiers are meant to add moisture to the air and prevent problems that are usually present in dry-air environments.