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Air Purifier and Humidifier: Which One Is Right for You?

Marion Sereti

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May 29, 2023
CoughPro is not a medical product. It is a wellness app intended only for users to obtain a better understanding of their cough. It is not intended to diagnose, monitor, or treat any illness.

We at Hyfe, Inc., are a company devoted to working on tools to better understand the importance of cough. It is Hyfe’s intention in the future to seek regulatory approval for medical products that analyze cough in order that they may be used to diagnose, monitor, and facilitate better treatment of respiratory illnesses.

An air purifier in a room with a plant

Reducing or eliminating the sources of pollutants and ventilating with fresh outdoor air are the most efficient strategies to improve indoor air quality. Additionally, studies indicate that filtration can be a valuable adjunct to source management and ventilation((Vijayan, V., Paramesh, H., Salvi, S., & Dalal, A. K. (2015). Enhancing indoor air quality –The air filter advantage. Lung India, 32(5), 473) https://doi.org/10.4103/0970-2113.164174)). This is when an air purifier and humidifier come into play.

Air purifiers and humidifiers each have a designated purpose and their advantages and benefits. So, let's talk about each of their functions to gain a better understanding.

An air purifier is a device that assists in removing pollutants from the air, including smoke, pollen, pet hair, dust, and pollen. They use filters such as HEPA or activated carbon filters to absorb and trap these particles. 

A humidifier adds moisture to the air to raise the humidity level. It releases water vapor using a water reservoir and a system such as an evaporative wick or ultrasonic technology.

Differences Between Air Purifiers and Humidifiers

Now that you know the basics of how each device works, let's explore the main differences between air purifiers and humidifiers:

  • Intended purpose – Air purifiers are made specifically to clean the air and eliminate different pollutants like smoke, dust, and more, while humidifiers are made to put moisture in the air.
  • Maintenance – Routine air purifier maintenance usually needs filter changes every six to 12 months. Humidifiers, however, require more frequent upkeep, such as adding water to the device and routine cleaning to stop the spread of bacteria and mold.
  • Coverage – In comparison to humidifiers, air purifiers often have a larger coverage area. The size of the device you use will determine how large a room it can cover.
  • Cost – Air purifiers tend to cost more, with models that Consumer Reports recommends ranging from $200 to $900 plus regular filter changes((Santanachote, P. (2019). Air Purifiers and the Cost of Clean Air. Consumer Reports. Retrieved 27th April 2023 from https://www.consumerreports.org/air-purifiers/air-purifiers-and-the-cost-of-clean-air-a6152505326/)). Humidifers, on the other hand, specifically models also recommended by Consumer Reports, begin at around $80((Stanger, T. & Bortz, D. (2023). Best Humidifers of 2023. Consumer Reports. Retrieved 27th April 2023 from https://www.consumerreports.org/appliances/humidifiers/best-humidifiers-of-the-year-a1138350061/)).

Similarities Between Air Purifiers and Humidifiers

While air purifiers and humidifiers have different functions, they share some similarities. In broad terms, both offer:

  • Health benefits for individuals with allergies, respiratory conditions, and dry skin issues, as well as babies, children, and people living in dry climates or during winter
  • Indoor air quality improvement
  • Home comfort 
  • Complimentary use in creating a healthy and comfortable indoor environment

Who Should Use Air Purifiers and Humidifiers

Certain groups of people should particularly consider using an air purifier or humidifier, as highlighted below:

  • Individuals with allergies or respiratory conditions – Health considerations are among the top factors when deciding to use these devices. An air purifier may help lessen the triggers for respiratory disorders, allergies, or sensitivity to airborne contaminants in you or any household members. A humidifier, on the other hand, might aid with symptoms of discomfort brought on by dry air, such as dry skin, a dry throat, or cracked lips.
  • People living in polluted or smoky areas – In these cases, you must consider your indoor air quality needs. An air purifier would be a good option because your primary concern is removing airborne pollutants like dust, pollen, pet dander, or smoke. 
  • Those with dry skin or respiratory discomfort – A humidifier would be more suitable if you are concerned about providing moisture to the dry indoor air.
  • Children and elderly persons – Due to their immature or compromised immune systems, babies, young children, and older adults are frequently more susceptible to respiratory problems and dry skin. For example, babies often battle coughing illnesses like croup and dry, stuffy noses. Humidifiers or air purifiers can provide a healthier indoor climate for these age groups.
  • Individuals in dry climates or during the winter months – When or if you choose a humidifier or air purifier, your choice may be influenced by the climate and season of your location. A humidifier might be more practical in dry locations or in winter when central heating can make the air too dry. An air purifier may be essential to improve interior air quality in places with significant outside air pollution.
  • Those looking for overall wellness – Even for those without any particular health issues, air purifiers and humidifiers can help with overall wellness by cultivating a healthier indoor atmosphere, enhancing sleep quality, and lowering the risk of respiratory discomfort or skin problems by dry or poor indoor air quality.

Benefits of Air Purifiers and Humidifiers

Although not all research is consistent, air purifiers, particularly those with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, have been shown in some studies to have several health benefits, which include reducing particulate matter in the air((Dubey, S., Rohra, H., & Taneja, A. (2021). Assessing effectiveness of air purifiers (HEPA) for controlling indoor particulate pollution. Heliyon, 7(9), e07976. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.heliyon.2021.e07976)), decreasing systemic inflammation and blood pressure((Kelly, F. J., & Fussell, J. C. (2019). Improving indoor air quality, health and performance within environments where people live, travel, learn and work. Atmospheric Environment, 200, 90–109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosenv.2018.11.058)), improving lung function, and providing cardiovascular benefits((Chen, R., Zhao, A., Chen, H., Zhao, Z., Cai, J., Wang, C., Yang, C., Li, H., Xu, X., Ha, S., Li, T., & Kan, H. (2015). Cardiopulmonary Benefits of Reducing Indoor Particles of Outdoor Origin. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 65(21), 2279–2287. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jacc.2015.03.553)).

To this extent, air purifiers have been proven to be effective in the following ways:

  • Removing pollutants and allergens from the air – particularly air purifiers with sufficient CADR (Clean Air Delivery Rate) can reduce indoor PM2.5 (smaller particles) by 50% or more((Environmental Protection Agency (2018). Residential Air Cleaners: A Technical Summary. EPA 402-F-09-002. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 19th April 2023 from https://19january2021snapshot.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/publications-about-indoor-air-quality_.html)). This helps you by:
    • Reducing symptoms of allergies and asthma by reducing the number of allergens in indoor air((Efficacy of air purifier therapy in allergic rhinitis. (2018). Asian Pacific Journal of Allergy and Immunology, 36(4), 217-221. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29549698/))
    • Minimizing COPD symptoms and other respiratory issues((Hansel, N. N., Putcha, N., Woo, H., Peng, R., Diette, G. B., Fawzy, A., Wise, R. A., Romero, K., Davis, M. F., Rule, A. M., Eakin, M. N., Breysse, P. N., McCormack, M. C., & Koehler, K. (2022). Randomized Clinical Trial of Air Cleaners to Improve Indoor Air Quality and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Health: Results of the CLEAN AIR Study. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 205(4), 421–430. https://doi.org/10.1164/rccm.202103-0604oc))
    • Lowering the presence of harmful microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses, which may reduce the risk of infections, particularly for individuals with weakened immune systems((Hammond, A., Khalid, T., Thornton, H. V., Woodall, C. A., & Hay, A. D. (2021). Should homes and workplaces purchase portable air filters to reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory infections? A systematic review. PLOS ONE, 16(4), e0251049. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0251049))
  • Reduce airborne particles containing viruses(e.g., SARS-CoV-2) – Some air purifiers have reported particle removal efficiencies of up to 99.9% for particles as small as 0.1 microns and recent studies in 2022 have shown the successful reduction of airborne SARS-CoV-2 concentrations in hospitals using combined air filtration and UV sterilization techniques((Conway Morris, A., Sharrocks, K., Bousfield, R., Kermack, L., Maes, M., Higginson, E., Forrest, S., Pereira-Dias, J., Cormie, C., Old, T., Brooks, S., Hamed, I., Koenig, A., Turner, A., White, P., Floto, R. A., Dougan, G., Gkrania-Klotsas, E., Gouliouris, T., Baker, S., & Navapurkar, V. (2021). The Removal of Airborne Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and Other Microbial Bioaerosols by Air Filtration on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Surge Units. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 75(1), e97–e101. https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciab933))
  • Improving mental health – Increasing indoor air quality by reducing exposure to pollutants and allergens can also benefit mental health as indoor air pollution has been associated with triggering symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. Thus, air purifiers may improve mental health outcomes by creating a healthier indoor environment((Newbury, J., Stewart, R., Fisher, H., Beevers, S., Dajnak, D., Broadbent, M., . . . Bakolis, I. (2021). Association between air pollution exposure and mental health service use among individuals with first presentations of psychotic and mood disorders: Retrospective cohort study. The British Journal of Psychiatry, 219(6), 678-685. doi:10.1192/bjp.2021.119)).

However, the effectiveness of an air purifier in purifying a room depends on various factors, including selecting the suitable model based on the size of the room, ensuring the filter is designed to target the specific contaminants present, regularly changing the filters, and considering the ventilation of the room.

Humidifiers have been proven effective in the following ways:

  • Reducing the spread of the flu – A 2013 study concluded that maintaining indoor humidity levels above 43% lowered the infectivity rate of the influenza virus((Noti, J. D., Blachere, F. M., McMillen, C. M., Lindsley, W. G., Kashon, M. L., Slaughter, D. R., & Beezhold, D. H. (2013). High Humidity Leads to Loss of Infectious Influenza Virus from Simulated Coughs. PLoS ONE, 8(2), e57485. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0057485))
  • Prevent dry skin – A 2008 study in a Japanese hospital discovered that using a humidifier in the winter increased air humidity from 32.8% to 43.9%, which lead to reduced staff reports of dry and itchy skin((Hashiguchi, N., Hirakawa, M., Tochihara, Y., Kaji, Y., & Karaki, C. (2008). Effects of setting up of humidifiers on thermal conditions and subjective responses of patients and staff in a hospital during winter. Applied Ergonomics, 39(2), 158–165. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2007.05.009))
  • Relieves asthma and allergy symptoms – Increased air humidity levels soothe nasal and throat tissues((American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunonology (2020). Humidifiers and indoor allergies. Retrieved 19th April 2023 from https://www.aaaai.org/Tools-for-the-Public/Conditions-Library/Allergies/humidifiers-and-indoor-allergies)) 
  • Reducing nasal congestion by moistening nasal passages/canals – More moisture enables your nasal mucus to be more easily moved by the cilia (the little hairs in your nose), enabling congestion to be blown out
  • Improve sleep quality – Humidifiers are commonly incorporated into CPAP machines for sleep apnea patients, due to the dry air blown into the nose by the CPAP machine, which can exacerbate congestion. A 2010 study showed that using heated humidification with CPAP treatment helped alleviate symptoms of nasal congestion in sleep apnea patients((Worsnop, C. J., Miseski, S., & Rochford, P. D. (2010). Routine use of humidification with nasal continuous positive airway pressure. Internal Medicine Journal, 40(9), 650–656. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1445-5994.2009.01969.x))

The effectiveness of humidifiers is dependent on maintenance practices.

Risks Associated With Air Purifiers

Exposure to Polluted Air Due to Dirty Filters

There have been concerns that dirty or clogged air purifier filters may increase indoor air pollution rather than reduce it. If the filter is clogged, the air drawn into the cleaner might not be cleansed thoroughly and may pick up accumulated particles on the filter. Additionally, blocked and clogged filters reduce the capability of the purifier((Chan, W., Lee, S.-C., Hon, A., Liu, L., Li, D., & Zhu, N. (2015). Management learning from air purifier tests in hotels: Experiment and action research. International Journal of Hospitality Management, 44, 70–76. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhm.2014.10.007)).

Mold and Bacteria

Studies have compared particles found in household dust with those trapped in a HEPA air filter((Guo, J., Xiong, Y., Kang, T., Xiang, Z., & Qin, C. (2020). Bacterial community analysis of floor dust and HEPA filters in air purifiers used in office rooms in ILAS, Beijing. Scientific Reports, 10(1).. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-63543-1)) and others types of filter((Al-abdalall, A. H., Al-dakheel, S. A., Al-Abkari, H. A. (2020)

Impact of Air-Conditioning Filters on Microbial Growth and Indoor Air Pollution. In Morosuk, T. & Sultan, M. (Eds.), Low-temperature Technologies (pp. 179-205). INTECHOPEN LIMITED. dx.doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.88548)), and found that these trapped particles in the filters could create a conducive environment for mold and bacteria to grow and multiply if the filters are not changed regularly. In certain situations, these microorganisms may sufficiently accumulate in the filter to be released into the surrounding environment. 

Ozone Concerns

Some air purifiers use negative ions to clean the air, which is effective((Duan, M., et al.(2021). Negative Ion Purifier Effects on Indoor Particulate Dosage to Small Airways. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(1), p. 264. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19010264)). However, this process can produce ozone as a byproduct. If breathed in excessively, ozone may irritate the lungs((Environmental Protection Agency. (2022). Ozone Generators that are Sold as Air Cleaners ¦ US EPA. Retrieved 19th April 2023 from https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/ozone-generators-are-sold-air-cleaners)), reduce lung capacity, and cause them to be more susceptible to bacterial infection((Karthik L, B., Sujith, B., Rizwan A, S., & Sehgal, M. (2017). Characteristics of the Ozone Pollution and its Health Effects in India. International Journal of Medicine and Public Health, 7(1), 56–60. https://doi.org/10.5530/ijmedph.2017.1.10)). Therefore, it's crucial to be aware of this before buying an ozone-producing air purifier because it might not be appropriate for everyone.

Risks Associated With Humidifiers

Over-Humidification Leading to Mold Growth

A humidifier that releases too much moisture may dampen fabric furniture like mattresses, couches, and draperies, resulting in condensation on the walls and mold development throughout the house. Mold growing in a damp home environment has many health effects((Fisk, W. J., Lei-Gomez, Q., & Mendell, M. J. (2006). Meta-Analyses of the Associations of Respiratory Health Effectswith Dampness and Mold in Homes. Indoor air, 17(LBNL-59363). https://www.osti.gov/biblio/924852)), so humidifier use needs to be tailored to the already existing level of humidity in the air.

Health Concerns

Dirty humidifiers might encourage a ground for bacterial growth, which may result in coughs and colds((Yang, Z., Chen, L., Yang, C., Gu, Y., Cao, R., & Zhong, K. (2021). Portable ultrasonic humidifier exacerbates indoor bioaerosol risks by raising bacterial concentrations and fueling pathogenic genera. Indoor Air, 32(1),. https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12964))((U.S. CPSC. (n.d.). Dirty Humidifiers May Cause Health Problems - CPSC Publication 5046. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Retrieved 19th April 2023 from https://www.cpsc.gov/s3fs-public/5046.pdf)). Continuously topping up the humidifier’s water without cleaning it can lead to more serious respiratory conditions too, such as hypersensitivity pneumonitis((Patterson, R., Mazur, N., Roberts, M., Scarpelli, D., Semerdjian, R., & Harris, K. E. (1998). Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis Due to Humidifier Disease. Chest, 114(3), 931–933. https://doi.org/10.1378/chest.114.3.931)).

Such risks can be reduced by regularly cleaning your humidifier. However, you must be careful about the chemicals used to do so, as residual amounts left after cleaning and aerosolized may cause health issues as well((Kim, H. J., Lee, M.-S., Hong, S.-B., Huh, J. W., Do, K.-H., Jang, S. J., Lim, C.-M., Chae, E. J., Lee, H., Jung, M., Park, Y.-J., Park, J.-H., Kwon, G.-Y., Gwack, J., Youn, S.-K., Kwon, J.-W., Yang, B.-G., Jun, B.-Y., Kim, Y., … Koh, Y. (2014). A cluster of lung injury cases associated with home humidifier use: an epidemiological investigation. Thorax, 69(8), 703–708). BMJ. https://doi.org/10.1136/thoraxjnl-2013-204132)).

Burns

Burns are frequently linked to humidifier use, especially when used around children((Baughn, J. (2021). Warm-mist versus cool-mist humidifier: Which is better for a cold? Mayo Clinic. Retrieved 19th April 2023 from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/common-cold/expert-answers/cool-mist-humidifiers/faq-20058199)). Children up to three years old are the most comon humidifer burn victims((Wallis, B. A., Turner, J., Pearn, J., & Kimble, R. M. (2008). Scalds as a result of vapour inhalation therapy in children. Burns, 34(4), pp. 560–564). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.burns.2007.07.016)). Warm mist humidifiers should not be used in a baby's room. The hot steam can be dangerous, particularly when used next to the baby's cot, as they are more sensitive to changes in temperature.

Tips for Using Air Purifiers and Humidifiers

To preserve their efficiency and avoid any potential detrimental effects on indoor air quality, it is crucial to adhere to the manufacturer's instructions for cleaning and maintaining air filters. The EPA recommends a few guidelines on using air cleaners at home((EPA. (2022). Air Cleaners and Air Filters in the Home ¦ US EPA. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 19th April 2023 from https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/air-cleaners-and-air-filters-home)):

  • Clean or change the air filters as the manufacturer directs to ensure that your air purifier provides clean air to your living space.
  • Select a portable air purifier with a clean air delivery rate (CADR) sufficient for the room size or area where it will filter particulates. 
  • Choose an air cleaner with an activated carbon filter or another gas-filtering device to filter gases.
  • Avoid furnace/HVAC filters and portable air cleaners that purposefully produce ozone.

The EPA recommends maintaining your home's humidity levels between 30% and 50%((EPA. (2023). A Brief Guide to Mold, Moisture and Your Home ¦ US EPA. Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 19th April 2023 from https://www.epa.gov/mold/brief-guide-mold-moisture-and-your-home)). Excessive humidity can result in condensation, breeds bacteria and mold, and aggravates allergy or asthma symptoms.

It is recommended that you should clean your humidifier at least every three days((Environmental Protection Agency. (2022). Use and Care of Home Humidifiers | US EPA. Retrieved 2nd May 2023 from https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/use-and-care-home-humidifiers)). Here are some tips on running your humidifier:

  • Use distilled water, not tap water, because the minerals in tap water might encourage the growth of harmful germs inside humidifiers. Additionally, one study found using tap water in an ultrasonic humidifier released particulate matter comparable to a heavily polluted city((Lau, C. J., Loebel Roson, M., Klimchuk, K. M., Gautam, T., Zhao, B., & Zhao, R. (2020). Particulate matter emitted from ultrasonic humidifiers—Chemical composition and implication to indoor air. Indoor Air, 31(3), pp. 769–782). https://doi.org/10.1111/ina.12765)). 
  • To avoid mold formation, ensure the humidifier's components are completely dry before storing them.
  • Empty and replace the water in your tank at least once daily. 
  • Use 3% hydrogen peroxide to remove minerals in your humidifier's tank. Then, after cleaning, make sure to rinse the tank to prevent chemical vaporization the next time you use it.
  • Changing the humidifier's filter as often as the manufacturer suggests, or more frequently if it gets dirty.
  • When using humidifiers with heating elements around children, it's crucial to take additional care and never let them handle the devices and do not keep them in a child's bedroom. A cool mist humidifier is a valuable solution since it increases humidity, which helps children breathe more easily

Frequently Asked Questions

Are air purifiers and humidifiers noisy?

An air purifier's or humidifier's noise level can differ depending on the model, manufacturer, or settings. While working, certain humidifiers and air purifiers may make noise, while others are built to run silently.
Typically, air purifiers use fans to move air through the filters, which might produce noise from the fan motor and airflow. Depending on the fan motor quality and speed settings, air purifier noise levels can range from quiet (less than 30 decibels) to loud (above 60 decibels). While lower fan speeds may produce less noise, higher fan speeds may be necessary to move sufficient air through.
Additionally, noise levels can vary depending on the type of humidifier. For instance, evaporative humidifiers may make noise from the fan that forces air through a moistened wick. In contrast, ultrasonic humidifiers often function silently because they use high-frequency vibrations to create a thin mist of water droplets. The heating element in steam humidifiers may make some noise as well.
The CDC states that prolonged exposure to noise exceeding 70 dbA can irritate or gradually harm your hearing – the level of an average dishwasher or washing machine. Therefore, acquiring a humidifier/air purifier that emits noise levels below this value is advisable.

What type of filter should I use in an air purifier and humidifier?

HEPA filters are widely regarded as highly effective in purifying the air from pollutants and allergens due to their ability to capture particles as small as 0.3 microns. A research review from the Current Allergy and Asthma journal reports that, “[i]nexpensive, low-efficiency HVAC filters offer no better particle removal than no filter.” This emphasizes the value of investing in machines with better, ideally HEPA, filters, which are frequently used in clinical settings like hospitals and are renowned for their high efficiency in trapping particles, with a reported efficiency of up to 99.97% according to the EPA.

How long should one run the air purifier and humidifier?

Most air purifiers are made to run continuously if required. This 24/7 strategy will consume more electricity; you might need to clean or replace air filters more frequently. To reduce noise, you can set the purifier to its lowest level and leave it running all day.

Can an air purifier and a dehumidifier be in one unit?

Yes. It is possible to have an air purifier and a dehumidifier in one unit to achieve improved indoor air quality and increased humidity. Some air purifiers are integrated with built-in humidifiers, offering the convenience of both functionalities. However, if you want to have both devices separately in the same room, remember that each device should be positioned apart, ideally at the opposing ends. If not, the humidifier's moisture can cause the air purifier's filter to become clogged, which might encourage mold and bacteria growth.

Conclusion

In summary, the main difference between air purifiers and humidifiers is in how they function. Air purifiers are intended to improve the quality of the air inside buildings by removing air pollutants. Humidifiers are made to raise relative humidity levels when they are too low in order to enhance the quality of indoor air.

Air purifiers and humidifiers offer great benefits, such as removing pollutants and allergens from the air and improving indoor air quality. Additionally, you can use a humidifier daily to lower pollutant and allergy levels in the air. You can use it sometimes when the air is excessively dry or a household member is sick. However, you should also be aware of potential risks such as over-humidification leading to mold growth, ozone concerns, or even humidifier burns.

Most importantly, consider individual needs when acquiring an air purifier or humidifier. Take into account each device's maintenance needs. While humidifiers need routine water replacement and cleaning to avoid bacterial or mold growth, air purifiers often need to have their filters changed regularly. Consider the cost, time, and maintenance effort while selecting your choice.

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