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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 ventilation1. 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.
Now that you know the basics of how each device works, let's explore the main differences between air purifiers and humidifiers:
While air purifiers and humidifiers have different functions, they share some similarities. In broad terms, both offer:
Certain groups of people should particularly consider using an air purifier or humidifier, as highlighted below:
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 air4, improving lung function, and providing cardiovascular benefits5.
To this extent, air purifiers have been proven to be effective in the following ways:
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:
The effectiveness of humidifiers is dependent on maintenance practices.
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 purifier16.
Studies have compared particles found in household dust with those trapped in a HEPA air filter17 and others types of filter18, 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.
Some air purifiers use negative ions to clean the air, which is effective19. However, this process can produce ozone as a byproduct. If breathed in excessively, ozone may irritate the lungs20, reduce lung capacity, and cause them to be more susceptible to bacterial infection21. Therefore, it's crucial to be aware of this before buying an ozone-producing air purifier because it might not be appropriate for everyone.
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 effects22, so humidifier use needs to be tailored to the already existing level of humidity in the air.
Dirty humidifiers might encourage a ground for bacterial growth, which may result in coughs and colds2324. Continuously topping up the humidifier’s water without cleaning it can lead to more serious respiratory conditions too, such as hypersensitivity pneumonitis25.
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 well26.
Burns are frequently linked to humidifier use, especially when used around children27. Children up to three years old are the most comon humidifer burn victims28. 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.
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 home29:
It is recommended that you should clean your humidifier at least every three days31. Here are some tips on running your humidifier:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.References
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
Marion is a freelance health and wellness writer with a passion for all things digital health. She loves diving deep into the latest research and trends in the industry and distilling them down into fun, relatable pieces that people can relate to. Whether you're a health nut or a tech geek, she is always looking for new and interesting ways to help readers access quality and evidence-based information.