Air purifier vs essential oil diffuser: What's the difference?

Air purifier vs essential oil diffuser: Image shows oil diffuser mist
(Image credit: Getty)

Want to know the difference between an air purifier vs essential oil diffuser? We'll be explaining exactly what these appliances do, and how they're different.

If something’s not quite right with the air in your home, it’s usually easy to tell. Perhaps you’ve detected a musky scent, a smoky odor, or something just smells off. Whatever the cause, when you envision homely vibes, it’s far more likely that clean air and fresh scents spring to mind rather than damp smells and layers of dust. 

It’s no surprise, then, that the best air purifiers and essential oil diffusers are home staples. The promise of fresh-smelling rooms and clean air in your lungs is quite attractive, after all.

For those who don’t yet know the difference between an air purifier vs essential oil diffuser, the latter are devices filled with essential oils like lavender, tea tree, or eucalyptus. Essentially, oil diffusers eject a scented mist into your space, helping to mask any lingering odors. 

So, while air purifiers capture allergens in the air, oil diffusers are used to create an aroma. More on that later, though, as we'll be getting into exactly how you can tell the two apart and why they actually don't have much in common.

Air purifiers vs essential oil diffusers: What do they do?

When you compare air purifiers vs essential oil diffusers, you’ll quickly find that they serve very different functions. Many allergy sufferers use air purifiers because they trap allergens such as dust, pollen, and pet dander. By capturing allergens before they reach you, air purifiers can reduce the severity of allergy symptoms, explains the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

On the flip side, essential oil diffusers have nothing to do with bettering air quality and more with creating a pleasant aroma. The devices spritz a mist made of water and essential oils.

You don't have to look far to see others extolling the virtues of aromatherapy. People tend to describe essential oils as "relaxing," and that's likely down to the fact that smells send a powerful signal to our brains, evoking positive memories and elevating mood, according to The Well Living Lab's studies on how indoor environments impact human health and wellbeing.

There are different types of diffusers too. First, there’s an ultrasonic diffuser, which releases microparticles as a mist thanks to vibrations caused by electronic frequencies. These are good for small or medium spaces and can be mounted onto air ducts to cover more ground, adds The Well Living Lab.

Next, there's a nebulizing diffuser which works well for an intense aroma but they are somewhat fragile and high maintenance due to their glass design. Once parked on a tabletop, they give off a fine mist with particles evaporating into gas form. It's enough to scent a small to medium space, too, according to the Well Living Lab. Other diffusers use heat rather than vibrations to evaporate the oils, and that’s the case with steam diffusers, candle diffusers, and hot plate diffusers. 

Air purifier vs essential oil diffuser: Image shows oil diffuser

(Image credit: Getty)

Air purifiers vs essential oil diffusers: how they affect air quality

Air purifiers are all about air quality, of course, and those with a High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter,  can be capable of capturing up to 99.97% of fine particles of 0.3 microns at the least. That includes dust, mold, pollen, and bacteria, explains the EPA. Air purifiers are in their element when paired with other first-line pollutant-banishing methods like sound ventilation and source control.

There’s something entirely different going on in the air with essential oil diffusers. A study published in the Atmospheric Environment journal on the impact of evaporation of essential oils on indoor air quality found that indoor levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) increased after evaporating lavender, eucalyptus, and tea tree. 

That said, aromatherapy does have some positives, according to Brent Bauer, M.D., a consultant in the Department of Internal Medicine. Bauer points to studies that show aromatherapy can ease anxiety and depression, produce better sleep quality, and give the chronically ill a greater quality of life. This is because when the essential oils are released and detected by receptors in the nose, signals shoot around a person’s nervous system and limbic system, stirring up a response in the area of the brain that deals with emotions. 

Air purifier vs essential oil diffuser: Image of woman sitting next to air purifier with cat

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Air purifiers vs essential oil diffusers: can you combine the two?

While air purifiers vs essential oil diffusers are poles apart, nowadays, you can get devices that combine the two. So, while the air purifier is working hard to extract pollutants and help you breathe easier, you only have to add a few drops of essential oils to dust your house with a pleasing aroma. 

Of course, you can do that yourself, by buying one of each. However, if you’re worried about the VOCs released by essential oils, don’t expect the air purifier to cancel these out, even if it has a HEPA filter. According to the EPA, an activated carbon filter or thick absorbent filter explicitly made to catch and remove gases, is more effective at eradicating VOCs. 

Katie Treharne

Katie is a freelance journalist, sub-editor, and web content writer who covers everything from hobbies to luxury travel and wellness. Throughout her freelance career, she has been a regular contributor to LiveScience's sister site, Top Ten Reviews, and other publications. A content writer for a travel booking website and Assistant Editor for a luxury travel magazine, Katie is fascinated with the digital sphere and how it helps to inform and inspire people.