Do I Really Need an Air Purifier?

Learn all about the benefits of air purifiers and how to find the right one

Right off the bat, we’re just gonna say that “need” is a strong word. Do you need water? Yes. Do you need an air purifier? Not exactly, but you certainly do need air—so shouldn’t the air you breathe into your lungs be some of the best-quality air around? We think yes. And we’ll explain why.

For anyone living in the middle of the Southern Ocean, air purifiers are going to be pretty pointless. But for most of us, the free air you can get anywhere, indoors and out, could really do with a boost.

The pandemic brought air quality, particularly indoor, to the forefront for plenty of people who didn’t think much about it before. And then, unfortunately, there are the wildfires.

You may feel like air purifiers are everywhere now, promising to save you from pollutants, help you be more productive, and even increase your life expectancy. But while the EPA does say that indoor air can be five times more polluted than outdoor air, that doesn’t necessarily mean any old air purifier will be a game-changer.

Air purifiers can neutralize some of the threats posed by air pollution and indoor air that isn’t circulated well, but not all live up to their marketing hype. Here, we’ll discuss what an air purifier is, the benefits of an air purifier, and what you should look for when shopping for one.

What Is an Air Purifier?

Air purifiers are devices made up of a filter or multiple filters and a fan that sucks in and circulates air. They refresh stale air by pushing it through the filter, catching pollutants and particles, and then releasing the clean air back into the room. Filters are usually made of paper, fiber or fiberglass, or mesh and require regular replacement to stay efficient.

Why Would You Use an Air Purifier?

While the marketing suggests everybody should have an air purifier on whenever they’re inside unless they want to risk becoming sick, it’s really not that dramatic. There are, however, several benefits of air purifiers, especially for certain kinds of people.

Asthma or allergy relief

About 8% of people have asthma, which means they have inflamed bronchial tubes, making them more susceptible to pollutants like pet dander, pollen, or dust mites. Frequent cleaning can help eliminate some of these pollutants, but many remain suspended in the air, and others get embedded in your carpets, furniture, and floors, which can become a real nuisance for asthmatics.

Because most household air purifiers contain HEPA filters, they can capture a higher percentage of these pollutants, making it easier to breathe on a day-to-day basis. Some air purifiers also come with replaceable pre-filters to trap larger particles, alleviating the difficulty of breathing for people who are sensitive to pollutants.

Eliminating harmful chemicals

Exposure to vehicle exhaust byproducts like carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide PM can increase the risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s. That means if you live near a highway or in a city with a high volume of motor traffic, you may be at greater risk of exposure to these chemicals. Just closing the windows and doors won’t keep them out, but an air purifier can help remove them from the air.

Some cleaning agents can also release chemicals into the air like ammonia, chlorine, and phthalates. Small amounts of these chemicals are harmless, but if you’re constantly cleaning, you might be undoing all of your good work unless you have an air purifier running.

Air purifiers with activated carbon cleanse chemical contaminants and recycle fresh air back into the room.

Neutralizing unpleasant odors

Sometimes, life gets stinky! Whether you live near a gas station, you’re having landscaping work done, you have a pet, or any number of other situations, there’s a myriad of odors that can make your home a little stinky. Air purifiers with HEPA filters and activated carbon filters trap foul gases and particles to reduce the strength of smells in your home.

Improving sleep

Indoor allergens like bacteria, fungi, and dust mites can trigger allergies and make it harder for you to get to sleep. Research shows that cleaner air actually helps you sleep better, and the little bit of white noise you can get from some of them while running certainly can’t hurt. HEPA air purifiers are the best to use since they filter out the most allergens from your room.

Someone is sick

Have you ever noticed how if one person in a household gets the flu, it seems like everybody gets it within a week? That’s because you’re all breathing the same air. Air purifiers with HEPA filters can help mitigate the spread of airborne diseases by filtering bacteria and viruses out of the air and releasing clean air.

You don’t have to wait until flu season or until somebody gets sick to get an air purifier; it’s a good idea to have one at the ready.

You live in an old house

Before you buy a house, you’ll very likely hire a professional to inspect the building and property. Among other things, what they’re looking for are any harmful chemicals like radon or asbestos. These carcinogenic compounds occur naturally over time in radon’s case or, in asbestos’ case, were commonly used in building materials in the 20th century. According to a 2013 EPA assessment, radon may kill as many as 21,000 people in the U.S. each year, so it’s important to take it seriously.

Ideally, you can remove all harmful materials from your home by hiring somebody. Still, trace amounts may remain even after professional removal—especially if you live in a house built in the 1940s to 1960s. If you want an extra degree of protection, air purifiers with HEPA and activated carbon filters can trap radon and asbestos particles to protect you from harmful effects.

What Should You Look for When Shopping for an Air Purifier?

There are so many air purifiers on the market, it can be hard to figure out what makes the most sense for you. When shopping, consider the following.

Room size

You may have noticed that air purifiers range greatly in size. That’s because they’re designed to clean the air in rooms of specific sizes. Figure out where you most want to use an air purifier, and make sure you get a model that can offer suitable cleaning power for that room. If you go smaller to save some dough, you’ll likely be wasting all of it.

Noise level

Most HEPA air purifiers produce noise ranging from 35 to 70 decibels, depending on the setting. That can be somewhat disruptive, so if you’re using an air purifier in your office or a baby’s room, you may want to search for a quieter option. Although, as noted earlier, you may find you like that sort of background noise in your own bedroom.

Certifications

Marketing is tricky, and just about any household product will claim to control allergens. Some work better than others. To make a better decision, look for the “asthma & allergy friendly®” mark.

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, in association with Allergy Standards Limited (ASL), created this certification program to demonstrate which air purifiers really do remove the most harmful particles from the air. 

Clean-Air Delivery Rate (CADR)

CADR refers to an air purifier’s overall speed for cleaning a particular size room. It’s measured in cubic feet per minute (CFM). High CADR (i.e., 400 CFM) indicates that an air purifier is well-suited to efficiently clean a 400-square-foot room, so it will work even better in a 300- or 200-square-foot room. Air purifiers with a CADR of 300 to 400 are great for most average-sized rooms.

Maintenance

Air purifiers are somewhat of a “set it and forget it” kind of thing. You don’t have to point them at the air to purify it, after all. But filters are not inexhaustible, so you should consider how frequently you’ll have to change them.

While HEPA air filters are the most energy-efficient, they have to be changed once every three months for optimum operation. That adds about $100 per year on top of the initial purchase price. Some air purifiers utilize multiple filters, which you’ll also have to change over time, bringing that cost up to over $100.