Should I Invest in an Air Purifier? (Yes!)

Date: 12/06/2023

Read on to learn all about air purification in the home, and what you can do to breathe easy while indoors!

Did you know that the human body requires about 111 gallons (or 420 liters) of oxygen per day to function?

However, to get that much oxygen content, we need to take in about 2640 gallons (or 10,000 liters) of air each day.

This ratio tells us something very important about the air we breathe: that it contains much more than just oxygen. 

In fact, most of the air we breathe today – whether indoors or out – contains less of the ‘healthy’ particulates we need to thrive, and more of the unhealthy pollutants that reduce our longevity…and even make us sick!

Indeed, the World Health Organization reported in 2018 that indoor air pollutants alone result in about 3.8 million premature deaths every year, with these often being caused by lung cancer, ischemic heart diseases, stroke, and other cardiovascular impacts. Other estimates are now putting this number at almost double that, around 9 million deaths per year. That translates to about 1 in 6 deaths worldwide!

The thing is, these pollutants do not just sneak indoors from outside, either. Oftentimes, the items and cleaners we use in our homes give off physical, chemical, and biological contaminants that negatively impact air quality

And since recent reports show that humans are spending anywhere from 80 to 90% of their time indoors, the idea that we need to adopt air purification into our daily health routines is becoming more and more prevalent in health care communities. 

So how are we supposed to protect ourselves from these pollutants?

Actually, the answer is similar to the answer I would give to those who want to remove pollutants from their water: filtration! 

And while I wrote a two-part article series a little while ago about water filtration at home (see: Body of Water: How Water Filtration Can Benefit Your Health Today and H20 at Home: Water Filtration that Works for You), today I want to talk to you about the process of air filtration, and the best ways to adopt filtration into your home to improve your opportunities for great health! 

What is an air purifier?

Simply put, air purifiers are a mechanism for removing indoor air pollutants from the ambient air in a room or building. They have been proven effective against dander, smoke, dust, mold spores, pollen, and even dust mites, particularly in the presence of high heat, UV light, exhaust systems, HEPA filters or ionic technology. In fact, it’s likely you have benefitted from some kind of air purification system in your lifetime, whether that be a smaller, stand-alone unit, or a larger air purifier attached to your furnace or HVAC. 

What’s most important when it comes to air purifiers, however, is that they have been proven to reduce negative health outcomes for those exposed to harmful pollutants, either acutely or chronically. 

Let’s take a look at a little bit of the research that’s come out relating air quality (or pollution) to human health outcomes: 

Air Quality and Human Health

It is no secret that prolonged exposure (or really, any exposure) to air pollution can lead to short-term discomforts such as irritation to the nose, throat, or eyes, skin irritation, headaches, dizziness, and even nausea, as well as long-term discomforts such as pneumonia, asthma or bronchitis. Indeed, a review of studies on the topic shows that indoor air pollution is often closely correlated with morbidity caused by allergic diseases. 

Thankfully, many of these same studies report that interventions which are targeted at clarifying or purifying indoor air are often successful at reducing indoor air pollution (IAP) caused by particulate matter (PM). 

Note: if you are experiencing any of the listed symptoms, it may be worthwhile to check the air quality of your home! 

For example, one study which shows that cooking fumes are the largest contributor to IAP (while smoking is, surprisingly, the smallest contributor), also revealed that air purifiers were successful at reducing PM concentrations by anywhere from 40 to 87%. Many other studies back these findings, as well as showcase the importance of air purification in areas where natural ventilation is not possible. 

Importantly, air purifiers often work pretty quickly; results from one study show that an in-home air purifier can reduce particulate matter concentrations in bedrooms by almost half in just 90 minutes. That means if you went out and ordered yourself a great air purifier today, you could have cleaner air within hours of unboxing your unit. 

Helpful Hint: Run your air purifier before, during, and after a deep clean of any furniture, carpets, bedding or even hard surfaces like ceilings and walls. This is because many airborne particles can become dislodged (like dust!), reducing the air quality of your home without the proper filtration or ventilation.

For those of us with chronic immune conditions, particularly those with respiratory conditions like asthma, this is critical news. It’s also great news for those who want to own pets, but are sensitive to (or have become sensitized to) pet dander. Indeed, this study recently emphasized the reduced need for external health care treatments or medications when an air purifier is present in the home. 

Incidentally, these are not the only benefits of getting an indoor air purifier for your home. If you have a family member who is sick, or if you are in charge of caring for an ailing parent, friend, or connection, an air purifier can lower PM concentrations below the threshold set out by the World Health Organization. In practice, it has also been proven that air purifiers – through the ‘cleansing’ of the air in a given environment – are associated with a decreased heart rate, and associated with positive impacts on blood pressure. And while this study focused on aging and elderly populations in a care home environment, I think these results in the realm of cardiovascular health are easily extrapolated to those of us in other demographics–as seen in this scientific review of air purification and indoor air pollution on humans of all ages.

How do I measure air purity?

When it comes to air filtration and purification, at least in the US, most manufacturers abide by a standard called “minimum efficiency reporting values”, or MERV, which helps them determine which filters are more productive than others. From these measures, most guides name High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters as the gold-standard for air purification, since they can remove 99.97% of airborne particles of a very small size. MERV numbers therefore give this type of filter a rating of about 17, or higher, while the recommended MERV rating for indoor air filters should be at least 13. To check the air purity in your home, you can thus buy an air quality monitor and follow the instructions to see the quality of air in your home, or order an air quality home test from a reputable source. 

How much does it cost to buy an air purifier?

Portable air cleaners range in price, and should be purchased with the size of the room or space you’re trying to clarify in mind. I wouldn’t recommend spending any less than $200 on a good-quality purifier of any size, though there are some more affordable DIY solutions coming out that provide equal (if not better!) air purification results when compared to more expensive models. One of these solutions is known as the Corsi-Rosenthal Box, which you can find instructions for building your own online (though the model is a little bit noisy). In one study, this design actually achieved air exchange rates that were on par with most US hospitals!

How do I buy the right air purifier?

When start shopping for your air purifier, it’s important to ask the following questions before you buy:

  • How much square footage does the air purifier cover, and how much do I need it to cover?
  • What type of filter does it use? 
  • How many filters does it use?
  • How much air does the air purifier draw through the filter? Usually this is expressed in cubic feet per minute.
  • How well does it collect pollutants from indoor air? Usually this is expressed as a percentage efficiency rate.
  • What is the purifier’s Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR)? In other words, how much clean air does the unit deliver?
  • How heavy is the unit? How portable is it if I want to move it from room to room?
  • What contaminants does the air purifier target? 
  • How strong is the source of the pollutant I am trying to reduce?
  • What is the ventilation like in my home or space?
  • How often will I want to run the air purifier?

What kinds of air purifiers are out there?

As you answer the questions above, it’s likely a good idea to get comfortable with the types of air purifiers you’re going to find online, or on the shelves of your local hardware store. That way, you can eliminate certain types from your list even before you enter the store–making this whole buying process much easier in the long run. And while there may be new air purifiers coming out all the time, these are the five main air purifier types I would take a look at to help clarify the air in your home:

  1. HEPA Purifiers
  2. Absorbent Filters
  3. UV Purifiers
  4. Ionic Purifiers
  5. Ozone Generators 

Keep in mind too, that you don’t have to buy a stand-alone unit for your home, as some purification systems can be installed within existing ventilation networks, such as your furnace or indoor heating and cooling system. Having a professional come in and look at your set-up to make recommendations may be a best practice here, particularly if you’re in a new home, or are unfamiliar with the air systems already in place. 

1. HEPA Purifiers

Known as a High-Efficiency Particulate Air filter, HEPA purifiers have been around for a long time, and therefore have a long history of helping humans breathe more easily! Indeed, the initial idea for the HEPA filter was founded in WWII, where soldiers required gas masks on the front lines. Not much later, during the formulation of the Manhattan project, these designs were further developed to clarify spaces, as opposed to being used on a more individual level. 

As I mentioned as well, HEPA filters are among the best performers in terms of air purification, so if you’re not into the comparison game, then any HEPA-type purifier will do the trick–so long as you make sure to consider the size of your space. Their design is also fairly simple, whereby the unit draws polluted air into the device, where it passes through a fiberglass filter. These particles effectively ‘stick’ to these fibers, becoming trapped as the cleansed air particles are free to flow through. Interestingly, the particles that become stuck further help ‘trap’ even smaller polluting particulates, all the way down to 0.1 microns! 

Note: The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America suggests changing air filters every 30 to 90 days for optimal performance. 

Best of all, HEPA purifiers are effective without producing any harmful byproducts. Because they are so ‘low-key’ these methods are also great in combination with other filtration methods for added air purity, and even to kill any microbes removed by the HEPA purifiers itself. However, you’ll want to consider the longevity aspect of your HEPA unit, too, since their filters do need to be replaced often. Not to mention, if build-up is allowed to accumulate in these filters for too long, microorganisms can paradoxically re-contaminate the air coming through the filter. 

2. Absorbent Purifiers

Instead of pushing air through a filter, absorbent purifiers trap chemicals and even odors from the air using either a physical process (like electrostatic force) or a chemical one, the latter of which is not reversible. 

As such, this type of purification can be great if you are trying to reduce pet smells or other unsightly odors, or if you’re trying to clarify the air of a particularly dangerous pollutant. Indeed, this is the type of air purification system that is most commonly used when it comes to environmental cleanup efforts, since they act as a kind of ‘sponge’ for particulate matter without re-releasing it into the cleansed environment. 

As with the HEPA purifiers, absorbent-type purification methods don’t create any harmful by-products, and are super safe to use in the home. The thing is, you usually have to pair this type of filtration with your HEPA filters so that you get optimal removal of particulate matter plus odor removal! 

3. UV Purifiers

As with water, UV filters can provide a ton of utility in the clarification and purification of our air. These units work by sucking air into the device much like the HEPA design, and then exposing that air to a high-intensity UV-C lamp that produces the kind of light that kills harmful microbes in our air. Via its own kind of radiation then, the UV light inactivates deadly pollutants in our air, and targets airborne microorganisms as opposed to merely non-living particulate matter. This is likely why you’ll see UV air purification used in medical settings in addition to HEPA filters, to help neutralize any nasty pollutants that filter picks up.

All that being said, this type of purifier does create an unwanted byproduct: ozone. And although there are benefits to ozone in the atmosphere on earth, there are little to no benefits to being exposed to ozone in your own home. As such, its important to find UV purifiers that operate on ‘safe’ wavelengths–which will be advertised in their marketing or product packaging. 

4. Ionic Purifiers

While HEPA filters have largely replaced the utility of this filter type, it’s worthwhile to mention here due to their iconic popularity in the 90s and early 2000s, though I want to be clear that I do not personally recommend this option for air purification.

Basically, this type of air purification method relies on the creation of ions, which are positively or negatively charged particles. These ions then attach themselves to PM hanging around the purifier unit, and then draw them down onto the surfaces of your home to be easily cleaned. If you find an ionic purifier known as an electrostatic precipitator, you can ensure these particulates land on charged plates inside the purifier, instead of randomly around your space. 

The biggest reason some people still adopt this type of filter is because they don’t need a ton of filter replacements. They are quiet and can hide in the background, and therefore require a lot less maintenance and upkeep throughout the life of the unit. They are wonderful as a standalone air purification option, but again, have been proven to facilitate the creation of those harmful ozone particles, and are overall less effective than their HEPA counterparts. 

NOTE: California has actually banned the sale of ionic purifiers in its efforts to regulate the air purification market. In fact, they were one of the first states to begin regulating this area of commerce. 

5. Ozone Generators

As we’ve been discussing the harmful effects of Ozone in general, I want to include this type of air purifier on the list to showcase why you shouldn’t buy this type of purifier for your home. It may be better-suited to industrial applications, but even then, the risk is great, and should only be used in areas where there are no occupants present on the premises

As the title insinuates then, an ozone generator type air purifier produces ozone as a part of the air purification process to effectively disinfect the air and kill microbes. This is one of the reasons these generators are still used at all actually, since they are applicable for biological contaminants, not necessarily for airborne PM or gaseous chemicals.

Note: If you ever hear the claim that ozone is beneficial as a form of medical treatment, please fact-check immediately. This is completely false, and could result in misinformation if spread further. 

Noting this, if you are in fact trying to cleanse a contaminated industrial area with no occupants, then it is recommended that you pair this purifier with a HEPA system to target the inactive matter floating around in the air. 

Are air purifiers the only way to clean my air?

No, air purifiers are certainly not your only option when it comes to improving the air quality of your home. In fact, many studies state explicitly that air purification is optimal in environments where other air cleansing and purification methods are present, particularly since certain filtration options can stagnate quickly in closed-ventilation environments. Some even show that the actual efficacy of air purifiers on the market are lower in real conditions than in tested conditions! 

As such, the most effective (and likely money-saving) way to tackle IAP is to work from the source of the pollution. If you can eliminate or at least reduce the source of pollution or contamination you’re trying to tackle, then you’ll have a ton more success avoiding unwanted particles, gasses, and even excessive water vapor that are expelled during normal at-home activities. 

Some of the suggestions I’ve read that involve removing the source of pollutants involve long-term solutions that come to fruition over time. That means replacing pressed wood products with solid wood or alternative materials to avoid the presence of formaldehyde in the air, or cleaning any ‘combustion’ appliances (like stoves or refrigerators) to decrease indoor emissions. As well, if there is a microbial problem, these contaminated areas should be cleaned and dried before air purification is fully applied. There is a whole host of research out there available for what you can do to eliminate pollution sources in your home, and I definitely recommend you check out different options for your space. 

Before closing, one other great way I found to improve the air purification processes in your home is to improve the ventilation system capacity so that the relatively cleaner outdoor air finds its way naturally indoors. Of course, this may not be the best option for those with sensitivities or allergies, but can be a helpful alternative for those who are in the process of finding the right air purification alternatives that work for them! 

The Clean Air Diet

In continuing to pay attention to all the variables that go into good health, I want to expand on the idea that we need to keep a good diet to maintain our well-being by including air into the mix. If we ingest clean, healthy air, we are more likely to thrive in clean, healthy bodies. 

There are even things you can do this very moment to improve the air quality in your home, without buying an air purifier at all. You can make sure to clean heavily fabricated items in your home often (such as rugs, carpets, and furniture), and wash your bedding in hot water at least once a week. If you have pets, bathe them often, and try to avoid the accumulation of moisture in your home with balanced humidity levels. This will also help prevent mold and dust mites from sticking to your stuff! Otherwise, simple things like smoking outside (and never in the house), as well as running fans and switching to nontoxic cleaning products will help improve the air in your home, and prevent some of those long or short term health issues we mentioned earlier. 

So yes! If you’re interested in taking on a clean air diet, I think an air purifier is the way to go for your home or office space. In my opinion, it’s a great investment that’s going to make a huge difference to the way you exist in your home. You might even find you have more energy, or better fitness practice with all the clear air you’re getting! I know I’ve had some great improvements in my breathing and yoga practice since adopting my own HEPA air purifier, and I can only hope you find the same benefits as you incorporate air purification into your healthcare regime! 

Until next time, happy and healthy breathing, and all my love,