You’ve identified a need to increase your home’s humidity: what next? Walk into any department store or pharmacy and you’ll see a wide array of home health devices designed to do just that. But what’s the difference between them, and which one is the best for you? Read on to de ’mist’ ify your options…
Humidifying devices fall into two main groups: those which use cool mist to ‘humidify’ and those which use warm steam (in Australia, they’re called warm steam vaporisers).
Browse through any parenting forum or health website and you’ll find a lot of conflicting information. One of the most common misconceptions is that “humidifiers are for adding humidity” to a room and vaporisers are “just for colds and flu”.
The truth is they are both pretty much interchangeable: both types of device are designed to add moisture to the air (in fact vaporisers on average add up to 10% more humidity). The difference is how they do this.
A cool ‘mist’ can be produced via several different methods (eg. ultrasonic, evaporative, impeller). What all cool mist humidifiers have in common however is the lack of heat. This can be a selling point for some parents, particularly of curious toddlers. However because heat isn't there to kill bacteria it's important to choose a humidifier which has good filtration to keep the air clean and free of micro-organisms that can grow in the water.
Steam vaporisers on the other hand produce steam by boiling water, which kills any bacteria, but care does need to be taken to keep them out of reach of children or adequately supervise while in operation.
When it comes to respiratory issues with coughs, bronchitis and croup, steam vaporisers are probably a better pick. Warm steam has more therapeutic benefit, for several reasons.
Steam is the gaseous form of water – as a gas it has the ability to blend with the air around it, thus staying longer in the air. Cool “mist” on the other hand is atomised water – water broken up into very tiny particles (between 1-5 microns in length). As droplets of water, they are suspended in the air for only a short amount of time, before gravity takes effect.
Think of when you spray an aerosol can into the air as compared to a manual pump spray. The gaseous aerosol output is suspended in the air for much longer, whereas the pump spray droplets quickly fall to the floor. For people relying on humidifier output to breathe in and out for therapeutic benefit this is a very important distinction. Warm steam also helps open the airways by dilating (opening) the blood vessels and relaxing the muscles of the throat to ease the cough reflex.
Cool mist humidifiers will help keep the room at a good humidity level for comfortable breathing, assisting with alleviating complaints exacerbated by dry air (scratchy throat, dry eyes etc.). They're a good choice if you need to keep rooms at a comfortable humidity level consistently but aren't acutely ill, or prefer cool operation for other reasons.
Steam vaporisers use inhalants. Steam vaporisers are designed to be used with inhalants, which are special medications - usually blends of natural essential oils - that have specific therapeutic benefits. (Added note: inhalants, unlike 100% pure oils, are designed to be disperse in water, so you can add them directly to the water inside of your vaporiser).
Inhalants can enhance the benefits of warm steam and help reduce congestion from colds, flu, croup, bronchitis and other upper respiratory illnesses. Other inhalants are designed to relax, soothe and unwind. Inhalants are exclusive to warm steam units as they rely on heat to ‘vaporise’ the essential oils, unlocking their therapeutic benefits. Some humidifiers use 'vapor pads' but these are for scent only rather than therapeutic.
Some humidifiers have cool "effects" such as star projections - this can be useful when settling young toddlers and babies. Ultimately the choice is yours!