Purchasing an air purifier is one of the best things you can do for your health. Clean indoor air lowers your chances of contracting heart and lung disease, decreases allergy and asthma symptoms, and can even help prevent indoor COVID transmission. But, while there are many health benefits to an air purifier, some people buy them for one specific reason: to make their homes smell better. The problem is, most air purifiers won’t do anything about bad smells.
How does smell work?
Our noses are lined with specialized cells that detect specific odors, similar to taste buds on our tongue. When an odor enters our nose, these specialized cells send signals to our brain which let our body know that we are smelling something.
Smells can cause a range of emotional and physical reactions in our bodies. “Subjective symptoms” like delight or stress or even nausea are sensed by our olfactory nerve, while “objective symptoms” like burning nose, watery eyes, and coughing are triggered by our “trigeminal nerve.”
How you react to a smell is often dependent on the memories that you associate with it. For instance, while the smell of lilacs is generally considered pleasant, if an annoying coworker wore lilac scented perfume, the smell may give you an unpleasant feeling.
There are many factors that can determine how sensitive to smells you are. For instance:
- Younger people are more sensitive to odors than older people.
- Women are typically more sensitive to odors than men, and pregnant women are especially sensitive to odors.
- People with asthma, emphysema or other respiratory diseases, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), depression, multiple chemical sensitivity, or stress-induced illnesses are usually more sensitive to odors
- Non-smokers are more sensitive to odors than smokers.
- People with an empty stomach are typically more sensitive to odors than people who have recently eaten.
- People are generally more sensitive to odors in the morning than in the evening.
Can bad smells harm your health?
Many of the common odors that make up our day-to-day life are actually airborne chemicals that arise from volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some VOCs, such as formaldehyde, can cause a range of adverse health effects. Unfortunately, while most outdoor pollutants are regulated in the United States, indoor ones are not, leaving us on our own to protect ourselves.
Whether or not someone experiences health effects depends upon several factors, including the type of chemical, how concentrated the chemical is in the air, how long the exposure continues, and whether or not the person smelling the chemical has any particular sensitivities.
Typically a bad smell is just an unpleasant inconvenience. But, strong odors can cause some people to feel a burning sensation that leads to breathing problems. Others may experience headaches, dizziness, or nausea. If an odor lasts a long time or keeps occurring, it also could affect mood, anxiety, and stress level.
Another problem is that some of the most dangerous gases have no smell. According to the EPA, seemingly “clean” indoor air can contain levels of VOCs that are 2 to 5 times higher than outdoors.
Which kind of purifiers work against bad smells?
There are a number of different purifiers that claim to rid your home of odors. Unfortunately, not all of them live up to the promises, and some of these purifiers are actually more dangerous to your health than the odors themselves.
Ozone purifiers work by taking in oxygen from the air (O2) and giving it a strong electrical charge. This electrical charge allows the oxygen molecules to rearrange themselves and form O3, also known as ozone.
For years, ozone purifiers were touted for their ability to remove odors from the air. Consumers loved the “clean” smell that their ozone purifiers emitted. Unfortunately, ozone purifiers have since been shown to cause serious health problems. Even very small amounts of ozone in the air may result in chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath, and throat irritation. Ozone purifiers are never a safe option for odor removal.
Ionizers work by using high voltages to give an electrical charge (usually negative) to molecules in the air. These charged molecules are called ions. The ions are attracted to particles or surfaces with the opposite charge, causing them to clump together into larger heavier particles that fall out of the air or get stuck to charged surfaces like curtains.
While ionizers do not directly address the gases that cause odors, the high voltage charge that creates the ions also creates ozone, which can give the appearance of a clean smelling home. But, the negative health effects of ozone make ionizers a poor choice for odor removal.
UV air purifier
UV purifiers use short wave ultraviolet light (UV-C) to destroy airborne pollutants by breaking down their DNA or RNA, so that they’re unable to perform vital functions or reproduce.
Unfortunately, while many UV purifiers claim to be able to destroy odors in your home, it’s questionable how effective they actually are. Microbes have to spend some time in front of the UV light before they’re destroyed. The EPA explains that microbes must be exposed to the light “on the order of minutes and hours rather than the few seconds typical of most UVGI air cleaners.”
The other issue with UV purifiers is that they also emit varying amounts of ozone, which may be why they often claim to keep your air smelling fresh. But, as we mentioned, the “clean” smell of ozone masks potentially dangerous health hazards.
Activated charcoal filters
Activated charcoal filters work by using charcoal that has been heated to very high temperatures to trap pollutants. When the temperature of the charcoal is raised, the elements and compounds that were bound with the carbon atoms are removed and all the binding sites for carbon become “free” for binding with other molecules and atoms These open pores between carbon atoms are useful in trapping odors and VOC’s in the air.
Activated charcoal filters are the safest and most effective way of eliminating odors from your home. But, they won’t do anything for particle pollutants like dust, mold, and pollen. To keep your indoor air free of pollutants, harmful gases, and bad smells, look for a high-quality air purifier with a true HEPA filter.