It's the end of a long day, and you've grudgingly brushed, flossed, washed your face and performed other tedious tasks when you'd much rather just fall right in bed. Suddenly, the humidifier looms large. The tank is half full, so why not just save yourself an extra chore and re-use last night's water? Then there's the fact that a different president was in office the last time you performed a full clean of the small appliance, but surely, the water running through keeps it clean enough, right? As much as we hate to be Humidifier Henrietta, both of these common mistakes are actually risky for your overall health.
So why's that? First off, you need to know what a humidifier is in the first place. There are a bunch of different types (warm-mist, cool-mist, ultrasonic), but they all shoot for the same goals of restoring moisture to the atmosphere to help people breathe better, relieving dry skin, stopping static electricity and even protecting your wooden furniture. Too little humidity is very common in the winter once the indoor heater gets cranked up, drying out the air and sometimes resulting in chapped lips, bloody noses and breathing issues. A warm mist humidifier can still provide heat without drying out the air in your room.
"Dry air increases mucus production and keeps it thick. Thinner and moist air keeps the mucus thin, making it easier to expel," explains New York City-based registered nurse and founder of RemediesForMe.com Rebecca Park in an email. Adding a little moisture to the air can be beneficial both at preventing and treating an illness, she notes, because, "expelling mucus helps you to expel germs and bacteria out of your body, speeding up the recovery process when you are sick."
Conversely, however, too much humidity makes water/condensation build up, causing a host of problems. "Humidity that is too high can increase the levels of allergens like dust mites and molds, which can aggravate respiratory issues like allergies and asthma," says Dr. David Erstein, board-certified allergist and immunologist with Advanced Dermatology in an email.
Although it can be somewhat of a balancing act to keep the ideal humidity level of 30 - 50 percent in the home, a humidifier makes it much easier. Not sure if you're striking the balance or not? Simply pick up a little tool called a hygrometer at your local hardware store to keep tabs on indoor humidity levels easily.
The Problem With Humidifiers
If you live in the developed world, the water you use is pretty clean. After all, we bathe in it, drink it and brush our teeth with it. However, it also contains minerals, which can clog up the humidifier over time, affecting how it functions. Cool-mist humidifiers have a filter to trap these minerals, but they can't catch 'em all, plus many people are fairly lax at remembering to change the filter out regularly. As a result, the same minerals also get spewed out into the atmosphere when the humidifier is running, which isn't particularly good for your lungs or your furniture. Plus, they encourage the growth of bacteria inside the machine.
This is why experts recommend avoiding tap water and instead using distilled water (or demineralized), which can be purchased at the grocery store. It'll keep the machine running better, longer, and will cut down on the amount of ick factor in your general atmosphere. But seriously, don't forget to change the filter according to manufacturer recommendations.
However, even if your humidifier has no filter (as is usual with warm mist humidifiers) you could still get sick from failing to keep it clean. It's a water-based machine, but it's not a sterilizer, nor is it self-drying. So, any moisture that remains within it over time turns to mold and bacteria, both of which can cause some pretty serious health issues, like asthma flare-ups, coughs, respiratory infections and lung problems.
Pretty ironic for a machine that's actually designed to help people breathe better, right? "People with sensitive airways (asthma and allergies) are especially prone to issues from dirty humidifiers but even healthy people can be affected," Dr. Erstein explains.
Caring for Your Humidifier
Fortunately, the added chore of proper humidifier care and maintenance isn't all that taxing. Here are some basic guidelines, but since every machine is different it's a good idea to consult the paper or online manual for your specific make and model.
First things first: Never leave water in the tank from previous uses. Always empty the base and tank and towel them dry as best you can. Then, when you're ready to fire it up again simply re-fill with clean water.
Depending on how often you use your humidifier, the unit should enjoy a deep clean every three days to one week. Once you get the hang of it it's really easy, though.
- Unplug and disassemble. Empty water from all applicable parts.
- Starting with the base, pour enough white vinegar in to clean all of the areas that touch water. If any pieces are removable then simply take them out and put them in a vinegar-filled bowl to soak. Allow to sit for 20-30 minutes, then gently clean any build-up with a soft brush.
- While that soaks, move on to the water tank. Using a ratio of one gallon of water to one teaspoon of bleach OR one teaspoon of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, fill the tank approximately halfway. Close it tightly and gently swish the mixture around. Allow to sit for 20-30 minutes.
- Use regular old tap water to rinse all parts until the cleaning smell is gone. Set them out to dry. Change the filter, if needed.
- Put it all back together again and repeat in a week or so!