What to Look for in a Humidifier: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Why is it that the most efficient, least expensive humidifiers are not the ones people seem compelled to buy?  Parents bring their children to see me, and they are so proud to be using some fancy, expensive humidifier.  One of those with the rotating-mesh-belt humidifiers (evaporative).  Or one of those fancy ultrasonic humidifiers.  I know that I will receive some hate mail from devoted ultrasonic humidifier owners, but here goes (this is all simply the opinion of a simple boogor doctor trying to make my way in the world).

The Perfect Humidifier

If it were possible, the ideal humidifier would be a pot of boiling water in your child’s room all night long – pure, distilled, sterile water going into the air they breathe in.  Although it is not practical to boil a pot of water in your child’s room, it is possible to get the same pure, clean steam by using a steam vaporizer.   One of the great benefits is that this is also the least expensive type of humidifier.

Caution:  steam vaporizers produce hot steam that can scald an infant or toddler, so only use these where not accessible by the infant or toddler!!  We have 5 or 6 of these that we use all Winter long in our home, have used them for years without a problem with our infants, but be careful!

The Problem with the Others …

I have used the other types of humidifiers, and loved them all. The problem I have with some of the other humidifiers is that in addition to putting water vapor into the air, they also aerosolize EVERYTHING else that is in the water – mold spores, viruses, bacteria – you name it.  That fine white film that you need to wipe off your furniture when using an ultrasonic humidifier – what do you think that is?


That film represents not just the minerals that are in your water supply, but everything else in addition.  Not the sort of thing that I want in my sinuses, or my kids’ sinuses, thank you very much.  And if you have used any of these humidifiers long enough you know that they all get a bit … well, grody (yes, that is the technical, medical term) unless you use bleach to wash them out every day (we are all well-intentioned, but who has time for that?).

Clean, Sterile Water Vapor

To make steam, the steam vaporizer heats the water to the point of boiling, thereby sterilizing the steam that goes into the air.  In addition, the water is “distilled,” meaning that most impurities such as minerals and some poisons in our water supply remain behind, with only water vapor going into the air your child breathes.  No live mold spores, bacteria, etc., only the good stuff – water vapor.

Dry Your Room Out During the Day

Final cautionary NOTE:  turn the steam vaporizer OFF during the day, and open up the room to air out.  If you don’t, you will soon have a jungle of mold growing on everything – these things produce high humidity, so give the room a chance to dry out during the day.  Keep the room clean, as free of dust as possible, to minimize a problem with molds and dust mites.

Tell me what works for you and your family.  What sort of humidifier do you use?

Blog post coming next week on nasal and sinus anatomy, including details about the function of CILIA.  See you then.

Best health and success to you and your families.

Please post a comment so that we can all learn to achieve sinus health, and healthy airways.  And please, “be excellent to one another.”

Until next time, remember … you can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose (unless you’re a boogor doctor ;~D)


  1. Paula C. says:

    We were on a ski vacation and the hotel was sooo dry I got the cheapest humidifier I could get, it was about $15. It was so awesome I actually shipped it back home and still use it. I’ve been tempted to buy one of those fancier ones, after reading this-so glad I didn’t! Ha, for once the cheaper one is better! Yeah!

    • Russell A. Faust, PhD, MD says:

      Dear Paula C, Thanks for your comment. We use the same inexpensive steam vaporizers for our home. They can be found for as little as $10 or $12 on sale. Such a great value. Thanks for visiting, and please stay tuned for more. RF

  2. Paula C. says:

    I meant VAPORIZER not humidifier. It was made by Vick’s-plastic thing with blue top. And the mist that comes out is not hot…unless you put too much salt in the water and it boils over, I did that once.

    • Russell A. Faust, PhD, MD says:

      Dear Paula C, you are correct on both – a steam vaporizer IS a kind of humidifier. It puts humidity into the air. Depending on how much impurity is in your water supply (minerals and such), you may need to add a little bit of salt to increase the amount of steam that they produce. We usually need to add just a little bit to the first load of water, then simply add water from then on. Again, a reminder: turn the humidifier / vaporizer OFF during the day, open up the room to air things out. This will minimize the risk of mold, and keep those dust mites unhappy. That’s a good thing! Thanks again for visiting, and for commenting! RF

  3. Here are some other factors you’ll want to consider before purchasing a humidifier:

    * Match the stated output of the humidifier to the area you want covered. Output is measured in gallons; for example, a 3-gallon humidifier can put out 3 gallons of moisture per day. The specs for the humidifier should also say how big an area it can cover.

    * Pay attention to the size of the tank. Although a 3-gallon humidifier will humidify a large area, you’ll have to refill it frequently if it has only a 1-gallon tank.

    * Look for an adjustable humidistat. This control measures the humidity in the room and adjusts the output of the humidifier to maintain a set value.

    * Note the alert features. Indicator lights alert the user when water is low or the filter requires maintenance. Even better, an automatic shutoff prevents the humidifier from running when the reservoir is dry.

    * A removable reservoir makes refilling and cleaning more convenient. Other helpful features include a wide mouth, a carrying handle and a tank that will fit under your faucet.

    * With impeller and ultrasonic humidifiers, get a demineralization cartridge. These minimize dust caused by the minerals left behind by tap water and are a must if you have hard water. Some models come with a demineralization cartridge; in other cases, it’s an optional add-on. Remember to replace the cartridge as scheduled.

    * Some humidifiers offer antibacterial features. These include antibacterial filters, ultraviolet light and antibacterial plastic used in construction.

    • Russell A. Faust, PhD, MD says:

      Hi John,
      Thanks for your nice addition to this article. My only disagreement with what you have listed here is that I strongly DISCOURAGE use of the ultrasonic humidifiers, simply because EVERYTHING that is in the water – bacteria, viruses, mold, pollutants – will be misted into the air. The same water can be used in a STEAM VAPORIZER but it will be sterilized by the heating process. Like your antibiotic site too.
      Thanks again for the great contribution!

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  5. What cool mist humidifier do you recommend for toodler? And when should it be used as opposed to steamer?

    • Russell A. Faust, PhD, MD says:

      Hi Vic:

      I want to be VERY clear about this: if you or anyone in your household struggles with allergies, asthma, sinusitis, cystic fibrosis, or any respiratory ailment, please steer clear of any “cool mist” humidifier! The problem is that those will aerosolize anything and everything that is in the water! That means, you’ll be potentially breathing mold spores; bacteria; viruses; other microbes … not a good scenario for the respiratory-challenged.

      The best alternative is a true STEAM-VAPORIZER. These actually boil the water in order to produce the water vapor. That heating process kills any microbes that may be in the water.

      The difference can be seen on your furniture: go into any room where a “cool mist” humidifier is being used, and you’ll see a white film on the furniture within a day. That’s the scum that’s in our water supply, and includes various microbes, as well as minerals. You won’t see that when using a steam-vaporizer.

      In the winter, we use 5 or 6 steam vaporizers throughout our home. Be sure to turn off the vaporizers during the day, and open those rooms so they can dry out. Dust-mites and molds LOVE moisture, so keep things healthy by letting it all dry out during the 24 hour cycle.

      Thank you for the question, Vic. Please let me know if you have questions, and thanks for visiting.

  6. Tell me a website where I can see more features and reviews for humidifier. I really want to pick up something that most I’d fit

  7. I was informed by a doctor that the steam vaporizer cam cause ear infections. My first when we used it was a lot was plagued with them. Now granted that does not mean the two are connected. But have not used it with baby no 2 as a result

    • Russell A. Faust, PhD, MD says:

      Never hear that before. Have not experienced that. And cannot find any scientific or medical studies that mention that connection.
      Thanks for sharing, though!

      • I agree with you! With my 1st child we always used one and she had multiple ear infections. We hadn’t used ours for years but recently got ours out last week. My son had a bad cold for a week with absolutly no ear symptoms and within 2 hours of sleeping with the hot steam vaporizer he woke in extreme ear pain. After he got better I started with some stuffiness and sore throat. I moved the vaporizer into my room while I was napping & low and behold I woke in extreme ear pain! Today I will be pitching the vaporizer!

        • Russell A. Faust, PhD, MD says:

          I’m not sure that we are in agreement: in my experience, the “ultrasonic” or “cool mist” humidifiers have a higher risk of dispersing microorganisms into the air. Steam-vaporizers must boil water in order to make the mist, thus sterilizing (killing) any microorganisms in the water container before misting it into the air. I am bewildered by the experience you describe, and have no explanation. Perhaps another reader can offer some insight. Thanks for visiting and for sharing.

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