Cold and flu season may be right around the corner—though it’s not uncommon for some of us to deal with the unforeseen summer cold, and respiratory illness can strike at any time. When these illnesses do strike, some of us pull out the trusty humidifier to ease our symptoms, and/or also turn to natural home remedies like essential oils for support and relief.
If you’ve been wondering: can I put essential oils in a humidifier? Read on to learn about the differences between humidifiers and diffusers, whether using essential oils in a humidifier is possible, and more.
Humidifiers vs. diffusers – What’s the difference?
Humidifiers are designed to put moisture into the air around your home or other targeted space. This can be handy when the ambient air in your space is dry or if you’re dealing with dryness-related respiratory issues. Humidifiers also tend to be larger in size than diffusers.
Diffusers, on the other hand, are designed for emitting fragrance into the air only. While most use water to function, some only use the essential oils you place in the diffuser to then release and disperse them into the air—either for purely aromatic effect but sometimes for therapeutic effect, too.
Diffusers are also smaller in size compared to most humidifiers. They’re designed to be more inconspicuous or even aesthetically pleasing décor-enhancing devices for your living space, which can subjectively add to their calm- and therapy-promoting purposes.
How a humidifier works
With a humidifier device, one places water into a tray or reservoir and then plugs in and powers on the device. The way the device works is either by vibrating quickly to release droplets, or by drawing in and blowing out air along with the moisture from its chamber out through a filter. Some humidifiers also work with an internal disc that spins rapidly to emit a mist.
How an essential oil diffuser works
Diffusers can work in similar ways to humidifiers: some vibrate quickly with an internal chamber to release the essential oil droplets (along with water) into the air. Others function by heating the oils to disperse them into the air along with water as a vapor.
Nebulizing diffusers are the types of essential oil diffusers that don’t work with water. These “atomize” the oils to turn them into mist. The result is a much stronger aroma and more acute therapeutic effects.
Why you shouldn’t use essential oils in a regular humidifier
Because of the way they’re designed, putting essential oils into most common brand-name humidifiers risks breaking the device and rendering it inoperable. Their internal mechanisms and materials are only built to handle water—not oils or compounds.
Essential oils are more “caustic” and concentrated than water. As a result, putting them into a device only designed to use water can eventually corrode the humidifier’s inner materials and damage them. If the humidifier works using a filter, the essential oils can damage or “plug” their internal filters, making the humidifier not work properly or eventually break altogether.
Are some humidifiers designed to work with essential oils?
Yes, some designs and brands can work with essential oils and help diffuse them into the air in some way. Humidifiers that work with vibration (like ultrasonic humidifiers) are better at handling essential oils being added to them for diffuser use because of how the inner components function—but not always. Make sure to look up details about the product or ask a product specialist about this to make sure.
The safest bet for using a humidifier with essential oils is buying one that also has a built-in diffuser or medicine tray. This keeps the essential oils outside of the inner components of the humidifier while still diffusing and releasing them. All you have to do is add the desired essential oils, oil blend, or oil dilution to the tray while keeping to any product directions. Talk to a product expert for further input.
Most popular essential oils for humidifiers
Do you own or have you purchased a humidifier that can work with essential oils? Do you wish to use your humidifier with essential oils?
Since humidifiers are often used to improve respiratory health during times of cold, flu, or other types of upper-respiratory infections, here are some of the best oils to use with a humidifier that research shows can help boost respiratory health, improve breathing, or support your body when dealing with the symptoms of respiratory illness. (Note: these oils are not known to cure these illnesses, but they are shown to holistically aid symptoms and the recovery process.)
The leaves of this Australian tree are known to yield oils with powerful therapeutic effects for respiratory health. These can help enhance the benefits of using a humidifier while sick. Research shows that eucalyptus may reduce inflammation and boost immune response in the respiratory tract, though studies on humans are needed.1
Many associate the aroma of peppermint with sinus-clearing, respiratory soothing, and opening up airways—and it’s true. The mint plant’s essential oils contain compounds used in many over-the-counter cold and flu medicines, and it has been traditionally used for centuries for respiratory ills. One study even showed peppermint essential oil helped with the respiratory symptoms related to COVID-19.2
Rosemary is a beloved Italian herb and spice—and also a respiratory health powerhouse. It could be an excellent essential oil for use in humidifiers for breathing problems. In one study, rosemary was mentioned along with many other herbal essential oils as showing anti-inflammatory benefits for the respiratory tract, which can be perfect for use with a humidifier.3
For centuries (and maybe even millennia) common garden sage has been used as a useful herbal remedy for respiratory health and asthma. Sage essential oil contains a powerful compound called rosmarinic acid. One study on animals demonstrated that this compound greatly helps reduce lung inflammation associated with asthma, though studies on humans are needed.4
Just like peppermint, spearmint is popular for improving breathing because of its crisp, cooling, clarifying, and soothing aroma, making it a perfect choice for diffusers and humidifiers. It was long used as a traditional respiratory remedy, and scientific reviews confirm there is evidence to show spearmint essential oils help support breathing issues related to asthma, colds, coughs, and more.5
A close relative of all mints, sage, and rosemary as well, thyme likewise contains compounds known to support respiratory health and symptoms— including thymol, its most studied and active therapeutic ingredient. One study showed that thyme helped reduce issues like wheezing and labored breathing in patients with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) though more studies are needed.6
Using a humidifier with essential oils is possible. Just make sure your product is compatible with them, talk to a product specialist if need be, and use the right respiratory supporting essential oils with your product in order to experience optimal benefits.
About Adrian White
Adrian White is a certified herbalist, organic farmer, and health, food, and agriculture freelance writer—and upcoming author. She is a past contributor to Healthline with bylines in The Guardian, Civil Eats, and Good Housekeeping. Adrian is also the co-owner and operator of Jupiter Ridge LLC, an organic farm growing diverse vegetables, mushrooms and herbs.
1. Shao, J., Z. Yin, et. al. “Effects of Different Doses of Eucalyptus Oil From Eucalyuptus globulus Labill on Respiratory Tract Immunity and Immune Function in Healthy Rats.” Frontiers in Pharmacology 11 (2020).
2. Teymoori, Sabareh. “Evaluation of the effects of peppermint on improving the function of the respiratory system in COVID-19 infection.” International Conference on Agricultural Sciences, Medicinal Plants and Traditional Medicine (2022).
3. Leigh-de Rapper, S., A. Viljoen, & S. van Vurren. “Essential Oil Blends: The Potential of Combined Use for Respiratory Tract Infections.” Antibiotics 10, no. 2 (2021): 1517.
4. Shakeri, F., N. Eftekhar, et. al. “Rosmarinic acid affects immunological and inflammatory mediator levels and restores lung pathological features in asthmatic rats.” Allergologia et Immunopathologia 47, no. 1 (2019) 16-23.
5. Mahendran, G., S. Kumar Verma, & L. Rahman. “The traditional uses, phytochemistry and pharmacology of spearming (Mentha spicata L.): A review.” Journal of Ethnopharmacology 278 (2021): 114266.
6. Hosseinzdeh, E.Y., F. Mircheraghi, et al. “Effect of Thymus Vulgaris Inhaling on Wheezing and Respiratory Rate in Patients with Acute Exacerbation of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.” Internal Medicine Today 24, no. 1 (2018) 29-34.