Is There Difference Between Air Cleaners and Air Purifiers?

Sure, they may sound the same but trust us when we say there’s a difference between air cleaners and air purifiers.

These days, brands and marketers like to blur the lines as much as they can to give their products a bit more street cred. 

And that’s no different in the air purifier/air cleaner market.

Some will tell you there is no difference. Some will tell you there is.

And depending on what products they’re comparing, they may or may not be telling the whole truth. So you must do some due diligence if you’re researching specific products.

Air cleaners and air purifiers are the same, especially in the lower-end category. They filter out airborne particles. 

However, some air purifiers—especially higher-end models—will sanitize and purify the air and remove pollutants. 

This means that sometimes air cleaners and air purifiers are the same—and sometimes not.

Ultimately, pay more attention to the features offered and less to what they’re called. 

Again, some air cleaners and purifiers may have filters, but some purifiers may have much more. 

Both air cleaners and purifiers will remove air particles from your home, but not all air purifiers can sanitize or kill pathogens.


Air Cleaners: What They Are and How They Work

As mentioned above, air cleaners filter out pollutants from the air. 

And so do air purifiers. It’s just that an air purifier may do more. 

Let’s discuss the differences. 

Note that there are a lot of crossovers since, to some extent, they both do the same, and it will ultimately depend on your chosen model since they aren’t all created equal.

What Air Cleaners Do

So what exactly can an air cleaner remove from your air? 

Ultimately, it will depend on the filter your air cleaner—and even your air purifier—uses. 

Some filters/models have greater capabilities, typically in a higher price category.

Regardless, at the very least, you can expect they’ll remove the following:

  • Ash 
  • Dust 
  • Dust mites 
  • Fungus
  • Mildew 
  • Mold 
  • Pet dander 
  • Pollen 
  • Soil 
  • Tobacco smoke 

Without these contaminants in the air, it’s obviously healthier for you and your family, but there is an added benefit. 

It also means your HVAC is more efficient since the number of air particles moving through the system is reduced. 

And speaking of your HVAC, air cleaners and air purifiers can be attached directly to your ductwork. 

In fact, a report from the Mayo Clinic stated that air cleaners or purifiers that attach directly to a whole house system—as opposed to portable units—are more effective at removing pollutants from the air.

How Air Cleaners Work

If your air cleaner—or purifier—is limited to a filter, it will only do the following.

Air cleaners work by cleaning the air as it passes through the filter. So any particles that have settled in an area without air circulation will stay right where they are.

When the particles hit the filter and assume they’re big enough for the filter to catch, they’re simply trapped there, clinging to the filter. 

Filters that can be made from a variety of substances, including:

  • Cotton 
  • Fiberglass 
  • Paper 
  • Synthetic mesh

The trapped particles are the reason you need to change your filters regularly. 

Failure to do so leads to a clogged filter that nothing will pass through. 

This will a) prevent your air from getting clean and b) likely destroy the fan motor, as it struggles to do a job that is now impossible.

Note that using cheap or subpar filters can have equally ineffective results.

And even the very best of filters, like the HEPA filter, can only catch and trap contaminates as they pass through. They do not kill or sanitize them.

This is why air cleaners and purifiers directly attached to your HVAC are better. 

Even if your portable unit has a fan—and they do—you are still limited to the area where the fan covers and circulates. 

Your HVAC will get the air moving throughout your home.

But what about air purifiers? How do they work?


Air Purifiers: What They Are and How They Work

Air purifiers pick up where air cleaners leave off. 

But be careful. 

Because sometimes, air cleaners will market themselves as air purifiers when all they do is filter air. 

And as mentioned above, not all air purifiers have the same features.

Yes, it can be confusing!

Remember back in the early days of the pandemic when hand sanitizer couldn’t be found anywhere? 

Or you couldn’t find Clorox Wipes because suddenly just wiping something down with a wet cloth wasn’t good enough?

Think of an air purifier—that has the necessary features—as that sanitizer or those wipes. 

Something that will go above and beyond superficial cleaning or filtering. Something that will kill germs, not just hold on to them—while they’re still in your home.

So what gives air purifiers the ability to sanitize or purify the air more than a simple cleaner will do?

UV Air Purifiers

As the name suggests, UV purifiers use ultraviolet light to disinfect your air.

The best UV purifiers are attached to your ductwork—they’re much more powerful than portable models. 

And since your ductwork moves air through your entire home, having your purifier attached to your HVAC has increased effectiveness. 

A portable unit is only as good as the area it covers.

Ultraviolet light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. 

The electromagnetic spectrum comprises the entire visible light spectrum, ultraviolet rays, radio waves, and x-rays. 

However, the naked eye can’t see UV light since it isn’t part of the visible light spectrum.

There are three different types of ultraviolet rays. UVA and UVB rays come from the sun, but UV air purifiers use UVC rays.

UV light can damage tissue and cells, as you would know if you’ve spent any amount of time outdoors on a sunny day—or laid in a tanning bed for too long. Sunburns are the result of UV light.

Air purifiers that use ultraviolet technology use a shortwave UV light called UVC light. This light can kill airborne pathogens and microorganisms. And unlike UVA and UVB rays that can damage the skin, it’s harmless for humans.

UVC light damages the molecules of the microorganisms it absorbs as they pass by. It destroys the DNA of the organism, essentially killing it and rendering it harmless. 

This is the type of equipment that is used in hospitals and laboratories to sterilize equipment and spaces.

Many higher-end UV air purifiers are combined with air filters, largely because they aren’t as efficient when eliminating larger airborne particles. 

These particles could include:

  • Dirt
  • Dust
  • Pet dander
  • Smoke
  • Soot

Suppose an air purifier combines a HEPA filter and UV light. In that case, it will remove small and large particulates from the air and sanitize it. 

The UV light kills microorganisms as they pass by, and the filter deals with any leftover particulates.

Difference between Air Purifiers and Air Cleaners – Conclusion

The whole subject of comparing air cleaners to air purifiers can be confusing. 

Brands and marketers love to make up names that imply things that can be misleading.

And some people will conclude that an air purifier will also sanitize their air, but that comes at a much higher price point.

As suggested in this article, your best bet is to pay more attention to feature lists than the name of a product. 

That should keep you on the right track.

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