HEPA vs Carbon Filter: What’s the Difference?

Buying an air purifier for the first time is no easy task. 

When I first went on the market, I was overwhelmed by all the available options.

We can spend all day discussing everything to consider when buying an air purifier, but today, let’s focus on filtration.

Typically, air purifiers come with either a HEPA or carbon filter. 

Sometimes, they also use both of these filters to clean the air.

So, what’s the difference between these filters?

Well, it’s essential to understand that HEPA and carbon filters serve different purposes, and none of them are necessarily better than the other.

In this article, I’ll explain the differences between a HEPA and carbon filter air purifier in closer detail and compare the two filters in a head-to-head comparison.

Read on to learn more.

What Is a HEPA Filter?

HEPA stands for high-efficiency particulate air.

This mechanical filter is made of a fine fiberglass mesh that captures microscopic particles.

These are the most sought-out filters for air purification because they capture certain particles well.

A true HEPA filter should eliminate 97% of the particles that are 0.3 microns or smaller.

No other filters capture particles this small, making them a popular option for air purifiers.

Initially, these filters were made in WWII to prevent soldiers from inhaling radioactive particles, which explains how effective these filters are at capturing tiny particles.

Nowadays, you can find HEPA filters in many appliances. 

They are commonly found in vacuum cleaners because of all the dust that goes into these machines.

They are also a go-to option for air purification because they effectively remove harmful pollutants from the air.

What Does a HEPA Filter Capture?

A true HEPA filter should capture at least 97% of particles that are 0.3 microns or smaller.

To give you a better idea of how small that is, a single strand of hair is around 70 microns thick so that HEPA filters can capture microscopic particles.

This includes dust, bacteria, pollen, pet dander, and other pollutants. 

However, these filters focus on solid particles, meaning they can’t remove smoke and the particles that cause strong and foul odors.

Additionally, it’s essential to make sure you find a true HEPA filter with a high rating when shopping.

Many fake HEPA filters on the market don’t meet the standards of a true HEPA filter and won’t be as effective.

HEPA filters also use a rating system, where you’d want a HEPA filter with an H13 rating or higher.

What Is a Carbon Filter?

As you might be able to guess, a carbon filter is made out of activated carbon or charcoal.

These filters absorb smoke, fumes, VOCs, and other gaseous particles in the air.

Typically, these filters are made of foam, powder, or carbon powder, all designed to accomplish the same goal.

To make these filters, you need to treat charcoal with oxygen.

This causes the charcoal to create tiny pores that air can pass through.

And while air can pass through the pores, microscopic particles like smoke and fumes can’t, which is how they can clean the air.

While carbon filters are typically used to clean the air, they can also be used in water purification.

Since charcoal has tiny pores, it can capture the harmful particles in water that pass through it, giving you clean and drinkable water.

You can find carbon filters in most modern air purifiers. 

But you can also get stand-alone carbon filters that you can use to remove foul and strong scents, allowing you to breathe in cleaner and fresher air.

What Does a Carbon Filter Capture?

As mentioned earlier, carbon filters capture gaseous particles. 

Carbon filters are excellent if you have VOCs floating around your home, live in an area with wildfires, or just want to eliminate strong smells at home.

While HEPA filters are built to capture solid particles, carbon filters are made for the opposite.

These filters won’t be able to filter out small particles like dust and pet dander. 

But when it comes to VOCs, gaseous pollutants, and PM 2.5, carbon filters are what will get the job done.

HEPA vs Carbon Filter: Is One Better Than the Other?

So, now that you know all the details about carbon and HEPA filters, you may wonder if one is better than the other.

A carbon filter is not better than a HEPA filter and vice versa. 

Both of these filters are made to capture different particles and serve their own functions.

Having either of these filters in your air purifier is excellent, but combining the two for even more functionality is better.

That said, just because neither of these filters is the better option doesn’t mean you can’t compare the two.

Below, we’ll get into the key differences between a HEPA and carbon filter to give you a clearer idea of when to use either filter.


HEPA filters remove solid particles like dust, pet dander, and pollen.

So, if you have HEPA filters in your air purifier, you’ll be able to clean the air efficiently.

HEPA filters can eliminate allergens and other particles that can affect your health, making them one of the most popular filtration systems for air purifiers.

On the flip side, carbon filters capture foul odors and gases.

This includes VOCs, smoke, and other particles that cause strong odors.

These are typically used to help a space smelling clean and fresh while improving the overall air quality.

Since both air purifiers are used differently, having both in your air purifier eliminates allergens and keeps your space smelling fresh.


When it comes to maintenance, both of these filtration systems are very different.

Some HEPA filters are built to last you a long time. 

So, you can clean out and wash these filters whenever they get dirty, extending their lifetime. 

It’s essential to clean your HEPA filter regularly.

This keeps your air purifier functioning properly and extends your HEPA filter’s lifespan.

That said, other HEPA filters aren’t reusable.

Replace these filters whenever they get dirty.

But getting a washable HEPA filter might be best if you want a more inexpensive option.

When it comes to carbon filters, you won’t be able to 

wash or clean them.

Currently, there’s no such thing as a washable carbon filter.

Instead, once these filters get full and don’t work as well, you have to replace the entire filter.

You can notice that the carbon filter needs replacing if a foul scent comes from the air purifier or if you find the air purifier doesn’t eliminate strong odors.

So, when it comes to maintenance, these filters are very different.

Most modern air purifiers use washable HEPA filters, which means you can wash and clean the filter whenever it gets dirty.

However, if you have one with a carbon filter, you’ll need to replace the entire filter regularly.


This is probably the category where HEPA and carbon filters will have the same score.

Both of these filters will do the trick when it comes to effectiveness.

Remember, these filters have different purposes.

And nowadays, they have considered the best options for either purpose.

If you want to remove dust and other tiny solid particles from the air, a HEPA filter is your best option.

On the other hand, a carbon filter is the better pick if you want to eliminate strong scents and odors in your home.

Conclusion: Should I Get a HEPA Filter or Carbon Filter Air Purifier?

Neither of these filters is better than the other. 

These are two completely different technologies that have their purpose. 

HEPA filters are made of fiberglass mesh and capture solid particles in the air. In contrast, manufacturers made carbon filters for absorbing odors and gases.

If you had to choose only one of these filters for your air purifier, I recommend the HEPA filter.

This is because dust, pollen, and other solid particles can make life uncomfortable, especially if you have allergies like me.

But if your sole goal is to eliminate odors, a carbon filter is the better choice, as HEPA filters won’t be able to do that.

However, I usually recommend getting a model with both filters when buying an air purifier.

Filtration systems with HEPA and carbon filters are incredibly effective and one of the best choices for effectively cleaning the air.

Either filter would be a good pick.

But for more functionality and the cleanest possible air, you might want an air purifier with HEPA and carbon filters.

With a combination air purifier, you get the best of both worlds.