Air Cleaners and Beyond: Lessons from a Decade of Filtering Air

I could be called the “First Lady of Filtering” and not just because I’m married to FilterJoe. As someone with allergies, asthma, and chemical sensitivities, filtering the air helps keeps me healthy and comfortable. Sometimes it makes it possible for me to be places and do activities that I’d otherwise avoid. I’m making a guest appearance to share about what’s worked for me after more than a decade of research, trial, error, and success.

The author wearing a mask to avoid breathing campfire smoke.

Though many articles review products such as air cleaners and vacuums, few recount someone’s longtime experience with them. Over the years I have found a combination of air filtering products (two masks, three types of air cleaners, and a vacuum) that works to cover most breath-challenging situations that arise in my life. Remarkably, most of these exact models are still available.

In this article, I discuss why and how those products work for me and how you might find the right ones for you. I also provide tips connected to the situations where I use those products.

This article will be useful for people with allergies and/or chemical sensitivities, and for people with family members who have those issues. It may be useful for people who need to minimize germ exposure as well.

Here is a list of the sections so you can jump ahead if you like:

When you are at the point of wanting to explore specific products, I highly recommend that you visit and possibly contact, which has employees who have tested the products themselves. The web site has in-depth charts comparing products. You can online chat or talk with a helpful, knowledgeable person about your particular situation. Their return polices are fair. I have purchased many products from them over the years and learned a large amount of useful information about air cleaners and related products—both via their web site and through phone calls with their employees.

Know What You Need to Filter

In order to choose the right air filtering products for you, you need to know what you are trying to avoid because different types of products filter different substances.

I am allergic to pollens, mold, and cat dander. I know this because I have taken a patch test at an allergist’s office. If you have allergies, and you haven’t done that yet, I highly recommend it. There’s enough guessing in the life of someone with allergies. For example, until I had a patch test I always assumed I was allergic to dust. So many people are, and I seemed to have reactions in dusty places. Now I believe those reactions were to pollen and sometimes mold in the dust. It’s helpful to know my concern is pollen and mold, not dust, as people who are allergic to dust need to guard again dust mites in their bedding, and I can skip that step.

Patch testing does not cover chemical sensitivities, but I know I have many from my experience. I am sensitive to fumes from things like new paint, new carpeting, new clothing made with pesticides (i.e. non-organic cotton), perfumes, essential oils, hairspray, new tires, cigarette smoke, wood smoke, gasoline fumes, and more. I have also learned that I react to the fumes from mold in addition to the mold particles. These things come up in everyday life often, so having ways to deal with them truly improves my life.

In terms of filtering, the things you wish to avoid will fall into one or both of two categories:

  • Particles, such as pollen, mold spores, dust, and pet dander, are very tiny solid objects. They will need to be blocked by a physical filter or captured by static. Sometimes it’s helpful to know the size of the particles you are trying to avoid. Many filters will specify the smallest size of particles they capture, so you’ll want to make sure they capture what you need to avoid.
  • Fumes or Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are gases, including fumes from gasoline, paint, and off-gassing from new carpeting. They need something to grab them. Activated carbon filters accomplish that.

So when I’m looking at products to filter the air, I seek products that will capture both particles and fumes. You may need to concern yourself with just one of these.


My husband Joe (aka FilterJoe) often points out that masks are my most cost-effective air filters. I agree, and I love them because I can take them anywhere. I always carry one in my purse or backpack, and sometimes in my pocket. They have allowed me to stay in places I would otherwise have to leave, such as campgrounds full of campfire smoke and buildings with fresh paint, new carpeting, or pumped-in fragrances.

When I first began using masks, more than ten years ago, there were few companies that made comfortable, reusable masks. Today there are more choices. The two I found initially work wonderfully for me. They fit my face well, which is key because the air needs to be forced through the mask. They are lightweight and about as attractive as a mask can be. The two I have settled on are the silk mask and the honeycomb mask from The silk mask filters particles only and the honeycomb mask filters both particles and fumes.

Smiling in my honeycomb mask as I enjoy walking through a beautiful campground without being bothered by campfire smoke.

The honeycomb mask has carbon filters that sit in it. Currently’s honeycomb masks are made of coconut hulls. Many masks with carbon filters are heavy and bulky, but the honeycomb mask is streamlined and comfortable. Carbon absorbs fumes.

The carbon gets full after several hours of exposure and needs to be changed, so you want to have extra filters on hand. Unfortunately the only way to know that a filter is full is when it is no longer working. Though you can preemptively change filters, I tend to take that tiny bit of exposure to get the most out of the filters. The filters are small and flat, making them easy to store.

Here are situations where I put on a honeycomb mask:

  • whenever I go into our basement, where there is a slight mold problem we haven’t solved (Because of my chemical sensitivity, I am bothered by the fumes from mold, in addition to the spores.)
  • while painting or doing other projects with substances that off-gas, such as glues
  • while pumping gas at gas stations
  • in stores with pumped-in fragrances
  • while camping when smoke from campfires blows into our area (We also try to always camp near beaches, where there is a lot of fresh air.)
  • on airplanes, where fumes build up from people using the perfumed bathroom soap
  • when we were looking at houses and some had new paint fumes, new carpeting fumes, or mold
  • in emergency situations like when the house behind ours caught fire or when the oil refinery not far from our house caught fire (In the latter case I wore the mask while preparing to evacuate.)

Sometimes I feel awkward wearing a mask in public. I’ve been helped to realize that when I smile at people with the mask on, they can see it in my eyes. If I’m interacting with someone, like a store employee or an airplane seat partner, I tend to feel more comfortable if I briefly tell that person why I’m wearing a mask. Sometimes people comment that they are happy to see my mask because they or a loved one would benefit from something similar, and I like that I’m helping others that way. I’ve had enough experiences where I have not worn a mask and felt awful afterwards, that I feel motivated if I remember what I am avoiding.

One slight caution: when you wear a carbon filter mask around a strong fume for a prolonged period of time (or a shorter time for some types of fumes, such as cigarette smoke), the fume can get in your hair or clothing, and after you remove the mask you can react to the fumes from your own hair or clothing. So be prepared to change your clothes, add a clean sweatshirt, or shower, depending on the situation. also makes a sport filter version of the honeycomb mask with small exhalation values that allow you to expel air quickly.

I also own a silk mask from While the honeycomb mask is comfortable, the silk one is even more so. It’s very lightweight. The silk mask does not filter fumes, but it does filter particles such as pollen, dust, animal dander, and mold spores.

I am quite comfortable sleeping in the silk mask, so it does a great job keeping me more comfortable when pollen is in the air, for example when I’m camping or on summer nights when we need the windows open and lose the effect of our whole-house air filter (more on that later). I can sleep easily in the mask, and my nose clears without the side effects of antihistamines.

I also use my silk mask for gardening because pollen and/or mold sometimes get stirred up. I used to get very congested after a gardening session. Now I wear the silk mask, plus a work shirt and a hat or bandanna that I can leave in the garage when I’m done. If it is a particularly high-allergen time of year, or I’ve done a lot of work, I might shower afterwards.

A silk mask can be used until it wears out. It can be rinsed after heavy use and dries quickly. The mask itself lasts for a very long time, but in recent years I’ve noticed that the elastic wears out after a few years. For a while, I can tighten the elastic to solve the problem, but then the elastic becomes sticky. I spoke with the owner of about this, and she kindly sent me extra elastic.

For those who don’t like to use silk for animal rights concerns, also offers an organic cotton mask, which serves the same purpose as the silk mask, but I imagine isn’t quite as light.

When you get your own mask remember to consider what you need to filter and make sure the mask fits. Family doctor Richard Saint Cyr did some extensive testing on the fit of both disposable and reusable masks. Remember he was testing on his own face, which is not the same as yours.

The highest rated reusable mask he tested was the Vogmask with no valve. That mask filters particles only. Anyone who needs to filter fumes as well would need the Vogmask with the valve. I notice that Vogmasks with valves come in different sizes. The size seems particularly important because the Vogmasks’ ear straps are not adjustable. My guess is that masks without adjustable ear straps would have a shorter lifetime than masks that have them, since you can’t tighten the ear strap as the elastic wears out. Of course you may be able to replace the elastic yourself.

Both the honeycomb masks and the Vogmasks come in a variety of colors and patterns.

The honeycomb mask from came in second among reusable masks in Richard Saint Cyr’s testing, and a close third was the Respro Techno. I notice that the Respro Techno comes in different sizes and that it is held on by a headband rather than ear bands. I wonder if the headband slips off more easily than earbands do. That is something I would test before ordering more than one mask.

Remember every face is different, so the fit on your own face may vary. If I were starting today with all these choices, I would probably pick whichever of those three appealed to me for other reasons (such as looks, materials, price, and reviews), and start by trying one mask. With carbon filter masks, be sure to consider the cost of the replacement filters as well.

Air Cleaners—General Information

I own three different types of air cleaners for three different purposes: a very small portable air cleaner primarily for traveling; a larger portable air cleaner for single room needs at home; and a whole-house air cleaner that is part of our central air heating system to manage allergens at home. I use them all. All three were purchased at If I were to purchase air cleaners anew today, I might skip the larger portable air cleaner, which we got before we had central air, but I still occasionally use it and am glad to have it.

There are several ways that air cleaners can filter the air. In all cases something is placed between the incoming (“dirty”) air and the outgoing (“clean”) air.

Physical Filters force air through some sort of material that blocks particles of a certain size and larger. HEPA Filters (or high-efficiency particulate arrestance filters) are a high quality kind of physical filter that prevent at least 99.7% of particles 0.3 microns or larger from passing through. Other filters allow larger particles to pass through, but some are still quite efficient. HEPA filters will catch allergen particles such as mold spores, pollens, animal dander, and dust, as well as some germs.

Electrostatic Filters use electricity to capture particles on metal plates. They are not as efficient as HEPA filters. Sometimes they produce ozone, which is a lung irritant and particularly bad for people with asthma. An advantage of these filters is that they can be cleaned and reused, but you must be sure that they will capture the particles you need to filter and that they have been tested and do not produce ozone.

Ionizing Filters and Ozone Generators both produce ozone. Ozone has a clean smell, which will be promoted as a feature, but ozone is harmful to all lungs, and particularly to asthmatic lungs, so these products should be avoided. Ionizing filters attach ions to particles to make them easier for the ionizing filter to capture, but the ionized particles can also end up sticking to your ceilings and walls.

Carbon Filters use activated carbon to capture VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and odors. This includes fumes that bother people with multiple chemical sensitivities such as fumes from paint, glues, new carpeting, perfumes, car exhaust, and smoke.

When you are considering purchasing an air cleaner the most important questions to consider are:

  • What does the air cleaner filter? This is where you would consider what you need to filter and if it is captured by the filter you are considering. If you need to filter particles, look at the minimum size particle that the air cleaner captures and compare with the size of the particles you need to avoid. If you need to filter fumes, check that the air cleaner has a system to so.
  • How big a space can the air cleaner handle? This information should be readily available, given in number of square feet. You’ll see in the following sections that different air cleaners are useful in different situations. You might want it to clean the air only in the area where you sleep, or you might need it to clean a whole room or even a whole house.

Other factors to consider are:

  • How loud is the air cleaner and how many fan settings does it have? Different sounds bother people in different ways. As I have read reviews and tried out different air cleaners, I have concluded that one person’s pleasant white noise is another person’s severe annoyance. A variety of fan settings will allow you to adjust the noise level at times when you don’t need the air cleaner to be on the highest setting. If you are sometimes sensitive to noise (as I am), do the best you can choosing an air cleaner that you think will work for you based on reviews, but understand the return policy for the product and be prepared to return it, if necessary. (A brief description of my experience returning an air cleaner due to noise issues is in the Larger Portable Air Cleaner section.)
  • How much energy does the air cleaner use at each setting? This information should be readily available. All other things being equal, you will probably want to choose the air cleaner that will have less impact on your wallet and the planet.
  • How do the air cleaner’s appearance and size fit in the space where you need it to go? You’re going to see a lot of this appliance, and some of them are rather large, so this might matter to you.
  • How much does the air cleaner cost? The costs vary widely. This is something you’ll want to take into account, along with the cost to run it and…
  • Do you need to replace filters and if so, how often? How much do they cost? And where can you get them? Most filter life estimates are based on an assumption about how often the filter is running and what it’s exposed to. If you are planning to run yours a different amount of time, adjust accordingly. Understand that exposing it to some extremely dirty air may reduce the life of the filter (But you’ll be glad it worked!). Filter replacement costs can be significant, so make sure you are aware of what you are getting into.

In the following sections I describe how I’ve used various types of air cleaners. If you want to compare the features of air cleaners, these charts on are a great place to start.

Very Small Portable Air Cleaner

The Roomaid air cleaner is probably the air cleaner I have used the least, but when I need it, I am so glad to have it. It is very small, only 8.5 inches in diameter and 7.5 inches high. The air cleaner, along with a wall plug fits into a Styrofoam container that is 9.75 inches in diameter and 11.5 inches high.

The size is important because this is the air cleaner I use for traveling. Within its styrofoam container, it fits into a standard-sized rolling piece of carry-on luggage, with room to spare. The Roomaid has a HEPA filter for capturing particles and a carbon filter, which has made many hotel rooms with lingering scents and fumes into places I can inhabit without feeling sick.

The small Roomaid is a helpful traveling companion or deskmate.

Because the Roomaid is small, it cleans the air in a small space. Think of it as creating a bubble of clean air. It probably is not going to solve a problem in an entire large hotel room, but it enables me to get by because I set it up right next to where I’m going to sleep, and it creates clean air to breathe while I sleep or rest.

The Roomaid has two fan settings. Usually as I’m settling into the room and while I’m out of the room, I turn it on high to do as much work as possible. I don’t like loud noise, so unless the fumes are very bad, I usually set it on low at night and face towards it.

Here are some other tips I’ve learned over years of being a person with chemical sensitivities who likes to travel.

  • Hotels typically use more deodorants than B&B’s, vacation rentals, and hostels do, so if you can, choose a B&B, vacation rental, or hostel.
  • Have a conversation ahead of time and make sure you aren’t going to be put in a room or rental with something you are sensitive to. In my case, I check for new carpeting and fresh paint. I let them know that I do not want any deodorizers or other items with fragrance in the space, and I don’t want it sprayed with a deodorizer or other fragrance before I arrive. If I am staying in a hotel or B&B for more than one night, I tell them that I would like the room to be cleaned with water only during my stay.
  • I bring my own pillow. I happen to like thin, soft pillows that condense into luggage well, but if yours won’t, you might bring a towel you could put between the pillow and your nose.
  • I also bring fragrance-free soap.
  • And I bring a camping towel like this one, just in case their towels reek with fabric softener perfume.
  • When renting a car, I request a no-smoking car that is at least a few years old (to avoid new-car off-gassing) and request that they don’t spray the car with deodorant when they prep it for me.
  • Camping avoids many of these issues, but it does have the issue of campfire smoke. We’ve found that camping on beaches works well, because there is always a source of fresh air. I haven’t tried traveling by camper or RV, but that could be a good solution.

I have also used the Roomaid air cleaner in my car, plugging it into the cigarette lighter with a car adapter, which is sold separately. I have used it when I have had to drive through areas where smoke from forest fires has gathered, and when I had some car repair work done and the mechanics put a fragrance in the air conditioning system.

The Roomaid can be very helpful at a workplace desk where you are subjected to new paint or carpeting. I recommended one to a chemically sensitive friend who found herself in this situation, and it worked well for her. has a great list of small, portable air cleaners, with lots of comparative information.

Larger Portable Air Cleaner

I am using the term “larger portable air cleaner” to contrast with the term “very small portable air cleaner,” which I use in the previous section. When people talk about “air cleaners” or “air purifiers,” they are usually referring to what I’m calling “larger portable air cleaners.” Larger portable air cleaners will clean air in large spaces, such as a good-sized room or even multiple rooms in a house. While they can be moved, sometimes with wheels, moving them is a more significant task than moving a very small portable air cleaner.

The air cleaner in this category that has worked very well for me is the Austin Air Health Mate Plus Jr. It has both a HEPA filter for particles and a carbon filter for fumes. I purchased my Austin Air Health Mate Plus Jr. in 2003 when I lived in a house that did not have a central heating system. Our current home has a central heating system, and we were able to install a whole-house air filter, which I will describe in the next section. I probably could get by without my Austin air cleaner now—using the whole-house air cleaner for seasonal allergies and using masks or the Roomaid for fumes, such as when painting or caulking work is done in the house. But a larger portable air cleaner will clean both particles and fumes in a larger space, which makes those situations easier.

My trusty Austin Air Health Mate Plus Jr. air cleaner has kept me breathing easy under some challenging circumstances.

The Austin Air Health Mate Plus Jr. cleans the air in one room very well. You can purchase even larger ones that will take care of more than one room. I got mine because we had a slight mold problem in the bedroom of our old house. I ran it in the bedroom right next to my bed all the time, on low at night for the quiet. It worked fantastically.

I have also used the Austin Air Health Mate Plus Jr., along with a mask, when I have painted rooms, with low-odor paint. Those three things together (air cleaner, mask, and low-odor paint) have enabled me to paint without having reactions, which for someone like me is pretty darn impressive. I have also run my Austin air cleaner when we have accidentally gotten fumes in our house from something going on outside, and when we have had fumes from our own house projects. In these cases, it allows me to function without a mask in the room I’m in.

Air cleaners create bubbles of clean air around them—the larger the air cleaner, the larger the bubble. It is not necessary to close doors within the house to make them work, however closing a door could help that bubble grow a bit bigger. I would recommend keeping the windows and outside doors closed, however, because unfiltered air will move in quickly from outside.

The Austin Air Health Mate Plus Jr. was actually the third larger portable air cleaner I tried. was extremely helpful in my process as I had unusual problems with two other air cleaners, and needed to return them and then choose others.

Both air cleaners that didn’t work for me are very highly rated and work well for many people. Below is a brief account of what happened with each:

The IQ Air Health Pro Plus is a very a high quality air cleaner that would have cleaned the air in a larger area than the Austin Air Health Mate Plus Jr. does. Unfortunately and surprisingly, I had a chemical sensitivity reaction to it. I learned from a helpful advisor at back then that I was one of very few chemically sensitive people, who is sensitive to fumes from a glue in that air cleaner’s HEPA filter. I am glad to say that I haven’t reacted to any other HEPA filter since. I returned that air cleaner.

Next I tried the Blueair 402, which is another high quality air cleaner and has a reputation for being very quiet. Unfortunately and surprisingly, to my ears the sound, that was indeed very quiet, was at a frequency that I found extremely irritating. I imagine a lot of people couldn’t even hear it. It’s possible that now that I’m 13 years older, I might not be able to hear it myself, but at that time I found it very unpleasant, and, especially since it was going to be in my bedroom, that wasn’t going to work. The Blueair 402 has been replaced by the even more powerful Blueair Sense+, which has a different fan system and presumably a different sound. Again, the return was easy.

Upon consultation with another helpful advisor, I chose the Austin Air Health Mate Plus Jr. and have been very happy with it.

One useful thing to know about the Austin Air Health Mate Plus Jr. is that the air comes out from one side of the unit at an angle. That means the clean air is concentrated. If you are using it in your bedroom and run it on the low fan setting at night, you will want to point the airstream at your face. If you are cleaning the air in a room with a sudden problem, you can run it on high and point the air stream towards you, allowing you to be present, breathing clean air, as it clears the room.

The Austin Air air cleaners (both Jr. and standard sizes) have a simpler design than many. One thing I didn’t think about until I lived with one, is how convenient it is for that air cleaner to have a flat surface on top. I wouldn’t recommend piling things up there and letting them collect (gasp!) dust. But it can be handy to use that surface on a temporary basis.

When selecting a larger portable air cleaner there are many things to consider, as I outlined in Air Cleaners—General Information. At the bottom of’s list of things to consider you’ll notice they list air cleaners by the three companies that made the larger portable air cleaners I tried, Austin Air, Blueair, and IQAir, as “Good,” “Better,” and “Best,” in that order. For me Austin Air turned out to be best. In matters of our health and homes, there are so many variables—educate yourself and find what’s best for you.

Whole-house Air Cleaner

Our whole-house air cleaner is the only product I discuss in this article that I have owned for less than ten years. In this case it’s six years.

Whole-house air cleaners require a central heating system or heating and air conditioning system (called HVAC), where air is moved throughout the house by way of vents. In these systems, air is taken into the cold air return (usually visible as a grate in an inconspicuous area of a floor or wall). The air is then forced through an air cleaner, then through a heating and/or cooling system (which could be turned off), and then directed up through vents into the rooms of the house. A fan keeps the air moving through the system. In our case the air cleaner portion has HEPA air filters, specifically the IQAir Perfect 16 Whole-House Air Purifier. Other systems use lower quality air filters or electrostatic filters, or include carbon filters for fumes. Furnace filters are less expensive than whole-house air cleaners, but also less effective because they must occupy less space. However they may be effective enough for you. Once again, is an excellent resource, with a detailed page on whole-house air cleaners and furnace filters.

Air comes down from the cold air return and into the left side of the Perfect 16 Whole-House Air Purifier where it passes through several layers of HEPA air filters, then comes out the right and goes into the furnace. From there the air is passed up into the rooms of our house through vents. The furnace fan moves the air through the system.

Having a whole-house air cleaner is an expensive endeavor and something you are probably not going to engage in unless someone in your household has serious allergies. The filters themselves are costly and must be replaced every few years. Vacuuming them occasionally, which is not difficult, can increase their efficiency. Systems with electrostatic filters do not need replacement filters, but do need to be hosed off occasionally and are not as effective as HEPA filters. The installation has a cost. And we are running the furnace fan much more than we would otherwise, which has a cost as well.

For me the whole-house air cleaner serves two purposes. The first is that it filters particles out of the air. In my case the relevant particles are pollens, but it is also filtering pet dander, dust, mold spores, and even some germs. The pollen filtering has worked fantastically for me. Before having the whole-house air cleaner, as long as I can remember, I always had a few months each year when my eyes were itchy and my nose was very stuffed due to seasonal allergies. This would make it hard to sleep at night unless I took medication. That no longer happens in the house. Sometimes I forget it’s allergy season until I go outside.

A few times a year I still experience a milder version of these seasonal allergy reactions in the house. I believe that is because when the pollens outside are very dense, they enter the house though small openings and bother me. And there are times when we need to keep the windows open for temperature control or other reasons. (Here is where air conditioning would help, but we don’t have that.) If pollen is bothering me, I sometimes wear a silk mask at night to keep the pollen out of my sinuses and lungs.

The other important way that I believe the whole-house air cleaner helps me is that we have the fan going almost all the time. Mold needs spores and still air to grow. Filtering the spores and keeping the air moving inhibits its growth. I have very bad asthma reactions to molds, so this is a great side benefit.

There is a cost to running a fan almost all the time. If we could do this all over again, we would have purchased a more expensive furnace with more energy-efficient fan settings, or we would have replaced the furnace fan during installation with an energy-efficient fan like one of these (to understand why this helps, read a primer about the three furnace motor technologies). Because of the seriousness of my allergies and asthma, we have been able to get an exemption from moving into the higher energy rates for more usage. This PG&E program required my doctor to fill out a form. I don’t know if other energy providers have similar programs, but you could check. Note that running a fan all the time also means living with the sound of the fan.

Though some of the more expensive whole-house air cleaners filter fumes, ours does not. We try to keep our house fume-free. When those needs come up, for example if we paint an area of the house, I use my larger portable air cleaner, very small portable air cleaner, and/or my honeycomb mask.

A whole-house air cleaner is a serious financial commitment, but, for people with serious allergies and asthma, it can make a significant difference in quality of life and ability to be productive. See’s overview of whole-house air cleaners to compare whole-house air cleaners and to learn more about furnace filters, which are less expensive but also less effective options.

Vacuum Cleaner

Another item I have that filters air is my vacuum cleaner. When a vacuum cleaner sucks air in, some air also has to come out. Unless the vacuum has a good filter in front of that exhaust, it will be spewing dust, pollen, pet dander, and mold spores into the air as you go.

I own a Miele Solaris Electro Plus, which is a canister vacuum that comes with a power brush attachment for carpeting. I’ve had upright vacuum cleaners in the past, and I prefer the canister for its portability and flexibility—with attachments that make it possible to vacuum many types of surfaces, including furniture, walls, and ceilings. I have had this vacuum cleaner for about thirteen years. It has dealt well with the dirt tracked in by an active family with a child and, for a while, two very furry dogs.

The Solaris Electro Plus is a model that is no longer being made. Mine is still in great shape, and, when I need another vacuum, I will look at Miele again. Miele vacuums are made with allergic people in mind. Miele’s web site says that their regular exhaust filters capture 99.9% of “all fine dust particles.” You can also purchase a HEPA filter for their vacuum’s exhaust, which they recommend for people with allergies. I do fine with the regular filter in normal use, but have used a HEPA filter at times when we have had mold issues.

Vacuum cleaners are expected to last longer and perform better if you take them in for maintenance periodically. This was a free service when we lived near the store where we purchased the vacuum. does sell vacuums, but if you will get free maintenance at your local store, you may want to buy locally. If you are chemically sensitive, beware that some stores put a perfumed deodorant in the vacuum during the maintenance service. I am careful to tell them not do that each time I bring in the vacuum.

One feature of my vacuum cleaner that I find particularly useful is the telescoping wand. You can adjust it to a comfortable height for normal vacuuming, and then lengthen it to vacuum all the way under beds and to vacuum the walls and ceilings. Yes, I do vacuum my walls and ceilings sometimes. Dust, pet dander, and construction dust can all stick to those surfaces. Removing them helps clear the air.

Several companies make replacement bags, which come with a fresh exhaust filter replacement too. (This is the standard exhaust filter. If you want to use a HEPA filter, it must be purchased separately.) I have tried many bags over the years. They all have worked fine for vacuuming. They all have some mechanism to close the hole in the bag at the attachment point with the hose when they are full and need to be removed from the vacuum cleaner. I prefer the sliding cover. Several years ago Miele bags switched to a cover with a spring that pops over the opening from the inside. I found that those covers push out some of the debris in the bag, which can make a puff of allergen-dense air. I understand from Miele that some people prefer that bag design. Currently I use EnviroCare bags, which I like because their sliding cover is made of stiff cardboard where most other bags with both kinds of covers use plastic. The “enviro” part of me likes avoiding plastic.

I want to briefly mention another cleaning appliance that does not actually filter air, but has been extremely helpful for me with keeping air free of mold. A steam cleaner like the US Steam White Tail kills mold, even on porous substances like wood and plush animals. We have furniture we would have had to dispose of if not for this wonderful device. It saves a lot of effort cleaning bathroom tile grout as well.

Choosing the Group of Products for You

Two masks, a very small portable air cleaner, a larger portable air cleaner, a whole-house air cleaner, and a vacuum cleaner—that’s a lot of products! I’ve collected them over many years, but I want to end with some recommendations for people who are just starting out.

First, start by Knowing What You Need to Filter, which I wrote about earlier in this article. Next you’ll need to look at your budget. You will also want to take into account where you think you are being most impacted by allergens or fumes. (Note that if you are allergic to dust, in addition to filtering air you will want to keep dust mites out of your bedding.’s dust mite cover page is here.)

Below are some general guidelines for four different scenarios based on what you need to filter (particles or fumes) and your budget (limited or “whatever it takes”). If you fall somewhere in between, like I did when I was purchasing these products, I hope reading these scenarios and the rest of the article plus your knowledge of your own needs will help you make a plan. Feel free to ask questions in the comments area below. Note that these are my opinions based on my experience and what I have read; they are neither a doctor’s advice nor are they based on a study.

Scenario 1
Filtering Need: Particles
Budget: Limited

  1. First I’d get a silk or organic cotton mask since it is low cost and you can wear it anywhere. Just that can make a big difference. See if you are comfortable wearing it at night.
  1. For most particle allergen needs, a close second thing I would purchase is a vacuum cleaner with a good filter. This will allow you to truly remove allergens from your home.
  1. After you get in some good vacuuming and have taken any dust precautions you need to take, if you are still having trouble at night and don’t like sleeping in the mask, next I’d get a portable air cleaner to put by your bed. That will give you a large number of hours of filtered air daily. If you don’t mind either the noise of the fan on high or having your face right up next to the fan on low, I’d go for a very small portable air cleaner, it’s less expensive and more versatile that a larger one. It can easily be moved to your desk and be used for traveling as well. But if you’d rather sleep with the fan on low and not be concerned about where your face is, I’d go for a larger portable air cleaner. Look at the smaller versions of these, like the Austin Air Jr. line, for lower prices. Be sure to avoid air cleaners that produce ozone. If you have a central heating system and the costs of running the fan constantly would be reasonable, you could also consider a furnace filter, which would cover the whole house, but would not capture the smallest particles. I have not had a furnace filter myself, but mention them and discuss some relevant issues in the whole-house air cleaner section.
  1. If you work outside of the home and are having difficulties with allergies in your work place, next I’d get something that will filter the air there—a silk or organic cotton mask if you work outdoors, a very small portable air cleaner if you work at a desk, or a larger air cleaner if you move around an office space.

Scenario 2
Filtering Need: Particles
Budget: Whatever It Takes

  1. First I’d get a silk or organic cotton mask since you can wear that anywhere.
  1. For most particle allergen needs, a close second thing I would purchase is a vacuum cleaner with a good filter. This will allow you to truly remove allergens from your home.
  1. After you get in some good vacuuming and have taken any dust precautions you need to take, if you are still having troubles in your home and if you have a central heating system, I’d start working on getting a whole-house air cleaner. If you don’t have a central heating system, get one or more larger portable air cleaners to cover the spaces in your home, starting with the bedroom. Be sure to avoid air cleaners that produce ozone.
  1. If you work outside of the home and are having difficulties with allergies in your work place, next I’d get something that will filter the air there—a silk or organic cotton mask if you work outdoors, a very small portable air cleaner if you work at a desk, or a larger air cleaner if you move around an office space.

Scenario 3
Filtering Need: Fumes
Budget: Limited

  1. First I’d get a honeycomb or other carbon filter mask since it is low cost and you can wear it anywhere. Just that may make a big difference. Once you are sure the mask works for you, get some extra filters and maybe an extra mask. For people with multiple chemical sensitivities, masks make such a difference in being able to be out in the world and in dealing with things that come into your home.
  1. If you have difficulties in your home, I would start with a portable air cleaner with a carbon filter to put by your bed. That will give you a large number of hours of filtered air daily. If you don’t mind either the noise of the fan on high or having your face right up next to the fan on low, I’d go for a very small portable air cleaner as it’s cheaper and more versatile. It can easily be moved to your desk and used for traveling as well. But if you’d rather sleep with the fan on low and not worry about where you face is, I’d go for larger portable air cleaner with a carbon filter. Look at the smaller versions of these, like the Austin Air Jr. line, for lower prices. A larger portable air cleaner with a carbon filter will also be useful if you are having difficulties in rooms in your home where you need to be more mobile than you are while sleeping. Be sure to avoid air cleaners that produce ozone.
  1. If you are having difficulties in an office setting and/or you travel a lot, I would get a very small portable air cleaner with a carbon filter to sit on your desk and/or use for travel. (This could be the same one you use at home.) If you move around an office space, you might want larger portable air cleaner, or if you work outdoors in a place with fumes you will want a mask with a carbon filter.
  1. You may find it useful to have a vacuum cleaner with a good exhaust filter on hand or at least know where you can borrow one. Occasionally situations come up where something that is causing a fume reaction, such as construction dust, can be removed with a vacuum—as long as that vacuum has a good exhaust filter to keep the irritant from being spewed back into the air.
  1. Eventually, you might find it useful to have a second portable air cleaner of another size, for travel or multiple needs in your home.

Scenario 4
Filtering Need: Fumes
Budget: Whatever It Takes

  1. First I’d get a honeycomb or other carbon filter mask since you can wear it anywhere. Just that may make a big difference. Once you are sure the mask works for you, get some extra filters and maybe an extra mask or two. For people with multiple chemical sensitivities masks make such a difference in being able to be out in the world and in dealing with things that come into your home.
  1. If you are having difficulties throughout your home that you can’t otherwise address, I’d start working on getting a whole-house air cleaner with a carbon filter. If you are just having difficulties in one room in your house, a larger portable air cleaner with a carbon filter for that room will be sufficient. Be sure to avoid air cleaners that produce ozone.
  1. If you are having difficulties in an office setting, I would get a very small portable air cleaner with a carbon filter to sit on your desk or a larger portable air cleaner if you move around the office a lot.
  1. If you like to travel, you will probably appreciate having a very small portable air cleaner to bring with you.
  1. You may find it useful to have a vacuum cleaner with a good exhaust filter on hand. Occasionally situations come up where something that is causing a fume reaction, such as construction dust, can be removed with a vacuum—as long as that vacuum has a good exhaust filter to keep the irritant from being spewed back into the air.

Again, everyone is different, so take what is useful from these recommendations and combine that with what you know about your situation.


One great thing about all these products is that, for most people, the more you use them, the less you need them. As you may know all too well, the more you are exposed to allergens and irritants, the more sensitive you become. When you reduce your exposure over time, in many cases you become less sensitive—so making the situation the best you can in your home, or even just where you sleep, can have positive repercussions everywhere you go.

I would love to hear from you in the comments section. I am happy to answer questions to the best of my knowledge. If you’ve already been filtering the air for health, I (and probably other readers, as well) would love to hear what types of products, what specific products, and what other strategies are working for you.

I hope this article helps you find your way to more good, clean, satisfying breaths!

Author: Karin Fisher-Golton

Karin Fisher-Golton's many roles include children’s book author, freelance editor, and wife of “Filter” Joe Golton. Visit to learn more about what she does while breathing easy.

4 thoughts on “Air Cleaners and Beyond: Lessons from a Decade of Filtering Air”

  1. Yes, it is indeed extensive! I realized how much I’ve learned over the years once I started writing. Thank you for stopping by and reading it. I hope you find something that helps you.

  2. Have you tried nose filters? I have tried some but so far haven’t found any that fit my nostrils. I need protection from fragrances, chemicals and exhaust fumes. I have a honeycomb mask and love it.

  3. I did not know about the nose filters. Thank you for posting about them! I don’t know if I’d like the feeling of something in my nose, but it would be much more visually subtle than wearing a mask, and that could be very useful in some situations. I look forward to checking them out. I’m glad to hear the honeycomb mask is working for you, too.

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