Does An Air Purifier Remove Smells? Dealing With Common Odor Problems

Sure – you can prevent some smells from getting into your home. But many are just a fact of life. Even without some of the most common problems (like pets, smoke, and cooking odors) smells just seem to find a way in.

Dealing with them can be a hassle, and air fresheners often only mask the problem. Additionally, some causes in particular (like smoke) come with even more side effects.

Does an air purifier remove smells? Should you buy one for your home? Read on to find out the answer.

Understanding smells

Home kitchen example image
Odors are everywhere! Unlike the outdoors, indoor odor sources don’t have much air circulation and can be even more noticeable. The addition of a well-designed, properly chosen air purifier can help relieve a variety of odor symptoms in every room they’re used in.

In order to better understand what we’re dealing with and how air purifiers may help, it’s important to understand the problem.

What exactly is an odor or “smell”?

Odors are actually caused by volatile chemical compounds (VOCs) which basically means they’re the molecular composition of materials or chemicals that become airborne. When this happens your nose’s olfactory nerves detect them as scents and you have a related reaction (good or bad, depending on the type).

Not only that, but the sense of smell varies from person to person. So while some odors may not bother you greatly, for others the effects can be much more unpleasant or even trigger problems.

Likewise, some smells don’t bother me as much as others – but some really get on my nerves!

Common types of odors

I’ve made a brief list here, along with added details, of some of the most common odor sources you may be dealing with. After that, I’ll show you how a purifier can help.

Cigarette smoke

Best air purifier to remove cigarette smoke featured image for post
Cigarette smoke is one of the most bothersome odor sources anywhere. Not only do the by-products of smoke find their way into the air, but they also cling to surfaces like your clothes and hair. A purifier is highly recommended when smokers are present.

This one has always bothered me a lot! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve left my local sports bar while wearing nice clothes, that smelled absolutely terrible afterward. Even my hair smelled bad!

Even if you don’t smoke, you might live with a family member or roommate who does. Either way, tobacco smoke is capable of moving between rooms and distributing small particles that can irritate people with allergies, or even cause cancer as you may already know.

Smoke particles contain elements that are incredibly tiny in size – down to a fraction of other airborne contaminants like pet dander and dust, for example. That’s one of many reasons it’s harder to deal with.

Additionally, burning tobacco and paper releases gases into the air as well. You’ll need an effective solution to successfully get rid of those (and not just cover them up).

Pet odors

Wet dog smell odor infographicPet odors are caused by organic substances from microorganisms present on and released by animals. A great example is the “wet dog smell” everyone knows. Pets also produce a number of other odors that can stink up your home.

I love pets just as much as you do. But it seems like no matter how much we wash or bathe them, they always smell a bit. And pets always like to get into trouble, so they often end up bringing something smelly into the house.

We’ve all smelled the infamous “wet dog smell” I’m sure!

As much as pet hair and dander is a problem also, it’s the other sources of smells from them that need to be captured and removed from the air: organic sources like bacteria and their bodily functions in addition to the oils naturally secreted by their skin.

One more benefit of using a purifier is being able to capture allergy-causing dander as well as some of the hair they leave behind.

Food and cooking

Image of cooking at home on stove skillet

Cooking is especially notorious for releasing odors into the air. As a matter of fact, some dishes release substances that can cling to your kitchen’s interior and build up over time. Using an air purifier to remove airborne food-related substances is a great idea.

Some of the most common dishes like burgers or fried fish can leave a strong, lingering scent behind. Foods with spices and similar ingredients are especially bad at releasing organic compounds that cause very strong odors.

Sometimes it’s not just you that feels the effects, but your neighbors to, since odors can rise and permeate rooms and buildings.

Cooking appliances and food release particulate matter into the air when you cook which can spread throughout your home, leaving your entire house smelling like what you ate for dinner for a long time afterward.

To make matters worse, some foods, when cooked, distribute minute food particles in the air which can build up over time on your interior surfaces.


Image of garbage cans at home
I’m certainly not perfect. Every once in a while I forget to take out the garbage. The problem is that leaving meat or old vegetables in the garbage can make the house smell even after I take out the trash.

Garbage has a variety of materials that tend to begin to decompose in a short amount of time, creating gases in the air that surface as very strong odors.

When bacteria begin to increase in numbers and start breaking down organic substances like old food or waste items it can become a big problem. While the only true remedy is to remove the garbage from indoors, a purifier can help to reduce the problem while it’s in your home.

Household chemicals and construction materials

Image of household chemicals on a shelf
Other common substances like paint, cleaning chemicals, and even renovated rooms in a home emit harmful substances into the air by a process called “outgassing.”

Outgassing is a process in which everything from new carpet to household chemicals, paint, or building materials releases molecules into the air as chemical vapor odors.

Some actually are harmful, like chemicals with vapors that can affect the central nervous system and internal tissues if inhaled. That’s a definite source for headaches but potentially other health problems, too.

You’re much safer with a means of capturing them and removing them from your breathing air altogether rather than trying to mask the smell.

How does an air purifier help with smells?

There 2 main ways in which a purifier can help relieve odors:

  1. Removing some airborne particles that carry odor-causing elements
  2. Absorbing and trapping odors and substances in the air

Of these 2 factors, the most significant one is the ability to trap odors and remove them from the air. However, you’ll have to pick the right kind of product to do so.

Not to worry, though – I’ll cover that below as well.

How does an air purifier work?

Diagram showing how air purifier reduces odors

Air purifiers reduce odors by continuously cycling the air in a room and filtering out both solid and gaseous substances like odors and chemical vapors. There are 2 main filters (with 3 functions, often called a “3-in-1” purifier) that do so: a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter section and a pre-filter section with activated carbon inside or specialized chemical treatment.

Air purifiers work by using a fan to cycle the air in a room and filter out unwanted particulates and odors too.

In order to do so, you’ll need to buy one that’s capable of moving a sufficient amount of air in the room it’s used in. Ratings like the Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR) or air flow rate specifications such as the Cubic Feet per Minute (CFM) describe the effectiveness of a purifier.

However, I realize that can be a bit confusing and may feel a bit like a hassle to have to figure out. The good news is that the major purifier manufacturers specify the recommended room size in square feet.

For example, a 10 foot by 15 foot room has a size of 10 x 15 = 150 sq ft (square feet). Using the recommended room size you should be fine when buying.

How air purifiers remove odors

GermGuardian FLT11CB4 carbon filter diagramAir purifiers (specifically, filter-based products) use activated carbon (charcoal) to absorb and trap odors. Carbon is an industry-standard element used in many types of filters including for water. Once it’s used up the filter should be replaced.

Activated carbon is the essential element required for removing odors and terrible smells with an air purifier. I bring that up because in fact not all purifiers include this type of filter!

However, most high-quality and best-selling models do.

Activated carbon (which is a form of charcoal) is a granular, tiny element used as an ingredient in a special section of the air purifier’s 2 or 3 filters. Carbon is a porous and absorbent element that has the ability to trap odors and airborne chemicals present.

When the purifier’s internal fan draws air through the carbon filter, substances can be absorbed and removed from the air, removing odors and harmful chemical vapors.

The HEPA filter’s role

HEPA filters are a standardized filter section made of extremely dense fiber which can trap microscopic particles down to 0.3 microns in size (a micro is an amazing 1/1,000,000 of a meter!). They’re designed to capture solid particulate in the air, and not gases or vapors.

While that’s true, they can trap some nasty particles like hair and debris that can carry a bit of odor-causing molecules. Generally speaking, however, the carbon filter section is the most essential.

Carbon filters are typically separately replaceable from the HEPA filter section and tend to have a life of around 6 months or so, though this varies with use.

Air purifier types

2 air purifier types comparison image

Shown: (Left) Emitting air purifiers create a by-product that’s released into the air around you. (Right) Filter-based, or non-emitting purifiers, do not. They simply remove air contaminants as they pass through filters.

There are several different types of air purifiers sold today and it can definitely be confusing and in some cases – even misleading! And that’s a shame – unsuspecting buyers can get tricked into buying a poor-quality product that will do little, if anything, to improve their air quality.

Just to keep it simple, I’ll break down the most common types you’ll likely run across when shopping:

  1. HEPA (filter-based) purifiers
  2. Ionizers
  3. Ozone generators

Purifiers to avoid

Ionizer and ozone generator examples imageProducts like ionic air purifiers (left) and ozone generators (right) should be avoided. Ionic air purifiers do work to a degree, but they’re very weak and typically have extremely low airflow rates compared to HEPA-type purifiers. Ozone generators, however, are ineffective at safe ozone levels. At ozone production levels at which they become effective, they’re unsafe to be around. Most sold as “air purifiers” are a waste of your hard-earned money.

When shopping avoid the following two kinds which are often hyped up with clever marketing and many technical phrases. They’re sold using misleading promises and a lack of actual performance data:

  • Ionizers (ionic purifiers)
  • Ozone generators

Ionizers do actually work, but in my experience, they’re extremely poor performers and simply are a terrible use of your money.

Good purifiers to buy for odor relief

Winix 5500-2 air purifier review featured image

To effectively combat odors, I recommend a quality air purifier with a good airflow rate. This means it can cycle and clean the air in the room relatively quickly. Note: it’s critical to buy the appropriately sized purifier for your room size!

Whichever product you decide to try, be sure to buy one with the following criteria:

  • A quality purifier with proven buyer reviews
  • An activated carbon filter section
  • Adequate airflow rate / recommended room size meets your room

While the things I’ve mentioned here are of great importance, remember the following: no purifier can prevent odors 100%. You should treat the problem at its source.

In other words, don’t expect any purifier to work miracles. They’re very helpful and can definitely reduce odors, but they’re a way of dealing with the symptoms of the odor source.

Bad smells often require treating the source, depending upon the type of problem.

The most effective type of prefilter

Closeup of Winix 5500-2 activated carbon prefilter

Closeup of the activated carbon filter from a Winix 5500-2 air purifier, containing real pellets (rather than the standard coating most use). This is a more effective odor control option.

If possible, for the best odor control pick an air filter with a prefilter that uses real carbon pellets. They’re more powerful for odor control than the standard coating type used by most on the market.

They also have a greater life expectancy and use capacity as well, as they contain much more activated carbon.

Additionally, some can be rinsed off (like those in the Winix 5500-2) for maintenance.

Grant Williams

About the author

Grant is a professional engineer by trade and has experience with both maintenance and do-it-yourself home projects. He enjoys sharing his expertise & ideas with others to help them improve their comfort and quality of life. Read more »

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