Updated by Molekule staff 12/2/2022
Most of us understand the air quality dangers of secondhand smoke and the environmental dangers of thirdhand smoke on our clothing and furniture. Yet sometimes we cannot fully control the source of smoke. If your neighbor is a smoker and secondhand smoke drifts from their apartment into yours, then you might be forced to deal with it. Or maybe you live in a fire-prone area, and wildfire smoke is a real problem. Whatever your situation, there are steps you can take to improve it, and often an air purifier can help.
If you are faced with the task of finding the best air purifier for smoke, you probably know there is a lot of contradictory information out there about what is the best one. And the main reason for this is that smoke is a highly complex pollutant made up of countless interacting particles, chemicals, and gasses. HEPA filters are a popular solution to remove particles from the air, but smoke is much more than just particles. It is also made up of harmful airborne gasses that can make particles more toxic or even increase the amount of particles in the air. There are also air filters with activated carbon designed to filter gasses and odors, but what is the best air purifier for smoke? Ultimately, it depends on the situation. Please remember that no matter how good an air purifier is at removing smoke, it will never be a complete solution and should not be a substitute for reducing or eliminating the source of smoke whenever possible.
- Why is smoke so essential to get rid of?
- What is smoke?
- How are air purifiers designed to address smoke?
- What is the best air purifier for smoke?
- For wildfire smoke (very high exposure, short-term, outdoor source):
- For users of tobacco, wood stoves, or other consistent sources of smoke (high exposure, long term, indoor source):
- For secondhand tobacco smoke, wood smoke, or other consistent source of smoke (moderate exposure, long term, outdoor source):
- How do you reduce the smell of smoke?
- What is the best solution for smoke?
Why is smoke so essential to get rid of?
You already know that smoke is harmful to health. But exactly how harmful can further inform your decision to take action. Smoke has a different impact on each person, with some people more sensitive than others. The EPA defines the groups of people more sensitive to pollution in general as people with respiratory diseases or breathing issues along with the very old or very young. They also say that particle pollution can have an impact on people with heart disease and gaseous pollutants can be worse for people who are active outdoors.
Smoke from wildfires, though harmful, only lasts until the fire is extinguished. If you are trying to filter smoke from a regular source like secondhand smoke from a neighbor, it is even more important to reduce the source, like asking them to avoid smoking near building openings. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says there are at least 250 harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke, and at least 69 are carcinogens, such as arsenic, benzene and formaldehyde. Secondhand smoke may cause disease and premature death in nonsmoking adults and children. For children, exposure to secondhand smoke can cause an increased risk of SIDS, colds and bronchitis, and for those that already have asthma, can worsen their symptoms. Thirdhand smoke refers to the unhealthy particles from cigarette smoke that stick to walls, furniture, clothing, and almost anywhere else long after the smoker has finished. After it leaves the air, thirdhand smoke can’t be filtered and has to be scrubbed or otherwise washed off with soap and water, so it’s best to stop smoke from getting indoors in the first place.
What is smoke?
If there is nothing more you can do to reduce you and your family’s exposure to smoke, your next best option is an air purifier. As mentioned before, smoke is far from easy for an air purifier to address. The reason for this is because smoke is made up of more than one type of air pollution, so be sure that the purifier covers a wide spectrum of possible pollutants.
Particulate matter. The first major type of pollutant in smoke is particulate matter, or fine particles. Particulate matter in smoke is a mixture of solid and liquid droplets suspended in the air. Though some smoke particles are dark or large enough to be seen by the naked eye, others are so tiny they can only be seen through an electron microscope. These fine particles are especially dangerous to health because they are small enough to enter the lungs and cross into the bloodstream. They aren’t just associated with burning eyes and respiratory disease, particulate matter can also cause cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and many other diseases by clogging your body’s natural healing processes. Particulate matter in smoke can be smaller than 0.1 micrometers in size.
Gaseous pollutants. Particulate matter is serious enough, yet it is only half of the story. Smoke also contains harmful gasses. These gaseous pollutants include gasses associated with combustion, like carbon monoxide or nitrogen oxides. Other gaseous pollutants are organic chemicals that are separate from particles–these organic chemicals are specifically called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The known carcinogens benzene and formaldehyde, among others, are VOCs.
How are air purifiers designed to address smoke?
Now you know exactly what you are dealing with when it comes to smoke–harmful particles and gasses. Why is that so important to understand? It is because the best air purifier for smoke has to reduce both. Like mentioned before, a lot of filters are designed with only one technology–either they filter particles, or they filter gasses. Pay close attention to the different filtration technologies in each purifier, some may say they are the best for smoke, yet may not consider everything that is in smoke pollution.
Below is information about the types of air filter technology that could be used for smoke. It is important to understand what each of them can do, so you can determine which air purifier will be the best one for your situation and the type of smoke you are dealing with.
HEPA filters. If you want to filter particles, you might consider a HEPA filter, which are designed to pass tests where they capture 99.97% of particles that are 0.3 micrometers in size. This size is used because 0.3 micrometer particles are thought to have just the right ratio of size to weight to be most likely to penetrate a filter. So if a filter can capture them, in theory it can capture other particles even better. .
Keep in mind that the tiniest particles in smoke can form from individual molecules sticking together so are measured in nanometers, or 1,000 times smaller than micrometers. Polluted air moving through the filter will seek the path of least resistance, so any holes in the filter or gaps around its frame can let unfiltered air pass by. Be sure you get a purifier that seals the HEPA or other particle filter in well. But even a perfect HEPA filter is only doing part of the job when it comes to smoke. It is very rare to see a HEPA filter alone, usually it is paired with another type of filter to mitigate the harm done by gaseous pollutants like carcinogenic VOCs, which a HEPA filter cannot remove.
Carbon filters. These are typically designed to remove gasses like VOCs and odors. Carbon filters are primarily useful for organic compounds, but can also be effective against nitrogen oxides and ozone.. Please remember that neither carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide can be removed by any type of air purifier. Indoor carbon monoxide comes from burning natural gas or anything else, so carbon monoxide sensors are just as vital as smoke detectors for any home, be sure your living spaces are equipped with them. Adequate ventilation is the best solution for the carbon dioxide that builds up as we breathe in occupied rooms, and can also be monitored with a dedicated inexpensive sensor, or as part of a system that detects multiple pollutants, like Molekule Air Pro..
There are a couple of problems associated with carbon filters. One is they can quickly become saturated during intense air quality events like wildfire, and have to be replaced often. If the carbon filter becomes saturated, toxic gasses can be released from the filter back into the air. Even if the filter is not saturated, but the composition of gasses in the air changes (say if a window is opened and more air is let inside) it has been shown that gasses on the filter surface can also be released back into the air (referred to as “outgassing”).
What does this mean for you if you are thinking of using a carbon filter for smoke? Because it must be replaced according to saturation levels, it is best to get one with a large amount of carbon to allow for a greater surface area for gasses to stick to. In the event of a wildfire, change your carbon filter more frequently.
Electrostatic media. Some filters are described as having electrostatic media or as having a static charge. This treatment can help to make the individual filter fibers a little stickier so particles are trapped better. While not vital to remove smoke, electrostatic media can increase particle capture efficiency, but not in any special way beyond just holding onto the particles tightly.
Ultraviolet (UV-C) sterilization. UV-C is a form of high-energy light that is excellent in killing viruses, bacteria, mold spores. Unfortunately it has no impact on the particles or gasses in smoke. If you’re looking for a purifier just for smoke, there is no reason to choose one with a UV-C component.
Ozone generators. The EPA is clear that ozone is a lung irritant. While some professionals may use ozone in controlled ways to eliminate mold or other biological infestations, it should never be released in an occupied space. Ozone can react with VOCs and increase fine particles, and should never be used to remove smoke.
Ionizers, electrostatic precipitators, and plasma air cleaners. These technologies are a little different from electrostatic media because they charge the pollutant instead of the filter. Though they use more power than a purifier with just a fan, charged particles may stick to a filter better.
Beware that some of these devices are designed to release the charged particles into the room where they are supposed to fall out of the air by sticking to the walls or floor. This is not recommended because not only can the particles be stirred up again by passing foot traffic, they will also stick to your lungs better, which is the opposite of what the purifier is supposed to do. Be sure that any charged particles are blown directly into a filter.
Finally, charging particles can release ozone. If you are looking at a purifier that ionizes, uses plasma, or other particle charging, be sure it is listed on the California Air Quality Resources Board’s list of purifiers that do not release ozone.
PECO filters. PECO technology (the technology inside a Molekule air purifier) can destroy ozone and break down the dangerous VOCs in smoke so it’s less likely more fine particles will form in the air. Our original PECO filter removes particles with a high efficiency, and our PECO-HEPA Tri-Power filter combines carbon, HEPA, and PECO into one filter to offer our most efficient method of mitigating smoke pollution. Our PECO technology prevents re-release of VOCs and other organic pollutants by destroying instead of capturing them, but, like with any purifier, it requires regularly replacing the filter.
What is the best air purifier for smoke?
Now you know the air purification technologies that could be used for smoke. You have also read about their limitations. However, what you may not know is how each of them applies to your particular situation.
Ultimately, the best air purifier for smoke depends on if the device is needed for the short or long term, whether the source of the smoke is from wood/wildfires or tobacco, and what is the level of exposure.
For wildfire smoke (very high exposure, short-term, outdoor source):
Wildfire smoke particles can be captured by a particle filter like HEPA, but the large amount of VOCs can overwhelm a carbon filter. The best solution is a purifier with either a large amount of carbon, measured in pounds, or extra carbon filters to exchange periodically. PECO technology in Molekule purifiers can help to break down VOCs and ozone, and our new TriPower filter offers HEPA particle capture.
Keeping the windows closed and well-sealed can help to reduce indoor smoke from wildfires. But remember that without an air purifier, your lungs will be removing most of the particles from the air.
For users of tobacco, wood stoves, or other consistent sources of smoke (high exposure, long term, indoor source):
If smoke is produced inside the home, the first line of defense is always ventilation with outdoor air by opening all possible windows or doors and activating any fans attached to vents. However, when using climate control like air conditioning and heating, ventilation can waste energy. In these cases, using an air purifier can save energy and improve indoor air quality. The best purifier will have a fine particle filter like HEPA and a good way to remove VOCs like a large amount of activated carbon or PECO.
For secondhand tobacco smoke, wood smoke, or other consistent source of smoke (moderate exposure, long term, outdoor source):
In the case of smoke that comes from a consistent outdoor source like a smoking area near the window or a neighbor who frequently burns wood. The first line of defense in this case is to close the windows where the smoke is coming in to avoid the introduction of any smoke into the house. If possible, discuss with anyone who may have control over the smoke how to best keep it away from your home.
Then, use a purifier that can remove fine particles with a HEPA or similar high-efficiency filter and can also remove VOCs. Even with this sort of outdoor source, we can be exposed from thirdhand smoke pollution that sticks to clothing and furniture, so reducing smoke in any way possible can help.
How do you reduce the smell of smoke?
Now you know what the best air purifier for smoke would be for your situation. However, if the smell lingers that means thirdhand smoke also remains in the form of VOCs rising off buildings materials and furniture. Removing the last bits of smoke residue from the air is a matter of removing the VOCs, so an air purifier with a carbon filter or a Molekule air purifier would be effective.
To dramatically reduce the levels of thirdhand smoke, you usually have to replace or substitute materials, such as change the carpet or repaint. Comprehensive cleaning with hot water and soap can dissolve and remove smoke residue from rugs and carpets, curtains, and upholstery. If your home has been exposed to smoke for a very long time (years or decades), this means that VOCs could be rising out of building materials and accumulated dust for a long time–in that case, it may be necessary to do renovations like replacing wall boards and upholstery.
What is the best solution for smoke?
The best solution for smoke is to remove (or reduce as much as possible) its source and to ventilate. But in the cases where the source cannot be changed or ventilation comes with unacceptable energy costs, an air purifier can help reduce levels of pollutants, and each type discussed in this article can offer benefits for reducing smoke. You should consider your particular situation and budget to invest in the best air purifier for your needs.