Everything You've Ever Wanted to Know About Using an Oil Diffuser

Besides making your room smell like a spa, here's what they actually do

oil diffuser

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The most effective wellness routines are those that fit easily into your daily life. Think of oil diffusers as a low-effort entrée into self-care: they bring elements of wellness into your home, transforming your space into a tranquil nest where you can (sometimes literally) breathe easier. These aromatic room fresheners require minimal effort for you to recharge your decor and up your self-care game in the process. Proceed with caution, though—diffusing essential oils can be super powerful, and not everyone should do it.

To learn more about what essential oil diffusers do, we got in touch with wellness expert Esme Benjamin and medical doctor Shirin Peters.

Meet the Expert

Here, everything you need to know about oil diffusers.

What Is an Oil Diffuser?

To put it simply, an oil diffuser is a device that breaks essential oils down into smaller molecules, dispersing them into the air for a pleasant or calming effect—depending on the oil that's been put into the diffuser. Different essential oils have different claims—for example, lavender is meant to support sleep. The diffuser's job is to evenly disperse the particles at a comfortable concentration that's easy to breathe and doesn't overbear the room.

Plain and simple, a diffuser is used to fill the air in a room with tiny, breathable particles of beneficial essential oils—giving the room a calmer, more pleasant-smelling ambience. “It's well known that scent is associated strongly with memory,” says Benjamin. “When I diffuse lemongrass oil it reminds me of Thailand, my happy place, and I instantly feel a vacation level chill come over me. Oils just set a tone for your space and the activity you're performing that day.”

Types of Oil Diffusers

There are four main types of oil diffusers on the market right now. Choose your diffuser based on the intensity of the effect desired, and of course, the limitations of your space.

  • Nebulizing Diffusers: These diffusers work by using pressurized air to diffuse a mist of oil. A vacuum pulls oil to the surface of a distribution tube resulting in a burst of aroma into the air. Nebulizing diffusers don’t require water or heat, which makes them a low-maintenance choice. These are plastic-free for the eco-conscious user. 
  • Ultrasonic or Humidifying Diffusers: Ultrasonic vibrations break up oil molecules to create a fine mist. You will need to dilute the essential oil with water in order for the diffuser’s electronic frequencies to release the oil into a mist. Ultrasonic diffusers work like cold humidifiers, which makes them a great choice if you want to add moisture to the air, especially during cold season. The plastic ultrasonic parts require cleaning as oils can be corrosive to plastic. 
  • Evaporative Diffusers: In this type of diffuser, a small fan helps turn oil to gas, making oil evaporate into the air. However, as the oil evaporates, it loses some of its potency. So, this is a good choice for people who want a quick, occasional aromatic sensation.  
  • Heat or Electric Diffusers: Instead of using a fan to turn oil to gas, a heat diffuser uses heat, most commonly, electric. Heating oil may change its chemical properties making the oil less or more intense depending on its properties. Because there’s no fan involved, these guys are totally silent. Different types of heat diffusers include candle diffusers, electric heat diffusers, and lamp ring diffusers.

There are also some tricked out oil diffusers on the market with cool features like ambient lighting and sound features. Design-led ceramic or reed oil diffusers give your space a wellness vibe, whether you opt for a minimalist or hygge aesthetic. Oil diffusers with automatic switch-offs or timers are a good choice if you plan to use your diffuser for extended periods of time, or to fall asleep.  

The Benefits of Oil Diffusers

Using an oil diffuser can help you breathe easier, and not just because you’re tapping into your zen. “Many essential oils have reputed medicinal or therapeutic uses, like eucalyptus for colds and respiratory issues,” says Benjamin. Peters adds that many of the essential oils that have a calming effect can help reduce blood pressure in someone who is hypertensive. "Eucalyptus oil clears airways when they are congested due to allergies and cold and can help with sleep and recovery to health in these situations. Basil oil can help with digestion and muscle aches," she says. "Many of the medicinal benefits are more noticeable when the essential oil is ingested in small quantities or applied to the skin directly instead of being vaporized and inhaled."

Just as you might blend notes in a perfume oil, you can harmonize different essences in your oil diffuser and create a signature blend. Choose notes not only for their scent, but for their healing properties. For an energy-boosting combination, try a blend of bergamot and cardamom. Bergamot has a dry citrus note that instantly uplifts while cardamom is great for focus and mentally clarifying. If it's relaxation you seek, go for a blend of geranium, frankincense, and mandarin. Geranium is balancing and calming, Frankincense will deepen and slow your breath, and mandarin will bring a sweetness to the blend and add a gentle uplifting aroma.

Beyond this, Benjamin says that diffusing oil as a daily ritual can help encourage good habits associated with particular scents. “For example, using lavender oil when I get home from work has become a signal it's time to start winding down, get off technology, run a bath, read a book, and so on," she says.

Safety Considerations

Even with their benefits, diffusers can come with some drawbacks. "Diffusers that use water can harbor bacteria in the liquid when it's left sitting, and this can make you very sick the next time you turn on the device," warns Peters. "Pets, pregnant women and infants under two should avoid using an essential oil diffuser because they may be more sensitive. If they have a sensitivity or allergy to any particular oil, it can make them ill when vaporized." Headache, nausea, and rashes are the most common allergy symptoms.

If you do have a reaction to an oil, make sure there is a way to quickly ventilate the space—such as turning on a fan or opening up windows—to minimize your symptoms.

How to Use a Diffuser the Right Way

Incorporating an oil diffuser into your home or work space can make you feel like you’re living in a spa, which we are all about. "If you have not had a reaction to a short exposure to a particular essential oil it would be fine to try having the diffuser on overnight while sleeping," says Peters. That said, if you have any health concerns, consult your physician about whether or not it's safe for you to use an oil diffuser.

If you experience headache, sore throat, or shortness of breath discontinue use. Store essential oils out of children’s reach and do not diffuse essential oils near infants for 12 months (for eucalyptus, peppermint wait 30 months).

Cleaning Your Diffuser

As noted above, different types of oil diffusers require cleaning regimens. You don’t have to clean a diffuser after each use. “I actually like the way a little residue from the previous oil blends with today's scent,” says Benjamin, but a daily quick-clean can’t hurt. 

If you’re so inclined, use the the time you're cleaning out your diffuser to reset your daily intentions. Just make sure everything is unplugged before you start. Gently spill out any water and wipe the tank clean with a damp cloth and natural soap, as you want to avoid harsh cleansers. If your diffuser has a mister, you can swipe that with an alcohol-dipped Q-Tip. You can also run your diffuser with water and a couple drops of vinegar for an occasional deep clean if that’s your pleasure. Make sure to rinse and dry all equipment when complete. 

Shop Our Favorite Diffusers

Below, find a roundup of our favorite diffusers.

Carrière Frères
Carrière Frères Ginger $74
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Let's be real, the Carrière Frères fragrance diffuser looks equally as stunning in your bathroom as it does in your living room. We're fans of the ginger scent, which is spicy yet refreshing in all the best ways.

Stone Diffuser
Vitruvi Stone Diffuser $119
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This pick from Vitruvi does all the work for you. Just choose from the seven-hour interval or three-hour continuous settings and get ready to unwind.

The Handmade Soap Company Reed Diffuser in Lemongrass & Cedwarwood
The Handmade Soap Company Reed Diffuser in Lemongrass & Cedwarwood $30
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The Handmade Soap Company's lemongrass and cedarwood essential oil blend is not only relaxing after a long day, but it's free of the nasties (think: parabens, SLS, petrochemicals, and other synthetics).

Hyascent
Hyascent Bright As You Are $169
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Home decor meets oil diffusers with the Hyascent fragrance diffuser. The diffuser was born from the simple need for a high-quality home fragrance diffuser that doesn’t require sticks, cords, outlets, batteries or apps—and with its subtle yet ever-present aroma, it delivers.

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. Koulivand PH, Khaleghi Ghadiri M, Gorji A. Lavender and the nervous systemEvid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:681304. doi:10.1155/2013/681304

  2. Horváth G, Ács K. Essential oils in the treatment of respiratory tract diseases highlighting their role in bacterial infections and their anti-inflammatory action: a reviewFlavour Fragr J. 2015;30(5):331-341. doi:10.1002/ffj.3252

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Are essential oils safe for children? Updated January 7, 2020.

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