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

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, as 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. Here, everything you need to know about oil diffusers.

What Is an Oil Diffuser?

To put it simply, an oil diffuser is essentially 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 supposed 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.

What It's Used For

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 wellness expert Esme 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.”

Who doesn’t love a wellness tip that offers immediate benefits with minimal effort? “Using a diffuser gives you an instant effect because the essential oils will get to work straight away,” says Jo Kellett, a member of the International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists and the in-house aromatherapist for Tisserand Aromatherapy

Plus, “Diffusing oil as a daily ritual can help encourage good habits associated with particular scents,” adds Benjamin. “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.” 

Different 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.  

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. 

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. “When I want to be energized or am working at my desk I would use a blend of bergamot and cardamom,” says Kellet. “This is a great blend for when you need to concentrate. Bergamot is instantly uplifting with a dry citrus note and cardamom is great for focus and mentally clarifying. “It’s like a breath of fresh air.” 

If it's relaxation you seek, Kellet recommends 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.”

Where to Buy an Oil Diffuser

Homesick Ultrasonic Aroma Diffuser $90

Many clean beauty companies market their own oil diffusers, like Follain and Tisserand Aromatherpy. Wellness brands like Saje have free-standing stores, though you can also shop this brand online. Check out home goods and decor departments of your fave companies like Ekobo. Even Sephora (online only) offers diffusers, like the limited edition, Vitruvi. Whether you’re on a budget or ready to splurge, you’ll be able to find an oil diffuser to help you namaste.  

How to Clean an Oil 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. 

The Bottom Line

Incorporating an oil diffuser into your home or work space can make you feel like you’re living in a spa, which is never a bad thing. However, you might not want to leave an oil diffuser on blast 24-7. Too much of anything is can be harmful to your health, and you have to remember that essential oils are powerful agents. If you have 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).

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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