How To Clean, Disinfect & Care For Your Humidifier So It Doesn't Get Gunky

mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant By Sarah Regan
mindbodygreen Editorial Assistant

Sarah Regan is a writer, registered yoga instructor, and Editorial Assistant at mindbodygreen. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Humidifier On a Home Surface

The humidity levels in our home affect everything from our plants to our skin to our air quality. This means that humidifiers can be a godsend during dry winter months (or year-round, if you live in an arid climate)—but not when they're full of mold and bacteria. Humidifiers need to be cleaned, and often.

We asked green cleaning expert Becky Rapinchuk for her top tips on how to keep yours fresh and functional.

How often should you be cleaning your humidifier?

First things first: How often you use your humidifier will determine how often you should be cleaning it. If you're running it regularly, Rapinchuk says a good rule of thumb is to empty out the humidifier tank after each use, and let it dry before refilling. You'll then want to give it a good cleaning once a week. (If you have any respiratory issues, you may want to consider cleaning even more often.)

If you don't use it as often, it's still a good idea to empty it and let it dry between uses, but you may only need to clean it after five or so uses, or as soon as you notice any residue buildup around the tank.

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What you'll need.

Before you start cleaning, here's what you'll need to get the job done:

  • White vinegar
  • Microfiber towel or soft cloth
  • Toothbrush or small bristle brush
  • Goggles and gloves (if disinfecting)
  • Bleach or 3% hydrogen peroxide (if disinfecting)

How to clean your humidifier the right way.

Always check your humidifier's instructions for cleaning, as some models will have particular instructions. Generally speaking, though, these guidelines should work for most machines that have a conventional design with a base that plugs into the wall, a removable water tank, and some removable lids.

Always stick to white vinegar when you're cleaning the tank of the machine, as anything else (such as soap or detergent) may leave a residue that can be dispersed into the air:

  1. Unplug the unit and empty out any water.
  2. Take apart each component, separating any loose washable pieces like lids.
  3. Fill your water tank and lower base with equal parts white vinegar and water. Let the mixture sit for at least half an hour.
  4. In a separate bowl or basin, place loose pieces in a white vinegar and water mixture as well. Let these sit while the rest of your machine is soaking.
  5. After half an hour, give the water tank a good shake to loosen up any buildup, and empty it. Empty your machine's base as well. Remove the pieces from their water bath.
  6. Apply white vinegar to your cloth, and wipe both the inside and outside of the tank, plus the base and other pieces. "The white vinegar will remove any mineral deposits and clean the surfaces," Rapinchuk notes.
  7. If there's still visible residue, you can use a small brush to scrub it away.
  8. Give everything a final wipe with a cloth dampened with water.
  9. Allow to dry completely before reassembling and running.

Disinfecting vs. cleaning.

Along with general cleaning, it's important to make sure your unit is properly disinfected. Stagnant water is a breeding ground for mold and bacteria, and it doesn't take long for either to show up. If you keep up with general cleaning, you don't have to disinfect as often—but vinegar doesn't disinfect quite like bleach, so you'll want to aim to do this at least every few weeks if you're using your humidifier regularly.

Safety note: White vinegar and bleach do not play well together. They can cause potentially dangerous chemical reactions when combined, so be sure to run your machine a few times between cleaning and disinfecting to be on the safe side.

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How to disinfect your humidifier:

  1. Unplug the unit and empty out any water.
  2. Take apart each component, separating any washable pieces.
  3. Dilute a teaspoon of bleach or hydrogen peroxide in a gallon of water. (Be sure to wear gloves and goggles and open windows when handling these heavier-duty disinfectants!)
  4. Fill your water tank and lower base with your bleach mixture. Let the mixture sit for 15 to 20 minutes.
  5. In a separate bowl or basin, place loose pieces in the bleach mix as well. Let these sit while the rest of your machine is soaking.
  6. After 15 to 20 minutes, give the water tank a good shake to loosen up any buildup, and empty it. Empty your machine's base as well. Remove the pieces from their water bath.
  7. If there's still visible residue, you can use a small brush to scrub it away.
  8. Rinse your water tank with water until the bleach smell has faded.
  9. Give everything a final wipe with a cloth dampened with water.
  10. Allow to dry completely before reassembling and running.

3 tips to keep in mind:

1. Always drain your unit after each use.

Trust us; just do it. Stagnant water is exactly what you don't want, particularly because it's the same water that's going to be pumped into the air you breathe. You want it to be as fresh as possible.

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2. Keep up with the cleaning.

The longer you go between cleanings, the more difficult it will be to get rid of grime—and the more likely your home's air quality will suffer.

3. Use distilled water when possible.

Tap water contains minerals that will not only build up in your tank but get dispersed into the air.

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4. Don't forget to replace your filter.

Some humidifiers may come with specific instructions to clean the filter, but many simply need to be replaced every so often, depending on how much you're using yours.

The bottom line.

As the air gets colder and dryer with each day, upping the humidity in our homes can help with everything from allergies to chapped lips. But to get the most out of your humidifier, it needs to be clean. Keeping up with maintaining your humidifier will ensure your air stays as moist and fresh as possible.

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