Why waft in winter: Using essential oils for health

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Atomizing devices [a.k.a. nebulizing]

Atomising diffuser

The Rolls-Royce of atomizers

Atomizing in this sense refers to cold-air diffusion whereby the device contains a cold-air jet pump that forces the essential oil molecules into the micro-fine vapour referred to above. Since there is no heat, or other form of adulteration of the oils used in such a method, the beneficial properties of the oils are preserved. In addition, since these devices do not require water the droplet output consists of pure essential oil molecules i.e. there is no element of humidification. Atomizing diffusers are generally regarded as the most effective devices for therapeutic purposes, and depending on the quality of the device used they usually offer the largest area coverage e.g. 75 – 150 square metres – which provides more bang for your ‘volatile’ buck. On most atomizer devices, the essential oil usage is surprisingly low, but this is obviously dependent on the output pressure intensity at which it is run. On the downside – unlike some other forms of diffusion they are not 100% silent – some being noisier than others. They are also the most expensive of the five device types reviewed here, since most are imported.

Vapourizing devices [a.k.a. humidifying]


These devices operate with water, which means they provide moderate humidification along with the aroma they disperse into the atmosphere. In modern devices, the mist is produced through ultrasonic waves and dispersed into the environment with the assistance of an inbuilt fan. Owing to the weight of water droplets [versus vapour], the mist suspension time is much shorter than with atomizer devices. They seem however to be popular in spas, etc., since they are often aesthetically designed to look pretty with bubbling water. Essential oil usage is also generally on the low side. The area coverage is significantly lower than modern atomizer units – usually between 25 – 45 square metres. These are usually moderately priced and easily available.

Forced air flow devices

air diffuser

Although evaporation is achieved with forced air flow devices they are not as therapeutically effective as the other two methods described above. These devices work with an in-built fan, which releases the aroma when air passes over an essential oil-soaked absorbent pad or wick. While there is acceptable aroma release, therapeutic benefits [other than the aromachology aspect] are limited, due to minimal dispersion of actual essential oil molecules. They are also not as cost effective as devices that diffuse essential oils directly, since the pads or wicks have to be replaced frequently, and can become smelly when oversaturated. Area coverage is also small, typically 10 – 20 square metres. Oil usage is minimal, and they are generally moderately priced, but not easily found in South Africa these days.

Heat devices

electric diffuser

candle diffuser

Since these are probably the best known essential oil dispersing devices they don’t all require definition, so details on the typical candle diffuser using water or salt crystals will be excluded.

Electronic devices are similar to the airflow devices in that some require a wick to hold essential oil, which evaporates once heat is applied, diffusing the aromas into the atmosphere. Typical examples of these are devices that plug into wall sockets or car lighter sockets.

There are also other heat devices that operate via a thermostat, which may operate with or without water, which are not suitable as portable/car devices. Benefits and area of coverage are as for the fan devices. Oil usage here is also minimal, and in general these devices are the second least expensive and are readily available.

Passive evaporation

reed diffuser

Reed evaporation devices have gained in popularity over plug-in devices over the past few years, since they don’t need electricity or open flame for dispersing their aromas, relying rather on ambient air evaporation.
The downside to these devices, found in abundance in stores that sell homeware, is that they usually contain scented chemicals captured in a non-volatile dipropylene glycol [DPG] base.

Essential oils and light fixed oils can be used, but there is an inherent rancidity risk with vegetal oils. They do not last forever, as the reeds do become saturated and lose their purpose so have to be replaced, as does the scented liquid. Area coverage is usually limited when essential oils are used, but can extend 10 – 20 square metres when synthetic fragrance chemicals are used. An alternative option is to make an essential oil, water and alcohol [vodka] based liquid for reed evaporation, but this needs much more frequent topping up as it evaporates quicker than oil-based ones, resulting in fairly high oil usage. The commercial ones are generally the least expensive aroma-dispersing devices available – but the chemical fragrances are an ‘acquired taste’ in my opinion.

pen diffusers

Other passive aroma diffusion/inhaler devices include small portable personal devices like wick or vial-based sniff sticks, aroma pens, USB plug-ins, pendants, aroma-stones etc. All generally useful, with some being quite funky.


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