How to clean a humidifier – in five simple steps

Discover how to clean a humidifier: we spoke to the experts to find out the easiest way to keep yours fresh, clean and healthy

humidifier in room with greenery in background
(Image credit: Future/Getty Images)

It's vital to know how to clean a humidifier. The humble humidifier really comes into its own during cold, dry winter months – you may have invested in one to help with a specific ailment, such as a chesty cough or eczema – and running one throughout fall and winter can have huge health benefits to the whole family, especially now homes are so well insulated and heating systems so effective. From airborne viruses and static buildup to snoring and dry skin, a humidifier can tackle them all, and improve your overall indoor air quality in the process. 

Humidifiers all have the same basic role: to add moisture to the air. They achieve this by turning water into vapor which is dispelled into the air. However, if the water tank and other connections in the humidifier are dirty, the vapor you and your family inhale will also be dirty. This is why regular and thorough humidifier cleaning is an important part of its use and should never be overlooked or put off. 

Below, we explain how to clean a humidifier, with cleaning tips to keep its use healthy.

 How to clean a humidifier

Before cleaning a humidifier, always start by reading the manufacturer guidelines supplied with your specific model. Some humidifiers are very basic, which can equal easier cleaning, while others may have extra parts or filters to remove and replace. If possible, download the instruction manual before you buy, so you can assess how much care and maintenance is required before you commit.

1. Isolate and disassemble the unit

Begin by switching off the humidifier and unplugging it from the outlet, if applicable. Empty the main tank and disassemble all the components. You may want to do this over the bath, if it’s big and heavy, or kitchen sink to avoid puddles on the floor. 

2. Add vinegar and leave to soak

‘Next fill the tank with water as you normally would, then add two tablespoons of distilled white vinegar to the water and allow it to soak for 30 minutes or so,’ says Andrew Bramley, owner of professional cleaning firm Pure Freedom. Go higher than the maximum fill line on your tank to make sure any tidemarks are submerged in the vinegar solution. 

Once half an hour has passed, lift the tank and place it on top of the reservoir and let the water drain through the connections in the base, as it normally would in use. Then leave for another 30 minutes for the vinegar solution to work its magic. 

3. Tackle lingering dirt

The next step is to empty the humidifier and clean any areas of excess build-up. ‘You can use a cotton bud, toothbrush, or other small brush or cloth to get into the nooks and crannies,’ adds Heather Barrigan, cleaning expert at MyJobQuote. ‘Wash any remaining humidifier parts, such as the lid, with full-strength distilled white vinegar.’ 

4. Rinse thoroughly

Rinse your humidifier thoroughly with fresh, clean water, taking care to wash into any corners and joints. Do not submerge the base in water though, especially if it has electrical components inside. ‘Be sure to also check filters or cartridges, regularly changing them according to the manufacturer's instructions,’ adds Nick Drewe, homes expert at WeThrift

5. Dry naturally

Finally, give the main tank and other components a quick shake to lose any excess water, and then place on a clean tea towel to air dry. Once everything is dry, you can refill and start humidifying again. 

 Why clean a humidifier?

If left to fester, any water at room temperature will become a breeding ground for bacteria. Therefore, the most crucial element of humidifier ownership is regular cleaning and a full refresh of water. 

‘When it comes to caring for a humidifier, you should empty the water tank and refill it with fresh water every day. More thorough cleaning should happen at least once a week to get rid of any mineral build-up and bacteria,’ says Nick Drewe, homes expert at WeThrift. 

What can I use to clean a humidifier?

Always bear in mind that any chemicals you use to clean your humidifier may also end up being emitted into the air, no matter how well you think you have rinsed the tank. This is the reason most experts recommend only using natural ingredients, like white vinegar, to clean a humidifier. 

Some manufacturers sell specialist cleaning products designed for humidifiers, and again they will be made from non-toxic ingredients. However badly stained your humidifier may be, avoid using bleach or other hazardous chemicals to clean it.

In terms of tools, all you’ll need is a soft nylon brush or toothbrush, a few cotton buds and a clean tea towel for drying. It’s important never to use abrasive cloths, scouring pads or wire brushes on a humidifier as they will scratch the surface, creating more places for bacteria to hide. 

Linda graduated from university with a First in Journalism, Film and Broadcasting. Her career began on a trade title for the kitchen and bathroom industry, and she has worked for Homes & Gardens, and sister-brands Livingetc, Country Homes & Interiors and Ideal Home, since 2006, covering interiors topics, though kitchens and bathrooms are her specialism.