Does Activated Carbon Work?

Learn More About Activated Carbon, if it Really Works, and Discover the Benefits

air filter for pet allergies from dogs

By Jaimie Hart

12 min read

The first main understanding of activated carbon and how it works is the process of adsorption. While absorption is the process of one thing absorbing the contents of another like a sponge, it doesn’t become part of the absorbing element on a molecular level. Such as water with a sponge, the water only fills the space inside the sponge and doesn’t become chemically bonded.

family in livingroom

Is it Adsorption or Absorption?

With adsorption, both elements have a chemical reaction to become bonded. Ad-sorption, not ab-sorption, is the process that activated carbon air filters use. Compounds react to the activated carbon, and pollutants in the air stick to the outside of the carbon, allowing the filter to remove contaminants from the air.

What Are The Benefits of an Activated Carbon Filter?

Many health benefits come from activated carbon filters, along with the added peace of mind it can give you knowing your air is being cleaned. Many particles that can either be seen or are microscopic may contain harmful contaminants and bacteria, which can cause issues for your respiratory system and cause other health concerns. Activated carbon filters work with HEPA filters in air purification systems to eliminate the risk of the following harmful allergens and contaminants: 

  • Toxic Gases
  • Volatile Organic Compounds
  • Mold Spores
  • Smoke
  • Pet Hair and Dander
  • Household Chemicals
  • Bacteria
  • Lint
Alen BreatheSmart
75i with Carbon
Air Purifier

$750 Buy on Amazon

Does Activated Carbon Improve Allergies?

Allergies are the 6th leading cause of chronic illness in the United States, with over 50 million Americans suffering from allergies every year. Some of the top allergens are pet dander, dust, mold, and pollen. These allergens easily spread inside homes, and it’s often difficult to keep up with cleaning your home well enough to eradicate them. Activated carbon filters can expertly benefit allergy sufferers by adsorbing allergen particles and removing them from the air you breathe.

Can Activated Carbon Help With Toxic Gases and Smoke?

Indoor areas are at risk of VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) such as benzene due to paint, common household products, and tobacco smoke. Some areas in the United States are also specifically at risk for respiratory issues caused by wildfire smoke. Carbon filters are specifically great at trapping the extremely tiny toxic particles from gases and smoke because of the large surface area that activated carbon has.

Does Activated Carbon Remove Odors?

Many air purifiers that don’t include activated carbon filters can only filter out air particulates. While activated carbon works to adsorb air particles too, it also eliminates odors. Carbon filters may not remove all odors, but they can reduce many unpleasant smells, including tobacco smoke odor.

Can Activated Carbon Reduce The Risk of Illness?

Bacteria and viruses travel through the air very quickly when someone sneezes or coughs. Tiny mucous droplets that may contain viruses scatter through the air in your home and get on surfaces as well. To reduce the spread of diseases and illnesses, activated carbon consistently works to adsorb harmful bacteria as soon as it gets into the air.

How Do Activated Carbon Filters Work?

Activated carbon utilizes chemical reactions to decontaminate the air and adsorb air particles. The millions of pores and large surface area of the carbon filter remove contaminants and chemicals while the air compounds react with the carbon to stick to the surface. To understand how an activated carbon filter works and why it’s beneficial, you should understand how an air purification system cleans the air.

The air purifier filtration process with activated carbon and HEPA filters:

  1. Air flows into the air purifier.
  2. The activated carbon filter adsorbs chemicals and large air particles.
  3. The compounds in the air undergo a chemical reaction with the carbon resulting in them sticking to the filter’s surface.
  4. Other particles make their way to the HEPA filter and are trapped by sticking to fibers.
  5. The larger particles in the HEPA filter are trapped through the process of impaction.
  6. The medium-sized particles are trapped through interception.
  7. The smaller particles are trapped by diffusion.

Numerous granules comprise carbon filters that all contain carbon atoms that are connected to each other. Since the granules are so small, the surface area becomes large enough for gases and air particles to stick to the carbon molecules. The bed of the filter will become full of particulates through the process of adsorption, and you can see it for yourself when you replace your carbon filter.

For air filtration, activated carbon is sold in thin and thick packets. Simply insert the activated carbon filter into an air purifier, and it works with the filtration system. Contaminated air particles enter the filtration system, and then pass through the activated carbon filter to be adsorbed, which allows the filter to purify thoroughly.

Most air purifiers use a HEPA filter, while an added carbon filter isn’t always included. When activated carbon is used alongside a HEPA filter, the powerful adsorption and trapping abilities eliminate 99.97% of small and large air particles. The carbon filter allows the HEPA filter to work longer and more efficiently because the carbon absorbs larger particles before making their way through the entire system.

dog and woman meditating nearby air purifier

Does The Amount of Activated Carbon Matter?

The short answer is yes. Studies show that the more activated carbon molecules in a filter, the more air pollutants and contaminants are quickly adsorbed. So the effectiveness of an air purifier does rely on the amount of activated carbon in the filtration system.

The rule of thumb for air purifiers with activated carbon filters is to ensure that there are at least five pounds of activated carbon included. It’s also important to note that not all carbon is equal, and many molecules contain more binding sites and saturation capacity than others. If you’re comparing air purifiers, each with more than five pounds of activated carbon, you should feel confident that the one with the highest amount of pounds of activated carbon is the safest bet for efficiency.

Are There Other Ways to Use Activated Carbon Filters Effectively?

Besides ensuring a large amount of activated carbon is included in your filtration system, you should double-check some other factors and features. Some of these features include the airflow capabilities due to the filter’s size and how often you replace your filters. Here are some important things to consider to make sure your activated carbon air purifier is used correctly:

1. Check The Air Flow

For your activated carbon air filter to adsorb the most air pollutants possible, you need to make sure there’s a high “dwell time.” This is when the air spends passing through the carbon, which should be a sufficient amount of time. A filter should have a large thickness with a high dwell time to remove the largest amount of harmful air particles.

2. Remember to Change Your Air Filter

If you forget to replace your filter, then your air purifier cannot do its job. Most air purifiers include an indicator feature that lets you know when it’s time to change both the activated carbon and HEPA filters. You can also easily remove your carbon filter to check if the surface is fully covered with particulates. If the filter is noticeable dirty all around, then it’s time to change your carbon filter so that you can continue enjoying clean air.

What are the Pros and Cons of Activated Carbon?

There are numerous benefits to enjoy with activated carbon, and there are also some minor inconveniences to consider. Activated carbon filters alongside a HEPA filter expertly reduce air pollutants, bacteria, allergens, harmful gases, and chemicals in the air. On its own, an activated carbon filter does the job of reducing odors and keeping toxic chemicals from lingering in the air.

You’ll benefit from more peace of mind and comprehensive features with activated carbon than air purifiers that only include a HEPA filter. A carbon filter is added assurance that your air is clean of any harmful contaminants. Suppose you’re on top of replacing your activated carbon filter regularly and purchase filters with more than five pounds of activated carbon. In that case, you’ll be less at risk of respiratory issues and other health concerns related to harmful gases and chemicals in the air.

Without a HEPA filter working alongside activated carbon filters, you can feel rest assured that harmful air particles are being removed from the air since that’s the HEPA filter’s job. Carbon filters block the other toxic chemicals and odors before the other particles get to the HEPA, which means the carbon filter usually gets dirty faster than the HEPA filter. 

Due to the activated carbon filter working as the first defense, you should be prepared to change your activated carbon filter every six months to ensure your filtration system is working effectively. Prices for activated carbon filters and replacement packets typically range from 15 to 50 dollars but can be more for expensive air purifiers with unique filtration systems. While there are some downsides to activated carbon filters, we think that the benefits surely outweigh the few annoyances and expenses.

Pros

Activated carbon can eliminate odors, while stand-alone HEPA filters can’t.

You won’t have to change your HEPA filter as often as the activated carbon filter blocks many air contaminants from getting to the filtration process’s HEPA filter stage.

Activated carbon eliminates VOCs.

Cons

Activated carbon filters need to be changed every six months.

Activated carbon cannot remove particulate pollutants.

Activated carbon filters can be costly to replace.

Activated Carbon: Does It Work or Doesn’t It?

While some benefits of activated carbon are left to you, trusting the process, there are some benefits that you can see for yourself. The science behind the chemical reaction and adsorption process of activated carbon filters can be researched. You’ll find studies showing how carbon can get rid of strong odors and gases that can harm your health. The rest can be experienced through trial and error, and luckily there are plenty of reviews on air purifiers and activated carbon products if you’re hedging your bets.

    • You can witness the results of the activated carbon’s adsorption process when checking your carbon filter to see the particles stuck to the surface.
    • Odors are reduced after using a carbon filter in the air filtration system of an air purifier.
    • Eliminates VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) that HEPA filters alone couldn’t eradicate, and you can experience this with paint fumes quickly reducing after a home renovation. 
    • The amount of activated carbon in a filtration system inversely affects the benefits, meaning the more activated carbon molecules, the more contaminants are adsorbed faster.

Our Decision

While air purifiers are a great addition to your home, you want clean and healthy air, and an activated carbon filter is the icing on the cake. We think that filtration systems with HEPA filters do an excellent job of eliminating harmful allergens and bacteria. Still, the addition of a carbon filter will also effectively reduce odors and toxic chemicals that get into the air. Therefore, activated carbon should be on your list of essentials features when selecting an air purifier for your home.

Knowing that your air purification system includes an activated carbon filter means you’ll have comprehensive features. Not only will allergy sufferers feel fewer symptoms, but people near wildfire-prone areas can feel protected, and you can breathe in fewer odors if you live with tobacco smokers. Indoor air pollution is a thing of the past with an activated carbon air purifier by your side.

father son and daughter listening music dancing at home

What are the Top 5 Activated Carbon Air Purifiers?

Now that you’ve discovered that activated carbon really does work in cleaning the air and protecting you from harmful pollutants, you’re ready to find an air purifier and put it to the test. You’ll ultimately want to find an air purifier that includes both a true HEPA filter and an activated carbon filter. Remember to make sure that larger carbon pounds in the filter ensure maximum efficiency in getting rid of harmful gases, chemicals, and odors. 

Whether you’re worried about wildfire smoke, tobacco odors, or household chemicals — we found the best air purifiers that include the highest quality activated carbon filters. These five air purifiers have all the bells and whistles to expertly clean the air in your home and reduce many health concerns. They even have some added features alongside the helpful activated carbon filter to give you ease-of-use and modern, clean air solutions.

Alen BreatheSmart
75i
Air Purifier

$813 Buy on Amazon
IQAir
Health Pro
Air Purifier

$899 Buy on Amazon
Austin Air
Healthmate Plus
Air Purifier

$715 Buy on Amazon
Blueair
Classic 605
Air Purifier

$498 Buy on Amazon
Coway
AirMega 400
Air Purifier

$520 Buy on Amazon

Tips and Key Takeaways

  • Activated carbon works and offers additional purification and odor removal in air purifiers with HEPA filters
  • The amount of activated carbon should exceed five pounds for maximum benefits
  • Activated carbon filters don’t get rid of air particulates that HEPA filters take care of
  • Look for certified true HEPA filters
  • Check for a limited warranty 
  • Double-check the product’s dimensions to make sure it fits in your living space
  • Look for an air purifier that weighs 30 pounds or less if you plan on transporting or maneuvering it often
  • Find an air purifier with a large coverage area to protect your entire living space