Can Vacuum Cleaners Clean Dusty Air?

Updated on January 28, 2022 by Joseph D. Nielson

Table of Contents

Man and woman standing in a living room with the man holding a vacuum like a guitar while the woman has her head resting on the top of a mop handle smiling at the man

Understandably, people are concerned about the air they breathe. Most of the dust and dirt in our homes is invisible to the eye and that dust contains harmful microbes and dust mites that cause respiratory illnesses and infections. 

Just seeing a dusty room makes people want to hold their breath. So it’s only natural to look for cleaning solutions that a) work effectively and b) are easy to do. One possible answer is to use a vacuum cleaner to clean dusty air. The question is, does it work?

Can vacuum cleaners clean dusty air?

The answer is: technically yes. A vacuum cleaner is more than capable of cleaning the air. The issue is that a vacuum cleaner is not designed as an efficient air cleaner.  At least not for the purposes of letting it sit in one spot or hanging the nozzle, turning it on and leaving it on until all the air in a room is clean. 

This would clean the air in the room, as does actively vacuuming it, but to understand why it’s not a good idea to use a vacuum as an air cleaner (besides the fact that it wouldn’t clean the objects where most of the dust and dirt live) you need to know how a vacuum cleaner works. 

What is the Physics of How a Vacuum Works?

The easiest way to describe the physics of how a vacuum cleaner works is to think of drinking through a straw. When you turn your vacuum cleaner on, the electric motor inside it rapidly spins a fan strong enough to suck in air, and most everything in it, up into a canister or bag. When you drink through a straw, your lungs act as the fan creating suction that pulls your drink, the air and dirt, through the straw (vacuum nozzle) into your mouth that acts as the bag or canister. 

But in order for your lungs to create that suction, they need to breathe in – and out. So does a vacuum cleaner. Your vacuum cleaner exhales the air it sucked in, minus the dirt and dust particles that were filtered out of it as it passed through the bag or canister. So this is how a vacuum cleaner cleans dusty air.

Learn about the different types, then decide whether bagged vs bagless vacuum cleaners meet your needs.

But Should You Use a Vacuum Cleaner to Clean Dusty Air?

One of the reasons a vacuum cleaner is so good at picking up dirt and dust particles from your carpet is the amount of suction it creates. The size of the nozzle, or the intake port, plays a significant role in how much force the suction has. The smaller the intake port of the vacuum, like your straw, the more suction is created because your fan is sucking up the same amount of air, but through a smaller tunnel, making the air move faster. That’s why smaller hose attachments create more powerful suction and clean better than larger ones. 

To clean the entire volume of air in a room, you ideally want a fan strong enough to create the suction you need and an intake port large enough to be effective but small enough to generate even more suction. A vacuum cleaner does not fit that description. Your home’s ventilation system does (or should). And a small room humidifier serves a crucial purpose, but it does not clean air.

Also, again, cleaning the air alone doesn’t address the majority of the dust and dirt in a room that’s in your:

  • Carpeting and rugs.
  • Curtains and blinds.
  • Sofas, mattresses and furniture.
  • Desks, desk chairs, lamps and office equipment.

And that’s what a vacuum cleaner does best. It cleans the objects in a room and the air around them, as long as it has the right filter. 

High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) Filters

HEPA filters are made of polyolefin and glass to catch dust, pollen, mold, bacteria, and any airborne particles with a size of 0.3 microns (µm) with around 99.97 % efficiency. For more info, check out the ultimate guide to HEPA air filters

What is the use of HEPA filters in vacuum cleaners?

The microbes and microorganisms in the dirt and dust are tiny but if you breathe in enough of them over time, they cause infections and illnesses in your respiratory system. That’s why you need to vacuum and clean your air in the first place. So the filter must be able to remove them from the air. Enter high efficiency particulate air filters (HEPA filters).

The crucial part of a cleaning process that uses suction is the filter that catches the dusty and dirty air as it passes through it to become clean air on the other side. 

You can find them in your home’s ventilation system, which is built to clean your home’s dusty air like a vacuum cleaner would, using suction generated by a fan that uses your duct work, return grills and HEPA HVAC filters in the same way.

Person vacuuming a mat under a table

How to Use a Vacuum Cleaner to Clean Smoky Air Out of a Home

The first step to cleaning smoky air out of your home is – like it should be anyway – to make sure your house is properly ventilated with a clean HEPA filter. If you smoke in your home, you also need to spend extra time cleaning floors, curtains, blinds and furniture. The idea is to start from the top and work your way to the bottom.

Start by dusting. Make sure to dust vents as well as furniture, window sills and electronics. Then you can vacuum or, for a better clean, mop and vacuum at the same time.

A couple of things to keep in mind: 

The Ceiling Fan

Not only are ceiling fans responsible for circulating the air in your space, but the tops of their blades are prime real estate for dirt and dust particles, so they have to be immaculate.

Use Microfiber Cloths

Microfiber cloths work really well and can save you money on cleaning supplies. Buy one made of recycled materials and be careful how you clean a microfiber cloth to get rid of the dust and dirt it collects.

Dust Collected

Always be careful around the dust collected by a vacuum cleaner or any other tool. Vacuum cleaner dust is especially dangerous to inhale as it’s a collection of all the particles of dirt, bacteria and allergens that are bad for you that you’re trying to get rid of.

How To Remove Dust from Air Naturally

If you prefer to passively and naturally remove dust in the air, you can:

  • Use your home’s ventilation system.
  • Open up windows.
  • Use air purifiers.

You can also use candles, plants, activated charcoal and essential oils to remove dust naturally from the air in your home.

Can Vacuum Cleaners Clean Dusty Air? FAQs 

Can Vacuum Cleaners Spread Virus?

Vacuum cleaners do not filter out 100% of the bacteria, dust and allergens they suck up out of objects you vacuum. Also, there are some that don’t pull in all 100% of the bacteria and allergens that are released when you vacuum. But it’s highly unlikely that a virus would survive on a surface long enough or after going through that process.

That said, vacuum cleaners clean a lot more than they don’t. Also, vacuum cleaning is just one piece of the puzzle. Properly dusting an area first, then vacuuming while ensuring proper ventilation is needed to help prevent illnesses and infections.

Why is Vacuum Cleaner Dust Grey?

Vacuum cleaner dust is grey because it is actually a collection of microscopic dirt particles that themselves look grey because they don’t reflect light very well.

Does vacuuming improve air quality?

Yes, vacuuming improves air quality. But it basically cleans the air in its immediate vicinity. And the amount of air that gets clean depends on the size of the vacuum, what it’s actually vacuuming and how much other cleaning you did in the room.

Is Vacuum Dust Dangerous?

Yes, inhaling vacuum cleaner dust is dangerous. It’s a concentrated mix of everything that’s bad for you to breathe in, that’s why you’re trying to clean it out of your air and furniture. 

How to Clean a Vacuum Cleaner That Smells

To clean a vacuum cleaner that smells:

  • Clean out the bag or canister and replace the filter. 
  • Bathe the hose and attachments in a cleaning solution mixed with water.
  • Use another vacuum or comb to clean brush attachments.
  • Wipe down the exterior of the vacuum cleaner.

Read this guide to really learn how to maintain a vacuum cleaner.

If you clean a vacuum cleaner does that make you a vacuum cleaner?

No, obviously not. It makes you a vacuum cleaner cleaner. 

Joseph and Family
About Joseph D. Nielson

Former journalist and editor for various press groups, I now dedicate my time to reviewing products for the home and family life. When I get time to myself, I enjoy rock climbing, taking my dirt bike for a rip, and most importantly providing my family with the best home possible!