How to Pick the Right Aromatherapy Diffusers or Make Your Own

Published on July 21, 2023

By Lisa Stockwell

Lisa Stockwell

Lisa Stockwell has worked as a copywriter, writer, author, and editor for 35 years, specializing in the field of healthcare since 2009. She recognized the need for reliable health information while supporting friends through unique health challenges and refocused her career to bring clarity and compassion to healthcare communications. Lisa is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and a lifelong Northern Californian.

Embrace the power of aromatherapy to soothe stress, support your respiratory health, enhance your mood, or cope with occasional sleeplessness. With an aromatherapy diffuser and the right essential oil, you have everything you need to create an atmosphere that promotes balance, relaxation, and overall wellness. 

Suppose you want to try aromatherapy and don’t know where to start.This article provides an overview of aromatherapy diffusers, including what they are, the pros and cons of four different types of diffusers, and how to make your own.

What is an Aromatherapy Diffuser?

An aromatherapy diffuser is a device you use to disperse the aromatic molecules of essential oils into the air around you. Aromatic plants have been used by almost every civilization over the past 5,000 years for a range of purposes, from religious rituals to supporting health to masking bad odors. Each civilization created its own techniques for diffusing the aromas of these essential oils.

In 2,000 B.C. Egyptians made reed diffusers by steeping reeds in perfumed oil, releasing their scent over time. In China, Buddhists burned incense sticks made from reeds to spread their scent. In Ancient Greece, Hippocrates is thought to have said, “The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.”

While the history of aromatherapy is long, it wasn’t until the 1920s that two Italian doctors, Renato Cayola and Giovanni Garri, began studying the psychological and physical effects. Since that time, a century ago, many scientific studies have been done to examine the efficacy of aromatherapy as a complementary medicine and test the properties of individual plant aromas. As aromatherapy has grown in popularity, many different types of diffusers have been created to help users enjoy the full effects of essential oils. 

Four Types of Diffusers for Aromatherapy

There are four main types of diffusers, and each can be made of different materials to ensure optimal performance and safety. Each type operates differently and has pros and cons, but the basic principle remains the same: transforming the liquid essential oil into a breathable, fragrant mist. 

By understanding how a diffuser works, you can choose the type that best suits your needs and preferences, allowing you to enjoy the benefits of aromatherapy safely and effectively.

Evaporative Diffusers

Evaporative diffusers allow essential oils to naturally evaporate and disperse their aroma into the air. They typically consist of a porous material, such as wooden reeds, a small porous clay pot or pendant, or felt pads. Either the material (such as a group of reeds) is soaked in the essential oil, or the essential oil is applied to the material. As the material absorbs the oil, it gradually releases its aroma into the air. 

An evaporative diffuser can be passive, such as the wooden reeds that soak in a container, or can be attached to a fan mechanism. You can purchase an evaporative fan diffuser that blows air across a felt pad soaked with essential oil. This helps increase the rate of evaporation, allowing for more widespread scent distribution and providing a more immersive aromatherapy experience.

Pros: Evaporative diffusers offer simplicity and portability and passive evaporative diffusers don’t require electricity to function. You don’t have to worry about turning them on or off. The scent of the essential oil will continue to permeate the room as long as the oil in the diffuser lasts, which can be up to a month or more.

Cons: The rate of diffusion and intensity of the scent may vary depending on factors like airflow and humidity in the room. Also, evaporation can cause the essential oil to lose some of its potency.

Nebulizing Diffusers

Nebulizing diffusers consist of a glass chamber, a motor, and a nozzle. They use pressurized air or gas to break essential oils into microscopic particles. Glass is often the preferred material for nebulizing diffusers because it doesn't react with the oils and maintains the purity of the scent. Because nebulizing diffusers have no plastic parts that could corrode, they can be used for diffusing any essential oil, including citrus essential oils.

Pros: Nebulizing diffusers use only pure essential oils without dilution and offer a powerful and direct way to experience the full therapeutic potential of essential oils. They start working instantly and can scent a space in under an hour. Most nebulizing diffusers also let you control how much oil is diffused and how powerful you want the scent to be. They are easy to clean and are a low-maintenance choice for effective aromatherapy.

Cons: Nebulizing diffusers are the most expensive type of diffuser and use up essential oil faster than other options. They also require electricity or a battery to work. 

Ultrasonic Diffusers

Ultrasonic diffusers, sometimes called vapor diffusers, use water combined with a few drops of essential oil. They have a reservoir to hold the water and oil mixture and use super-fast ultrasonic vibrations to disperse a cool mist of essential oils into the air. The best materials for these diffusers are high-quality ceramic or BPA-free plastic since both materials are durable, easy to clean, and more resistant to corrosion caused by essential oils.

Pros: Modern ultrasonic diffusers are easy to use. They are also safe to use because they don’t require heat or a fan to operate. Just put in a few drops of oil and turn the diffuser on. High-quality ultrasonic diffusers allow you to control the strength of the aroma you want to circulate throughout your room. Some models offer an automatic shutoff option. Because ultrasonic diffusers add a small amount of humidity to the air, they may contribute to a more comfortable environment if you live in a dry climate. 

Cons: If you use a low-quality, inexpensive ultrasonic diffuser, it can dilute or damage the chemical structure of a high-quality essential oil, giving you an inferior aromatherapy experience. Ultrasonic diffusers also require electricity. Because of their plastic parts, they need regular cleaning to avoid corrosion, and because they use water, you have to check their water reserve frequently to ensure no mold or fungus is growing.

Heat Diffusers

Heat diffusers rely on heat to gently warm the essential oils and release their aroma into the air. Heat diffusers use different heating elements, such as candle diffusers, electric heat diffusers, or lamp rings. They also are made of various materials, including glass, ceramic, and stainless steel. The heat source warms the essential oil, causing it to evaporate and disperse its fragrance. 

Pros: Candle diffusers require no electricity and are economical to use. Heat diffusers are also silent, like passive evaporative diffusers.

Cons: Heat can alter the chemical composition of essential oils. Some essential oils are especially sensitive to heat. Heat diffusers can also be dangerous if you forget to turn off the heating element or if a child or pet gets too close to them. Also, using a candle as your heat source can be a fire hazard if you fall asleep and forget to blow it out. If you’re sensitive, the smoke from the candle may be harmful to your health. If you use a heat diffuser, locate it somewhere it can’t be knocked into and use a low setting for shorter periods to preserve the therapeutic properties of the essential oils. 

Make Your Own Aromatherapy Diffuser

If you’re new to aromatherapy or simply want a fulfilling and cost-effective way to enjoy the benefits of essential oils, you can craft a personalized diffuser that suits your style and preferences. Here are two DIY options to consider:

Create a Reed Diffuser

A reed diffuser is a great entry point to aromatherapy and an easy-to-make option for dispersing essential oils gradually. Follow these steps to create a reed diffuser:

  1. Select a container: Choose a narrow-necked glass or ceramic container that can hold the essential oil blend and accommodate the reeds.
  2. Prepare the base oil: Pour carrier oil, such as olive oil, fractionated coconut oil, or almond oil, into the container. Leave some space at the top for the essential oil.
  3. Add essential oil: Add your desired essential oil or a combination of multiple oils to the carrier oil. Start with around 20-25 drops of essential oil per ¼ cup of carrier oil, adjusting the strength according to your preference. 
  4. Insert reeds: Place several reed diffuser sticks or bamboo skewers into the container. The reeds will absorb the oil and disperse the scent into the air.
  5. Flip the reeds: After a few hours or days, or when you desire a stronger scent, flip the reeds upside down to expose the saturated ends. This will help refresh the fragrance in the room.
  6. Maintain and refill: Over time, the reeds may become saturated or clogged with dust. To maintain the diffuser's effectiveness, replace the reeds and refill the base oil and essential oil mixture as needed.

    Create a Clay Diffuser

    Clay diffusers offer a simple and decorative way to enjoy aromatherapy in smaller spaces, such as a desk or small bathroom. Follow these steps to make your own:

    1. Choose clay material: Select a natural, air-dry clay, such as terra cotta or white clay, which can absorb and hold essential oils effectively.
    2. Shape the clay: Mold the clay into your desired shape, such as a small dish, a pendant, a decorative ornament, or even a small vial with a narrow opening that you can close with a cork. Whatever form or shape you create, make sure it has a small concave area to hold the essential oil.
    3. Let the clay dry: Follow the instructions for drying the clay. Usually, air-dry clay needs 24-48 hours to dry completely. Once dry, it will harden and be ready for use.
    4. Apply essential oils: Place a few drops of your preferred essential oil or oil blend onto the clay diffuser. If you’ve created a small vial, you can fill it up and close it with a cork. The clay will absorb the oils and release the fragrance into the surrounding area.
    5. Refresh as needed: Over time, the scent will diminish. Add more essential oil to the clay diffuser at your discretion to revive the aroma.

    With either option, if you want to disperse the aroma faster or into a larger area, you can place the diffuser in front of a small tabletop fan turned onto the lowest setting. If you are using an open clay dish, place the fan farther away to avoid disrupting the oil. 

    Keep safety in mind when making and using DIY diffusers. Store essential oils safely in a cool dark place, ensure proper dilution with a carrier oil, and clean your diffuser as needed.

    Use Only High-Quality Essential Oils With Your Diffuser

    No matter what kind of diffuser you end up using — one you purchase or make yourself — always do your research on different herbs and the properties of their essential oils so that you use an oil or combination of oils that help meet your health needs and goals. While you may favor one aroma over another, you don’t want to discover too late that the essential oil you’re using gives you an entirely different reaction than the one you hoped for.

    When investing in essential oils for your diffuser, ensure it is a high-quality pure essential oil and not a fragrance oil diluted with other ingredients. Ideally, the label should include the Latin name of the plant it is extracted from so you know exactly what you’re getting. 

    Since the FDA doesn’t regulate essential oils that are sold for aromatherapy purposes, you can’t always trust the label. If you aren’t familiar with the brand and reputation of the company you’re buying from, cost can indicate quality. In other words, you get what you pay for. Generally, a high-quality oil will be expensive because it is made from a large quantity of organic or wild-harvested plant matter and hasn’t been diluted with other oils. It will be in a dark amber or cobalt glass container to preserve its integrity. 

    Keep experimenting with different essential oils to find scents that embrace your senses, relieve any stress, and rejuvenate your spirit. With the right diffuser and essential oil for your needs, you’re ready to incorporate aromatherapy into your health routine and enjoy how it enhances your physical and emotional well-being.