How Do Essential Oil Diffusers Work? – What You Don’t Know…

Essential Oils are pretty amazing but for the aromatherapy benefits it is helpful to have what is called an essential oil diffuser. But how do essential oil diffusers work?

Essential oil diffusers work by either vaporizing the oils in distilled water, being heated and evaporated, or atomizing (or nebulizing) the oil into such a fine mist that you cannot even see it. Each one of the ways that oils can be diffused requires a different kind of diffuser. Those types include Ultrasonic, Heating, and Atomizing diffusers. My best recommendation would be atomizing diffusers, but that also happens to be the most expensive. The cheapest option is the ultrasonic diffuser but it is also less efficient.

In this article, I will help you understand each of the popular essential oil diffuser types and how they work.

Here we go…

how do essential oil diffusers work

Vaporizing or Ultrasonic Diffusers

These are the most common types of diffusers that you will see in your local store or on Amazon. They also happen to be the cheapest. The reason for that is that they are extremely simple to make and produce. However, it is the most inefficient way to use essential oils.

These types of ultrasonic diffusers use water as a base for your essential oils. If you have read any book in your life since school, you likely have heard the old adage that “oil and water do not mix”. So how is it possible that we are dropping oil into water and expecting anything of use?

Vaporizing essential oils “seem” to be effective because they produce a mist that fills the air. By and large, people are simple creatures, you tell us that something works, show us it’s working, and we will go with it. The mist that is created typically by a fan, introducing heat, or waves of ultrasonic energy, helps us see that something is working even if it not the best way to use our precious oils.

Even though vaporizing your essential oils is highly inefficient, does not mean it does not have it’s popular and somewhat effective uses.

For example, there are some health benefits for vaporizing your oils. If you have a cold, sore throat, or nasal congestion, simply putting a few drops of lavender in a pot of boiling water and safely inhale the mist can be of some benefit.

But if your primary goal is to utilize the sweet smelling aroma and get maximum healing capacities that are available from essential oils then vaporizing is NOT the best way to do it.

The reason for that is that the mist that you see is primarily water vapor and not the oils you spent so much money on. In fact, the oil content in what you are inhaling can be less than 5% as much of it is lost in the air.

So what kind of diffusers can we use to utilize more of our essential oils?

how do essential oil diffusers work 2

Heating Diffusers

One option is to apply heat to essential oils.

This can simply be done by using a candle or other type of heating element such as those little desk warmers that melts scented candles.

The high temperatures that you would apply to the essential oils do help with releasing more of the healing benefits of oils that you would typically lose when diluting those oils in water.

But (there’s always a but), there are drawbacks to applying straight heat to your oils.

So without getting too technical and “science-cy” on you, applying heat to your essential oils can change the chemical makeup of the oil themselves, which can affect the chemical potency and purity of the oil.

To make more sense of that, it is kind of like having a pot of water and turning the heat up so that it starts to steam. If you try to ‘drink’ the steam, you cannot expect the same effect if you were to just drink the water BEFORE turning it into steam.

Does that make sense? If not please let me know in the comments so that I can think of another way to explain it.

Another drawback to simply heating your oils in a diffuser is that it with the chemical composition of the oils changing, the health benefits of what you can get in the oils is altered. Sure, it can smell amazing and is way more potent, but the deep benefits of the natural healing properties of oils such as tea tree and eucalyptus can get lost in your nose hairs (totally not kidding about that… ).

So it can seem that we have been ‘downing’ all the most popular types of diffusers out there. So what can be considered one of the best ways to diffuse essential oils?

Atomizing or Nebulizing Diffusers

This is by far my favorite type of diffuser so I apologize in advance for gushing, lol.

First of all the terms “atomizing” and “nebulizing” are interchangeable. So try not to get confused with the lingo. That got me the first time I learned it myself.

But essentially, a diffuser that nebulizes essential oils turn the empirical oil themselves into tiny particles. Notice it is NOT VAPOR, but particles keeping the chemical composition of the oils in-tact.

This is the absolute best way to get the smell and health benefits of essential oils. how do essential oil diffusers work 3

It is kind of like a Hershey’s chocolate bar. It is one bar of chocolate that is made up of 12 different pieces. If you take the pieces apart, it does not change the fact that the 12 pieces are still chocolate.

That is exactly what an atomizing diffuser does for your oils.

This is a GREAT thing because now when you inhale or come in contact with the oils in their particle form, the body can more easily absorb the nutrients more rapidly.

The way it works fundamentally is that it requires a high velocity, pressurized air stream with an oddly shaped nozzle on the end. The process itself occurs almost instantly as not much needs to be done to pressurize the system.

So what are the drawbacks of atomizing your oils?

I find that there are two main ones, price and looks.

Atomizing Essential oil diffusers are not cheap. But they are also not overly expensive for no reason either. We are talking anywhere in the neighborhood of $100+ dollars.

Makes you want to re-think that $14 one off of Amazon, huh?

Well, the increased cost is that creating a high pressurized system of air takes a bit of know-how and also requires higher quality materials to maintain the pressure and not leak. Any leak in a pressurized system can render the diffuser useless. Building with nicer more premium materials help to extend the life of these great machines.

So in the long run, you will end up buying fewer diffusers as the cheap vaporization ones break, grow mold if not cleaned properly, or just plain stop working after a few uses. Ultimately, you get what you pay for, you know?

But it cannot be understated that nebulizing essential oils is the best and most effective way to gain the therapeutic and purity of what essential oils have to offer.

I can argue that if you are putting your expensive DoTerra or Young Living oils in a water diffuser, you are simply throwing your money away.


If you could not tell, of all the diffusers that we spoke of, my favorite by far is the Atomizer/nebulizer.

It is pricier than the other types of diffusers, but it is the easiest to manage, maintain, and delivers the best health AND aroma benefits. Check out my number one recommendation for atomizing diffusers right here.

So which essential oil diffuser is your favorite? Let me know down in the comments.

If you have any questions for me or anything else regarding essential oils or diffusers, please be sure to let me know in the comments as well.

You’ll thank me later, I guarantee it!

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Jeffrey Meadows
Jeffrey Meadows

Wow, great article.  My wife just got me a diffuser for my office at work.  It is the cheap one that uses water vapor but that’s ok, I use it to create an aromatic environment to help concentrate and such.  I did not even know they made more kind of diffusers other than the water vapor kind.

I am definitely intrigued now that I know there are more.  Maybe I can get better benefits from the oils than just a smell with a better quality or different kind of diffuser.

Nicole Stiles
Nicole Stiles

I think I’ve read somewhere that some oils become harmful if you heat them to diffuse them. Do you know anything about that?

I’ve also heard that you have to be careful of the material of what the diffusers are made of. Normal plastic gets eaten and there’s some special material you should make sure your diffuser is made from. Can you shed any light on that?


Thanks for this very informative post Chris. I have only been exploring essential oils for the last few months and have been confused about the different types of diffusers. This is by far the best explanation I have found.

I do have a question. With the more expensive atomiser type diffuser do you still get the amazing aroma from the essential oils? I’m not sure that being able to smell the oil means I am benefiting from the power of the oil but I love having the different aromas surrounding me.


Well I will say if you were trying to convince someone how good are these essential oils, you got me. I was reading through the article and I could almost begin to smell all the fantastci flavors. I have alwyas loved a good aroma in the room I think it helps set the mood right, it deosn’t matter what you do it is just lovely to walk inside a home and the parfume fo the oils is all around. I will definately order the nebulizer, i never had one before. Thank you for the suggestion


This is interesting I never try this before, will this actually help against the head cold? I currently have one just asking. So I also guess people use this in places where there are high altitude and less oxygen. I know that because I live in Park City Utah and a lot of people rent vaporizers inside. I use to work as a housekeeper.