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Essential Oil Burner vs Diffuser: What’s the Difference?

What’s the difference between an essential oil burner and an essential oil diffuser? Which is better?

What Exactly Is an Essential Oil?

Essential oils are assumed to be volatile liquids that are derived from lipids distilled from plant matter. I say “assumed” because according to the FDA and NAHA (National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy), there is no legal definition for “essential oil.” With the entire industry (both manufacturing and educational) being fully unregulated, it is impossible to know whether you are purchasing a true essential oil, or a chemically created concoction being sold as an essential oil (or a combination of other dirty little secrets common within the essential oil industry).

How Essential Oil Burners Work

The primary purpose of a burner is to warm water or wax to the point it evaporates, filling the room with your choice of an aroma. An essential oil burner is a means of diffusing an essential oil by placing oil and water into a copper or ceramic bowl and a small tea light candle or light bulb heat source under the bowl, causing the water to evaporate with the essential oil in it.

Oil burners are often appealing because they’re inexpensive, ranging from $5-30 (sometimes more), and are beautifully decorative, much like candle wax warmers. They are also easy to find, and they’re effective at releasing the essential aroma into your room. Essential oil burners are portable, often aren’t easily breakable, and can be used in a variety of places. Plus another benefit of using essential oils vs wax melts or a scented candle is you’re not exposing your body to common harmful chemicals found in them.

By nature, oil burners function by using an open flame or electrically powered light bulb, so if you choose to use one, you’ll want to ensure it is in a safe manner, away from pets and children, and in a location where it won’t pose as a fire risk. Because of this fire and burn risk, you should not leave your essential oil burner unattended.

One risk factor is that using heat, even from a small tea light candle, may change some essential oils’ molecular composition, which may impact therapeutic benefits. There is also a risk of burning your skin if you handle the oil burner or spill the water mixture while still hot.

How Essential Oil Diffusers Work

Essential oil diffusers displace essential oils into the air without using a heating element. There are two main different types of aromatherapy diffusers: passive and active. The main difference between active and passive diffusers is active diffusers use electricity.

How Passive Diffusers Work

Passive diffusers refer to diffusers that are not required to be plugged into an electrical source in order to work. They’re easy to make, being as simple as felt or leather, wood, or more ornate options made of ceramic or clay.

To use a passive diffuser, comply drip a few drops of oil over your passive diffuser, and let it sit.

The main benefit of using a passive diffuser is you can enjoy their aroma without it spreading through a larger space, especially beneficial if you work in a co-working space, traveling on a train or plane, or carpooling with other people who may not want to smell the same aroma you’re using.

My personal favorite way of using a passive diffuser is by wearing diffusing jewelry. For more info about how to use and find diffusing jewelry, check out our diffusing jewelry guide.

My least favorite passive diffuser is using reed diffusers. Compared to other options, they require a lot more essential oil to accomplish the same result.

How Ultrasonic Diffusers Work

Ultrasonic diffusers have an inside cup to fill partway with water and a few drops of essential oil. At the bottom of that basin, there is a metal plate that uses kinetic energy to vibrate silently that displaces water with the oil into a mist that disperses into the air. This is done without heating the water or the oil, so you have the essential oil diffused into the air without any potential heat damage.

Ultrasonic essential oil diffusers come in a wide variety of prices, sizes, appearances, and materials. You can find them anywhere from $5-250, with the majority under $100. There are some beautiful decorative styles made in plastic, wood, glass, ceramic, or a combination of materials. Some are much more ornate than others, fitting every personality and decoration style.

Most modern essential oil diffusers automatically turn off after a predetermined amount of time or when the basin runs out of water, making them much safer to use than oil burners. Plus there are a wide variety of car or personal diffusers too where you can diffuse oils as you travel.

How Nebulizing Diffusers Work

Nebulizing diffusers are similar to ultrasonic diffusers in that they do not heat oils to work. Instead of using an ultrasonic plate and water, nebulizing diffusers use Bernoulli’s principle, a theorem of fluid dynamics that provides the best results when diffusing pure essential oil. First, the air current is forced through a small tube, increasing its velocity to rise up out of the tube. During this process, a suction is created within the glass, causing the pressurized air to blow across the essential oil in a separate glass tube. While blowing across the essential oil tube, the oil is displaced into micro-particles that fill the glass reservoir. Once in the reservoir, those atomized essential oil particles rise up and out of the glass cap in a mist. This cycle continues to repeat until there is no more essential oil left in the nebulizing tube.

Because this nebulizing diffusing method does not dilute the essential oil with water, the vapor is much more potent. If you choose to use a nebulizer, you’ll want to decrease the time you spend diffusing.

Heat is not used in the nebulizing process, so the essential oil’s chemical structure remains how it originally was after the distillation process, maintaining full therapeutic values. Nebulizers use glass, so there is also no risk of using plastic if that is a concern.

Which Method Is Best To Use Essential Oils?

A general rule of storing essential oils is to keep them away from high heat or they run the risk of losing their therapeutic benefits.

If you’re wanting to fill your home or office with an essential oil’s aroma, and want to preserve the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual benefits those oils provide, then I do not recommend using an oil burner.

If you’re wanting the aroma, and are not worried about what wellness benefits may be lost in the process, then using an oil burner would be fine.

As for my personal preference, I love wearing diffusing jewelry and using ultrasonic diffusers. I chose ultrasonic diffusers over nebulizers because we have kids and dogs while living in an RV. Wearing diffusing jewelry allows me to take my oils with me when we are out hiking, bike riding, or exploring new places. And keeping an ultrasonic diffuser in our RV allows me the flexibility of not worrying about glass or ceramic diffusers getting knocked over and broken.

Is it better to use an essential oil diffuser or an essential oil burner?

Author: Nicole Graber

Title: Writer, Editor, Wellness Consultant, Business Strategist

Expertise: Natural Wellness, Healthy Lifestyle, Home Business Strategy, Motherhood


Nicole is a military-trained research analyst, homeschooling mom, healthy lifestyle consultant, and flexible business strategist. She is the heart and mind behind MotherhoodTruth.com and GracefullyAbundant.com, and is a syndicated writer with bylines from MSN.com and the AP newswire. After living through and overcoming a season of homelessness and chronic health, Nicole developed a passion for helping others develop healthier habits using functional nutrition, herbalism, flexible business strategies, and renewing faith.

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