Choosing a vacuum cleaner or other type of cleaner

A guide for people with asthma and allergies

Most households have a vacuum cleaner, but many people don’t know what features they should look for, or whether they could also benefit from other cleaning devices.

This fact sheet highlights some of the things people with asthma and allergies should consider.

Cleaning machines should effectively remove dirt and allergens such as dust mites and their excreta, pet allergens and maybe pollen that has entered the house, but are unlikely to be the solution for other triggers like mould, smoke and chemicals.

Vacuum cleaners

In simple terms, a vacuum cleaner will suck air in, capture the particulates and then emit cleaner air.

However, some machines are significantly better than others at doing this. The key factors that affect this include design and build quality, type and serviceability of filtration and motorised brushes.

What are you cleaning?

It is more difficult to remove dirt from fabrics and carpets than from a hard surface. Hard surfaces can also be effectively cleaned using a mop or electrostatic cloth.


While there might be some correlation between higher power (measured in watts) and higher suction, buyers should not select a machine based just on this. It is possible to have a very effective machine using less power.

Pick-up ability

One of the key factors in selecting a vacuum cleaner is its ability to pick up dirt and allergens. The two key factors to consider.

Suction (sometimes described as air watts) is only one factor in determining effective pick-up. Design, build quality and a power-head can also be influential.

In some machines, suction (and pick-up performance) diminishes as the dust receptacle fills up.


The second key factor to consider is retention of the dust and allergens in the vacuum cleaner. This is achieved by separating the particles from the air, most commonly by the use of filters, with some machines (usually described as cyclonic) using centrifugal force to remove particles and others using water to collect the dirt.


You may see vacuums advertised with HEPA filters. HEPA stands for high-efficiency particulate air – it’s a standard whereby a high proportion of airborne particles 0.3 microns (µm) in diameter must be captured. In some uses a number may appear in conjunction with HEPA 13 meaning at least 99.95% of particles are retained, with the higher numbers retaining more particles.

A vacuum with a HEPA filter does not mean only 0.05% or less of what is vacuumed up above 0.3µm is emitted. Some air may bypass the filter, and the action of vacuuming will also raise particles into the air that were not sucked into the vacuum.

For those people sensitive to particulate allergens found in the home, we recommend you do not do the vacuuming yourself if possible and not enter the area for at least 20 minutes.

Better quality vacuums are likely to retain more particulate matter.

HEPA-like or HEPA-type filters are not HEPA filters…they will almost certainly be inferior.

Ease of washing or replacing filters should be considered and regular replacement or cleaning is important.

Vacuum configuration

Whether you choose an upright, canister, bagged or bagless vacuum is a personal choice, but you should consider ease of use and your circumstances – for example, some machines will be better for stairs.

One issue to consider when considering bagged or bagless is emptying the dust collector. Some bags are self-sealing reducing the prospect of being exposed to the contents. However, you may be able to empty the bagless hopper outside (and up-wind) to reduce the prospect of being exposed to the contents.

Hand-held and battery vacuums

Many battery-operated vacuums have less suction and are less effective at removing dirt, but they may be useful as a convenient secondary vacuum. A good robot vacuum has the advantage of being able to be used while you are away meaning any allergens stirred up can settle while you aren’t there.

Ultra violet lights

While ultra violet light can kill bacteria and dust mites, the power of the emissions and the required time of exposure to be effective makes this a gimmick.

Steam cleaners

Steam mops are suitable for smooth hard floors. Steam is an effective chemical-free way of cleaning and killing bacteria and dust mites.

Some points to consider: Some floor surfaces may not be suitable for the heat generated by the steam; adequate drying is important, as moisture can grow mould.

A steam cleaner looks a bit like a vacuum cleaner and has the same benefits as a steam mop, but they usually have more attachments, which makes them more versatile. Some combine a vacuum function and may be suitable for carpet and soft surfaces.

Deep cleaners

Deep cleaners are intended to wash carpets (and other surfaces). They may use hot water, chemicals and the suction and rotating brush attributes of vacuum cleaners.

The chemicals will assist the cleaning, but some may contain fragrances or chemicals that may irritate some people. Check the ingredients before use.

Machines can be bought, or hired

Dry cleaning

Carpet dry-cleaning services tend to be professionally done using chemicals and special machines. Again, the chemicals used may affect some people. Chemically sensitive people should not be present when cleaning is done.

The process is most likely not completely moisture-free, but you can usually walk on the carpet immediately.

To see Sensitive Choice approved cleaning machines, click here.