HEPA is an acronym for high-efficiency particulate air. HEPA is a type of filter that can trap a large number of very small particles that other vacuum cleaners would simply recirculate back into the air of your home. HEPA vacuums are recommended for minimizing dust, dander, and other common allergens in homes. The fact that a filter or vacuum bag says "HEPA," however, doesn't mean you're getting true HEPA performance.
True or Absolute HEPA Filters
True or absolute HEPA filters must be tested and meet a specific standard to be considered true HEPA. True HEPA filters have a serial number assigned to them and have been proven to trap at least 99.97 percent of particles of 0.3 microns. Look for the test results since they should be printed on the filter. True or absolute HEPA filters may be more expensive than other "HEPA" filters, but they must perform at a certain standard to receive the distinction of true or absolute HEPA.
HEPA-type filters may be made in similar ways to true HEPA filters and may even resemble them. However, they do not have to meet the same standards as true or absolute HEPA filters. Many filters sold as HEPA may capture only 85 to 90 percent of all particles, and that percent can fall even lower for particles of one micron and below. These filters will not have serial numbers.
The Difference Between True and HEPA-Type Filters
Look for the serial number and test results printed on true or absolute HEPA filters. Make sure that the test results at 0.3 microns are 99.97 percent or above. The size of 0.3 microns is the testing standard because most filters will perform better with both smaller and larger particles. Also, most household allergens are 0.3 microns or larger.
It's important to note that a HEPA vacuum is designed for HEPA performance and may be either a bagged or bagless model. In other words, it's not the bag that makes a vacuum HEPA. It's also important to understand that simply using a HEPA-type bag—or adding a HEPA filter—in a standard vacuum does not mean you'll get true HEPA performance. HEPA vacuums are sealed and have special filters that clean all of the air going out of the vacuum. Standard vacuums usually filter the outgoing air via the vacuum bag.
In commercial environments where HEPA vacuums are required, such as construction or restoration sites, using standard vacuums with HEPA filters or bags may constitute a violation of EPA rules and may result in a substantial fine.
How to Buy a HEPA Vacuum
True HEPA vacuums are widely available and are not necessarily more expensive than comparable standard vacuums. You can research and buy them just like any ordinary household appliance. Once you've confirmed that a vacuum is true HEPA, you can make your selection based on the usual factors, such as type, price, performance and convenience features, brand reputation, etc.
Consumer Reports found that HEPA vacuums they tested tend to do a good job at removing pet hair, a bonus for a tidy home.
US EPA, OAR. “What Is a HEPA Filter?” Overviews and Factsheets, February 19, 2019. https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/what-hepa-filter-1.
“Residential Air Cleaners-A Technical Summary.” EPA Indoor Environments Division, July 2018. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2018-07/documents/residential_air_cleaners_-_a_technical_summary_3rd_edition.pdf.