This is a question I ponder every year. From my own experience, I know that running a plug-in humidifier only adds to the wintertime terror of sky-high energy bills, and slathering on colloidal oatmeal lotion will get you only so far. That said, if you and your baby-soft epidermis are in a state of peril, I wouldn’t completely throw out the notion of investing in a humidifier. However, it's worth knowing that the Energy Star program does not qualify humidifiers (there are Energy Star-rated dehumidifiers on the market, however), and energy consumption differences among different models are moot. However, there are alternatives, but first, you need to identify the problem.
How to know if your house is too dry
Wintertime dry skin is a good indicator, but that could have as much to do with the outdoors as the indoors. Luckily, there's a quick trick to figuring out if you need more moisture in your home, and it doesn't require buying a humidity monitor from the hardware store.
Instead, all you need is a glass water with ice in it. Set the glass on the table and go leave it alone. Pay a bill, jot out a quick reply to an email and then about five minutes later, go check on the glass. If there's no moisture on the outside of the glass when you touch it, you need more moisture in the air.
To solve it, here are a few ways to add the moisture to your home.
Yes, you read that right: wet clothing. If you don’t have one already, get yourself an indoor clothes drying rack or two and put them to good use. You’ll save yourself a nice chunk of change by not using one of the household’s biggest energy hogs, the clothes dryer, while introducing moisture into the air of your parched apartment. If you don’t have a dryer at home, you’ll at least save on all those quarters (and precious time) guzzled by machines at the laundromat. When laundry day rolls around, try placing a small drying rack in each room or just get a large one and place it in a centrally located area.
Get yourself a few houseplants and place them around your apartment. In addition to adding air-purifying aesthetic appeal, plants naturally release moisture through a process called transpiration in which the pores on the underside of leaves essentially sweat. However, many types of houseplants require high levels of humidity to thrive (many folks actually place humidifiers near sickly looking plants), so make sure to water and mist your indoor greenery on the regular. One specific plant with top-notch air purifying and humidifying capabilities to consider is the Boston fern. And you needn’t turn your pad into a jungle; a few houseplants placed in clusters should do the trick nicely.
Dishes of water
A nifty little trick to adding moisture to a room sans humidifier is to add a shallow ceramic dish or pan of water (any vessel will do, really) near heat sources. The science behind this method isn’t exactly mind-boggling: The heat evaporates the water that, in turn, adds a decent amount of moisture to the air. We aren’t talking Miami Beach in August here, but you’ll probably notice the difference. If you have an old-school radiator, consider investing in a low-cost radiator humidifier, a non-electric device designed to produce steam out of dry heat. I’m in love with these charming but hard-to-find decorative models from Germany, but there are more traditional, less design-y options, like this old-timer, out there. This sleek, stainless steel model from Blomus is also quite lovely if you’d rather not sacrifice your ceramic dishware to the humidifying gods.
Since we’re trying to conserve natural resources and energy here, I wouldn’t recommend taking epic showers to steam up your home. But when you do shower, experiment with leaving the bathroom door open to release moisture into other parts of your apartment. (Proceed with caution here if you have roommates, OK?) Or, keep the bathroom door shut and seal off the bathroom and proceed to hang out in there for a spell post-shower as a treat for your parched skin. But keep in mind that if you regularly turn your bathroom into a makeshift steam room, you may inadvertently start a mold and mildew farm. So play it safe … dry skin may be yucky but a mold infestation can be much, much yuckier.
Sweaters and stovetop cooking
Finally, before you consider going the humidifier route, you should try nipping the source of that icky, artificial dry heat in the bud by simply cranking down that thermostat. Weather strip those windows, grab your favorite wool sweater and get all cozy this winter. And while you’re all bundled up and hunkered down, why not flex your culinary prowess by trying out your favorite stovetop recipes? Cooking on the stovetop in lieu of in your oven or microwave is another humidifier-free way to introduce a bit of much needed moisture to your home.
This story was originally written in November 2011 and has been updated with the latest information.