What Are Ionizer Air Purifiers and Do They Work?

What are ionizer air purifiers and ionizer in general? This is an important question because ionizer air purifiers are all over the place.

For example, I was at a friend’s apartment in the US, and I saw his tower fan air purifier had an ionizer button on it:

Ionizer air purifiers are often marketed with a variety of names, such as “ion air purifiers”, “negative ion air purifiers”, “air ionizers,” and “bipolar needlepoint ionization”. Let’s cut through the marketing hype and find out what they are and whether they work or not. It’s also important because several friends in China have sent me links to ionizer air purifier products like this:

Amazing! A “miraculous ionizer air purifier” that removes PM2.5 and formaldehyde in just 30 seconds. And all that for far cheaper than regular purifiers and even cheaper than building your own purifier.

So do popular ionizer air purifiers such as the Ionic Pro air purifier and Clarifion air purifier work?

So How Do Air Ionizer Purifiers Work?

Here’s how air ionizers work. Let’s say I have an ionizer air purifier, and there are some bad particles floating in the air.

That air ionizer shoots out negative ions into the air.

Those negative ions in the air cause the particles to stick to surfaces, like my bed, the wall, and the floor.

That’s the principle behind air purifiers with ionizers. It’s hard to see it happening with these tiny negative ions, but you’ve seen it on a visible scale if you’ve seen someone rub a balloon on their hair and then stick it to a wall.

Why Air Purifier Companies Use Ionizers in Purifiers

Most of the major air purifier companies use ionizers in their air purifiers, including Xiaomi, Blueair, Levoit, and many more. The reason is simple: a cheap ionizer can slightly improve the efficiency of the HEPA filter. This way, air purifier companies with little added costs can market a higher CADR (metric measuring the effectiveness of air purifier), making it a cheap way to get a boost in CADR. Unfortunately, much of the time the user is unaware an ionizer is being used and unaware of the possible harmful effects.

Why Ionizer Air Purifiers Are Not Recommended

But wait #1 – Ionizers Are Too Weak

A summary of scientific tests of air purifiers found that most air ionizers have no noticeable effect on particulate levels (p. 8). Their conclusion is that most ionizers are too weak to have an effect. Studies do show an effect if they use very strong ionizers–much stronger than most ionizers on the market (p. 19).

But wait #2 – Ionizers Produce Harmful Ozone

OK, so regular ionizers don’t work, but we can use a strong one! The problem is, when you put that many ions into the air, it produces ozone. Ozone is harmful, so that’s not good!

Read More: Blueair Air Purifiers Review: Ionizer and Ozone a Health Danger?

But wait #3 – Ionizers Can Create Harmful Particulate Matter (PM2.5)

Ionizers have been shown to increase dangerous small particulate levels by over 8x. This is due to chemical reactions the ionizer helps create in the air.

Ionizer Increases particulate matter

Read More: Study Finds Ionizers Increase Air Pollution

But wait #4 – Ionizers Create Harmful VOC Gases

Ionizers can create a variety of VOCs, including those produced by the Global Plasma Solutions bipolar ionizer in schools: acetone, ethanol, toluene, butyraldehyde, and acetaldehyde. Furthermore, an academic research study found that ionizers can actually create formaldehyde.

Read More: Air Ionizers Worse Than Diesel Exhaust

But wait #5 – Ionizers Make Things Dirty

Even if we use a really strong ionizer and even if we can accept the ozone, you might have noticed that the ionizer didn’t actually filter out the particles. It just made them stick to my bed, wall, and floor.

First, that’s gross. Since the particles floating around in cities like Beijing, Delhi and Los Angeles include things like arsenic cadmium, and lead, I’d rather not have them stick to my pillow.

Second, they’re still a danger. The particles are just sticking to my bed. So let’s say Thomas comes home:

Ionizers use negative ions to clean air but do not actually filter dust PM2.5 or mould from air

When I sit down on my bed, I’ll dislodge those particles, and they’ll float back into the air. Here’s my super scientific rendering of that process:

Ionizers 8

Those problems are what led Consumer Reports to publish tests and warn people not to buy the Sharper Image Ionic Breeze. Sharper Image sued Consumer Reports; Consumer Reports won.

So when people send me links asking about these “miraculous” ionizer purifiers, I tell them to steer clear. Unfortunately, even as the word is getting around that ionizers cause more harm than good, school districts and airports around the United States have been tricked into shelling out millions to companies pitching these harmful products.

Bottom Line: What Are Ionizers and Do They Work?

Ionizers shoot out negative ions which cause the particles to stick to surfaces. They are not good purifiers because (1) most ionizers are too weak to have an effect, (2) they produce harmful ozone and PM2.5, (3) they make particles stick to surfaces in your home, rather than actually removing them.

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One Big Reason Why Ionizers Are Unnecessary

In my mind, the biggest reason ionizers are unnecessary is that there’s already technology out there that is low-cost and highly effective. I use HEPA filters. HEPAs actually capture particles–be it PM2.5 or PM10–and they are backed by empirical tests (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).

Read More: 4 Steps to Choosing the Best HEPA Air Purifier

How I Protect Myself: HEPA Air Purifier Without Ionizers

Smart Air is a certified B Corp founded by myself, Univerity of Chicago professor and clean air nerd Thomas Talhelm. I started Smart Air to combat the myths big companies use to inflate the price of clean air. Unlike many purifier companies, Smart Air uses no ionizers in its purifiers to achieve its high CADR numbers, only safe, effective HEPA filters.

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Smart Air provides empirically backed, no-nonsense purifiers and masks, that remove the same particles as the big companies for a fraction of the cost. We believe clean air should not be a luxury, therefore we are not-for-profit to make our purifiers as affordable as possible.

Sqair Air Purifier

The Sqair is an impressively strong HEPA air purifier with a CADR of 315, with no gimmicks, a quieter design, and stunning aesthetics.

Check Out the Ionizer FREE HEPA Air Purifier

Not convinced on the effectiveness of air purifiers? You can see the effectiveness of HEPA filters in action in this live test I did of a HEPA filter chewing through real Beijing air:

Smart Air Original DIY Air Purifier Live Test with Dylos Particle Counter (CN Subtitles)

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What’s more, HEPA filters don’t create other harmful pollutants like ozone. So I steer clear of ionizer air purifiers. If your fan or HEPA purifier has an ionizer mode on it, I recommend keeping it switched off.

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19 thoughts on “What Are Ionizer Air Purifiers and Do They Work?”

  1. Hi. The writer seems to be unaware of the latest developments where the nee ionizers are powerful enough to emit 100 trillion ions/ second. And yet the Ozone emissions is certified to be kept well below permitted level. And can bring down PM 2.5 than increase it. They are also certified to be effective on Covid 19. They are much capable and safer than HEPA filters

    • Great point Rajesh. Indeed, there are more and more ionizer companies coming out with purifiers that claim to be

      a) Within the permitted level of ozone
      b) Effective against COVID-19.

      However the truth is that even if they are within the permitted level of ozone, they can still be producing ozone. And what’s more, data shows that ionizers can increase the concentration of dangerous chemicals in the air.

      If you can point to any peer reviewed data that shows that ionizers can remove COVID-19 from the air and reduce COVID transmission rates, then please send that through, it would be great to see that! However, without that we simply cannot recomment ionizers as a solution. The US EPA says the same thing: there is little research on these ionizers and COVID, and they can produce ozone.

  2. Thank you so much Thomas for creating this website and showing concern for health of people around the world. This website gives a through knowledge of pollution and air-filters -how they work, which one is better. Very thankful to you. Keep up the great work ! Have a great day!

  3. I got my first ionizer about ten 10 or 12 years ago. My second two or there years ago. I bought it to balance the atoms so the air was neutral so the air was purified rather than just particulate free. I was concerned about fumes gases carbon monoxides etc. I was pleasantly surprised that I had less dirt dust weird smells etc. Have one in each room and can tell a big diff when i use them and would not be without them

    • none, they produce ozone and some of them up to 80ppb which is the start to where lung behaviour is affected by the molecule. The risk isn’t worth it

  4. There seems to be a difference between ionic air purifiers and ozone generators (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_ioniser). Are you not exaggerating saying that all ionic air purifiers release ozone?
    I have a panasonic nanoe-G Air purifying air conditioner in my apartment and as far as I can find information online, it does not release ozone, does it?

    • Put simply, ionizers produce ozone. The Panasonic Nanoe-G doesn’t seem to use the word ‘ionizer’ anywhere in the marketing material (perhaps because of the bad rep ionizers have), but here’s a refernce to Panasonic’s air-conditioning general manager Tomoki Miyamoto saying “It’s an ioniser“.

      All ionisers produce ozone. The Wikipedia article linked to states that “Even the best ionisers will also produce a small amount of ozone”. While the amount of ozone generated may be small, and within ‘safe’ limits. Adding any form of pollutant to the home isn’t ideal.

      • That is simply not true. And you cant render ionizers as not feasible because some are too small to have an impact. I have after significant research been using LightAir IonFlow, which is backed by 7 years of stringent independent scientific testing, the results of which were published & released by Nature.com, (Winner of the Nobel Prize)

        They state: This device generates approximately 35 000 billion electrons per second (www.lightair.com) with a steady-state ozone concentration below the detection limit (0,002 ppm) as tested by VTT Technical Research Center of Finland.

        Link to full report: https://www.nature.com/articles/srep11431

  5. I am looking for a reasonably accurate and priced PM2.5 tester for use at a small school and my home. Under $200?? can you help. There are many out there.


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