What Are Ionizer Air Purifiers and Do They Work?

The other day, someone on Quora asked whether ionizer air purifiers actually purify the air. This is an important question because ionizers are all over the place. For example, I was at a friend’s apartment in the US, and I saw his tower fan had an ionizer button on it:


Fan with ionizer purification option


It’s also important because several friends in China have sent me links to ionizer air purifier products like this:


China cheap ionizer air purifier for sale


Amazing! A “miraculous air purifier” that removes PM 2.5 and formaldehyde in just 30 seconds. And all that for far cheaper than regular purifiers and even cheaper than building your own purifier.

If this is true, my life in Beijing is now so much easier. But is it true?


So how do ionizer purifiers work? 

Here’s my bedroom, with an ionizer purifier and bad particles in the air:


How ionizer air purifier works filter dirty air pollution


That ionizer purifier shoots out negative ions into the air:


Ionizer purifier produces negative ion particles to attract air pollution like bacteria mould and PM2.5


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


Negative ions produced by ionizer cause pollutants to stick to surfaces filtering air


That’s the principle behind ion generators. 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.


Negative ions produced by ionizer similar to baloom negative ions sticking to wall

But wait #1 – Ionizers Are Too Weak

A summary of scientific tests of air purifiers found that most 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 big one! The problem is, when you put that many ions into the air, it produces ozone. Ozone is harmful, so that’s not good!


But wait #3 – 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.

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 recommended because:
#1 Most ionizers are too weak to have an effect
#2 They produce harmful ozone
#3 Particles sticking to the bed, wall, and floor are still a danger.

One big reason 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). You can see that effectiveness in action in this live test I did of a HEPA filter chewing through real Beijing air:


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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