Air purifiers with UV lights have sprung up as a potential solution to disinfect the coronavirus. Also called ‘sterilization lamps’, they are advertising as being able to kill 99.9% of viruses. But are UV light air purifiers actually able to protect against COVID-19 and other viruses?
How UV Light Air Purifiers Work
Terms like ‘UV-C sanitizers’ and ‘UV Light Germ Killers’ are typically used to refer to UV light air purifiers. How they work is simple: they use a UV light to kill viruses and disinfect or ‘sanitize’ the air. That’s it.
Air purifier marketers like to use fancy names to describe the technology, but it is really quite simple.
What is UV light and how does it kill viruses? Read our explainer article here →
The Problem With UV Light Air Purifiers on the Market
The question is, are the UV lights in UV light air purifiers powerful enough to kill the coronavirus? Scientists have shown a dose of 75mJ/cm2 is needed to kill >99.9% of the COVID-19 virus.
After analyzing China’s biggest e-commerce platform – Taobao, we found data on the UV light strength for 3 UV light air purifiers. This includes one purifier from Samsung:
The average UV bulb power for these 3 purifiers is 6W. Using a simple rule of thumb, for an average distance of 10cm from the UV light, these purifiers give out on average 6mW/cm2 of UV light.
At 6mW/cm2, the UV light would need to shine for at least 12.5s to kill >99.9% of the virus.
That doesn’t sound so long. However, knowing each purifier’s airflow, we estimated that air is passes through the purifiers in around 0.35s. That’s only 1/36th the time required to kill the viruses.
Are UV lights really not powerful enough?
Particles really close to the light (2cm away), would be subject to a much higher dosage – 150mW/cm2. At this distance, it would only take 0.5s to kill over 99.9% of the virus. That’s much better, but still too long for air that’s only in the purifier for 0.35s.
Result: Typical UV light air purifiers aren’t effective at killing COVID-19
What about air purifiers with really strong UV lights?
In direct response to COVID-19, new companies have popped up claiming to offer “incredibly strong UV light air purifiers”. Here’s one:
This company claims that its UV light air purifier is specifically suited for killing viruses. They’re able to achieve a UV light intensity of 16.8mW/cm2 due to a ‘special coating’ inside the purifier. That’s almost 3 times the intensity of the ‘standard’ UV light air purifiers mentioned above.
At 16.8mW/cm2, viruses would need to be exposed to the UV light for 4.46s to kill >99.9% of the virus. That’s a little better than ordinary UV light purifiers, but still not great. Air would still need to pass through this purifier 15 times before it killed >99.9% of COVID-19.
Result: Even more powerful ‘COVID-19 ready’ UV light purifiers don’t give enough time to kill the coronavirus.
What All UV light Air Purifiers Have in Common: a HEPA Filter
At this point, let’s backtrack. There’s one thing most UV light air purifiers above have in common: a HEPA filter. The reason for this is simple. The UV lights in air purifiers aren’t powerful enough to kill all viruses in one pass. On the other hand, HEPA filters are great at capturing viruses. Data shows they can capture over 99.9% of viruses in a single pass.
Maybe the UV light is to Kill Viruses Stuck in the HEPA Filter?
Let’s give the air purifiers in question the benefit of the doubt. Trying to purifier air that’s moving really fast through the purifier doesn’t seem like a smart idea. So maybe the goal of the UV light is instead to disinfect viruses that get stuck in the HEPA filter? Here’s our super-simple rendition of how this might work:
However, that’s got its own problems. HEPA filters are a complex mat of pleated fibers. It’s unlikely that a UV lamp shining on HEPA filter surfaces can actually disinfect the entire surface.
What’s more, UV light can also damage materials like masks and HEPA filters.
That’s not all. There are a few other things that let UV light air purifiers down:
Point #1 – Dirty UV Lights Rapidly Lose Effectiveness.
If UV lights get dusty, it has a huge impact the UV light bulb’s irradiation. That means UV light purifiers will either lose their efficiency quickly, or they’ll need cleaning regularly.
Point #2 – UV Lights Cost More (Long & Short Term)
UV lights will cost you more. Adding a UV light to a purifier will not just make the purifier more expensive, but will also run up higher electricity bills. A typical UV 50W UV-C light will cost you $4.32 a month if running 24 hours per day in the US. That’s wasted money for something that gives you little in return.
Point #3 – UV-C Light is Dangerous
UV-C light is really dangerous stuff. In fact, it’s the most damaging type of UV light out there. Why put something near you that could potentially do more harm to your body? Even if the UV light is sealed inside the air purifier, it can still leak out. The guys selling the fancy COVID-19 purifier mentioned above admitted that UV-C light leaks out.
Use a HEPA Filter Air Purifier to Purify the Air, not UV-C Light Sanitizers
HEPA filters do an incredible job of capturing viruses. Data shows that they can capture more than 99.9% of particles smaller than the COVID-19 coronavirus in just one pass.
Researchers state that UV lights aren’t a replacement for HEPA filters. HEPA filters have been used by hospitals and in other medical environments for a long time. It’s not recommended they be substituted with UV lights.
How I Protect Myself
Smart Air is a certified B Corp committed to combating the myths big companies use to inflate the price of clean air.
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. Only corporations benefit when clean air is a luxury.