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Do Air Purifiers Really Work?

Sheryl Cannes
Updated on: May 23, 2022

The quick answer to the question, “Do air purifiers really work?” is yes. But it isn’t as black and white as it sounds.

Air purifiers can indeed improve indoor air quality but within certain limits. And how well they work depends on what you want the air purifier to do. If you suffer from allergy symptoms, an air purifier that’s designed to remove pet dander and pollen might be all you need.

Of course, if you have severe asthma, an air purifier that targets smoke and fumes may be more effective. You might not suffer from environmental allergies or animal allergies at all but be highly sensitive to odors. In that case, you’ll need a different type of air purifier altogether.

What It Means to Purify Air

Clean air is air that’s free of troublesome or harmful particulates. Some substances like pet odors, for example, aren’t harmful to your health, but no one wants to smell a litter box. Other particulates like pollen, dust mites, and pet dander only cause a problem if you have allergies to them.

However, particulates and gasses from volatile organic compounds (VOCs), smoke, fumes, bacteria, mold, and viruses could all potentially cause health problems or even lead to respiratory infections. If you constantly feel like you have cold or flu-like symptoms, the air quality in your home could be contributing to your discomfort.

Particulates come in all shapes and sizes. Small pathogens like bacteria and viruses are much harder to remove than larger pollen particles. Although, if you have an air purifier with the right mix of filters and purification systems, you can remove many impurities from your home.

Realistic expectations are important. An air purifier can improve seasonal allergies and indoor air pollution, but even a highly-efficient model cannot remove all harmful airborne particles.

Choose the Right Type from Common Air Purifiers

Air purifiers function with different types of filters and air purification systems. Some systems are more successful at removing certain types of particles over others. Part of cleaning the air in your home is deciding on the type of particles you want to target.

Mechanical Filters

Mechanical filters look like the filters you see on your HVAC and vacuum cleaner. They’re made of tightly woven fibrous material molded into an accordion shape. A fan pulls air through the purifier’s filter, where the particulates get trapped. The filters eventually get saturated and need to be replaced. Some filters are disposable, while others are reusable. Reusable filters are washable and save money over the lifetime of the air purifier.

The density of the mechanical filter’s weave determines the size of the particles it can trap. The best filters are high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. HEPA, sometimes called true HEPA filters, entrap 99.97 percent of all air particulates down to .3 microns in size. HEPA filters are the best option for those with sensitivity to pollen, dust mites, and pet dander. These are generally among the best air purifiers.

Activated Carbon

Activated carbon filters work a little differently than a standard mechanical filter. These filters work by chemical absorption. The carbon on the filter has been treated with oxygen, causing the pores between the carbon atoms to open. All of those open pores trap or absorb particulates in their structure as the particulates pass through the filter.

Activated carbon filters successfully remove odor-causing particulates like smoke, paint fumes, VOCs, and animal odors. Most air purifiers with an activated carbon filter also have some other type of purification to remove larger particles and allergens. As a viable alternative to mechanical filters, activated carbon air purifiers are among the top air purifiers available in the market.

Like mechanical filters, carbon filters eventually become saturated and need to be replaced. You’ll just want to make sure that the filter replacements are affordable as those impact the long-term cost of your air purifier of choice.

Ion Filtration

Ionizers work through a different but still chemically based method of air filtration like activated carbon filters. These air purifiers do not rely on air filters but release charged ions that attract and attach to problematic air particles. The added weight of the ions causes the particles to fall out of the breathable air space onto the floor or furniture.

Some ionizers have electrostatic plates that attract the particles as they fall. However, with most ion filtration systems, you have to either vacuum, dust, or otherwise pick up the fallen particles to completely remove them from the room. These air purifiers are designed to target smoke and similarly sized particles.

At the same time, ionizers can do more harm than good because they can generate ozone, a harmful gas composed of three oxygen atoms. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, ionizers and other ozone-generating devices can cause lung irritation and aren’t particularly effective at removing air pollutants.

Germicidal UV Lamp Technology

Germicidal UV lamp technology, also called UV technology, uses ultraviolet rays to kill pathogens like bacteria and viruses. The UV light disrupts DNA-base pairing, making the pathogens inert.

But as good as that sounds, it’s not as effective as you might think. Many pathogens need to be exposed to the UV light for several minutes to an hour, yet air purifiers with UV technology are usually in contact with the pathogens for around 30 seconds. While UV technology can kill some bacteria and viruses, it cannot kill all of them in a short exposure time.

UV technology is usually used in conjunction with another form of air purification to increase the usefulness of the air purifier. It’s commonly paired with HEPA and activated carbon filters.

Air Purifier Size and Portability

An air purifier’s effectiveness also relies on a few parameters. First is the size of the space (square feet or cubic feet) in which the air purifier will function. Air purifiers are designed to work within a specific size room. If the space is too large, the purifier won’t cycle through enough of the room’s air to make a difference in the removal of the particulate matter. Make sure to match the air purifier’s recommended coverage area to the size of the room.

Portable air purifiers are designed to function in a single room rather than an entire house. They’re a good option for spaces with poor ventilation and for homes where you want to periodically move the air purifier. Keep in mind that though some air purifiers are portable, they’re large enough that they’re cumbersome to move.

FAQs

Are there any air purifiers that clean air in an entire home?

Whole house systems connect to a home’s HVAC and are a possible solution for people with respiratory diseases that cause significant quality of life issues. With this type of system, all of the air that circulates through the HVAC goes through an additional filtration process to remove allergens and problematic particulates. This type of filtration system may include the use of HEPA air purifiers.

Can I put an air purifier in the corner of the room?

Portable air purifiers need to be in a central location, away from corners, walls, and furniture. Most purifiers need two to three feet of clearance to function at peak efficiency. Most portable room air purifiers work when you use them the right way.

Do air purifiers really work?

Yes, air purifiers do work, but you need the right kind to make sure it does what you want it to do. There are definitely people who will benefit from an air purifier more than others. Allergy sufferers, those with asthma, and people who live where air pollution affects indoor air quality can often breathe easier with a home air purifier that removes small particles that would otherwise negatively impact their health.

A Final Note

There are many effective ways to remove problematic air particulates. It’s a matter of deciding what kind of air purifier is right for you. It could be the use of high-efficiency disposable filters or air purifiers with a mix of HEPA filtration, UV technology, and ion technology. You decide based on your needs, the available space, and the size of the room that needs purification.

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