Do UV Sanitizers Work?

UV sanitizers may seem like a good thing, but here's why they aren't recommended.

Makers of UV sanitizers claim their products can sterilize anything in minutes. Many say that their sanitizers can kill up to 99.99% of germs on whatever object you put into the device's UV radiation. But do UV sanitizers actually work? Here's the lowdown.


What Is UV Radiation?

UV stands for ultraviolet, a form of electromagnetic radiation, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The most common form of UV radiation is sunlight, which produces the three main types of UV rays:

  • UVA, which is linked to skin aging
  • UVB, which can cause sunburn
  • UVC, which is blocked by the Earth's atmosphere before it can even reach us

It's UVC—the highest-energy UV ray of the three—that's used in UV sanitizers, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

UVC radiation is a "known disinfectant for air, water, and nonporous surfaces," according to the FDA. In fact, the agency reports that UVC radiation has been used successfully for decades to reduce the spread of bacterial diseases like tuberculosis.

UV Sanitizers and COVID-19

In 2020, researchers published a paper in Scientific Reports showing that UVC radiation can inactivate at least two types of coronavirus. However, the viruses studied were different from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. And according to the FDA, there's not enough information about the wavelength, dose, and duration of UVC radiation that may be effective in inactivating the SARS-CoV-2 virus specifically.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes high-intensity UV radiation as an "alternative surface disinfection method" (along with ultrasonic waves and LED blue light). But it states the effectiveness of these methods against the SARS-CoV-2 virus has not been fully established.

The CDC also points out that UV lights aren't on List N, a list of all disinfectant products the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expects will kill the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

How Do UV Sanitizers Work?

UV sanitizers destroy viruses and kill bacteria by using their lights to emit UV rays, targeting proteins and genetic material (DNA and RNA).

"They speed up cross-linking of this genetic material, which reduces the ability of the genetic material to participate in healthy replication," Karen Dobos, PhD, professor in the department of microbiology, immunology, and pathology at Colorado State University, told Health.

UV sanitizers are designed to disinfect a wide range of surfaces, from cell phones to jewelry to stuffed animals. It's important to remember that the sanitizers definitely shouldn't be used on hands (or the skin on any other part of your body, for that matter), William L. Schreiber, PhD, chair of the department of chemistry and physics at Monmouth University in New Jersey, told Health.

There are different types of UV sanitizers that are available—from wands to zip-up pouches—to sanitize different types of items. For example, while a wand might be good for targeting household items like doorknobs, a pouch might be best for fitting smaller items like a phone.

Safety Concerns Regarding UV Sanitizers

The FDA notes that there are some health and safety concerns regarding the use of UV sanitizers. These include:

  • Burns on the skin or eye: Direct exposure of skin and eyes to UVC radiation from some UVC lamps may cause painful eye injury and burn-like skin reactions. Never look directly at a UVC lamp source, even briefly.
  • Ozone inhalation: Some UVC lamps generate ozone, which can be irritating to the airway.
  • Material degradation: UVC can degrade certain materials, such as plastic, polymers, and dyed textile.
  • Mercury exposure: Some UVC lamps contain mercury, which is toxic even in small amounts. Extreme caution is needed when cleaning and disposing of a lamp that has broken.

The FDA has issued a safety communication warning that certain UV wands may cause injury to the skin, eyes, or both after a few seconds of use.

To reduce risks from UV wands, the FDA makes the following recommendations for consumers:

  • Do not use products listed on the FDA's list of unsafe UV wands. FDA testing found that these wands give off unsafe levels of UVC radiation and may cause injuries to the eyes or skin of a user or person nearby.
  • Be aware that the wands on the FDA's list of unsafe UV wands do not have adequate safety features to reduce the risk of injury to the user or persons nearby from unsafe levels of UVC radiation. This means you'll want to take extra precautions to avoid injury to yourself or others if you're using UV wands.
  • Do not use UV wands if you do not have safety instructions or information on the radiation emitted and associated risks.
  • Follow all safety instructions included with UV wands. Especially important are the instructions on how to protect skin and eyes from UVC exposure.

If you identify a problem with a UVC lamp, you should report it to the manufacturer and to the FDA.

Do UV Sanitizers Actually Work?

Again, UV rays have been used as a disinfectant for years. Some hospitals rely on them to help sterilize surfaces, says the FDA. A large study published in 2017 in The Lancet found that UVC light used in hospitals cut transmission of four major superbugs by 30%.

But UV sanitizers designed for personal use may not be as powerful. "The energy emitted from these bulbs has to be very low to be sold for personal use, which isn't the case for industrial applications," Dobos said. Because they are lower energy, consumer products are likely less effective against microbes (like bacteria, fungi, and viruses) than industrial UV sanitizers, Dobos explained.

The companies selling these products make bold claims. Typically, these claims are based on lab testing by the company selling the product, but it's important to remember that, as per the EPA, none of these claims have been confirmed by the agency. Since germs, viruses, and bacteria are invisible to the naked eye, there's no way of knowing how effective the products are when you use them.

It's important to note, as per the FDA, that UVC lamps are electronic products and there are currently no specific FDA performance standards that apply. When UV lamps are sold for medical purposes, such as products that disinfect other medical devices or irradiate part of the human body, the lamps are then considered medical devices and require FDA clearance, approval, or authorization prior to marketing.

Another point to consider when it comes to personal UV sanitizers is that the energy their lights emit wanes over time. "As it decays, it becomes even less effective for its target, and I don't know how a person could tell how these bulbs are decaying," Dobos said. "I'm sure there's a 'replace by' date, but most of us only replace a light bulb when it goes completely out. This is well beyond the effective time for a UV source."

There's also the fact that using a personal UV sanitizer can actually do more harm than good in the long run. "They can be dangerous, especially with repeated exposure," Dobos said. Because they replicate and mutate so much faster than other types of organisms, Dobos added, many microbes will naturally have some adaptation or resistance to the UV light.

"This population of microbes will get greater and greater within your home, especially with repeated exposure," Dobos explained.

What's the Best Way to Disinfect Surfaces?

For all the above reasons, Dobos and Schreiber do not recommend using UV sanitizers for personal use. Instead, Dobos said, cleaning and routine disinfection are the best way to maintain clean, safe surfaces; healthy air ventilation helps, too.

"Also, time is on our side," Dobos said. "Most microbes are not stable on dry surfaces—they dry up and die. So keeping surfaces dry, and not constantly using them helps."

The CDC advises using a household cleaner that contains soap or detergent to decrease the risk of infection from surfaces in your home.

And when it comes to preventing COVID-19 specifically, the agency notes that disinfection at home is "likely not needed" unless someone in your household is sick, or someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 has been in your home within the last 24 hours. In that case, the CDC recommends using a product from EPA's List N to disinfect surfaces and items in your home.

Of course, using a UV sanitizer is a personal choice. If you decide to invest in one, carefully read over the manufacturer's claims and offerings before deciding which device to buy. And don't be fooled by a product that claims to "kill COVID-19." That's because COVID-19 refers to a disease, and diseases can't be "killed."

A Quick Review

UV sanitizers can kill bacteria and destroy viruses. But products for personal use aren't usually as strong or effective as UV sanitizers used in a medical setting. There are also safety risks and precautions to consider when using UV sanitizers.

And there are better ways to disinfect surfaces in your home. Cleaning with simple soap or detergent and routine disinfection combined with good air ventilation are your best ways to achieve a healthy, disinfected home.

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