How Does an Air Purifier Work?

  • By: Sue Dorrens
  • Date: February 22, 2022
  • Time to read: 6 min.
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At any given time, all types of pollutants are in indoor air, including mold, pet dander, dust, pollen, cigarette smoke, and even pesticides, and your goal should be to eliminate as many of these pollutants as possible. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), most people have indoor air that is up to five times unhealthier than the air outdoors.

Let’s explore the inner workings of air purifiers to find out if they are a worthwhile investment for you and your family.

How Do Air Purifiers Work?

Air purifiers remove pollutants from the air and even eliminate them altogether. They do this via various methods, and it all depends on the type of air purifier you purchase.

All air purifiers have a setup that is very simple.

  • A fan sucks in air, and they have one or more filters. The filters are usually made out of mesh, paper, or certain fibers such as fiberglass
  • The filters capture and neutralize pollutants and different types of particles just as air is passing over them.
  • The clean air is recirculated back into the living area.

When you think about it, air purifiers are really very easy to understand. The types of airborne particles getting pulled out of the air vary depending on the type of air purifier you have and the filter they include in the unit.

Keep in mind that even the best filter may not eliminate 100% of the airborne particles in your home. In fact, you’re likely to always have some pollutants and particles that remain on many of your hard and soft surfaces, including your furniture and even your walls.

Nevertheless, some filters, such as the true HEPA filters, eliminate the vast majority of pollutants in your home; therefore, there shouldn’t be a lot of them left in the air to cause any damage. Air purifiers are worth the investment if you get the right one and in particular, can help allergy sufferers.

The Filters Make a Difference

There are two main types of pollutants in the air. The first is large, coarse molecules that measure 5 microns or less, including pollen and dust mites. The second is smaller pollutants, such as animal dander.

A good filter will remove pollutants as small as 2.5 microns or even smaller, which means that hardly anything gets past it. Most filters will easily trap the larger pollutants, but it takes a special high-efficiency filter to remove the smaller ones.

Some air purifiers use ultraviolet filters and light to destroy biological impurities. These include bacteria and mold.

Then there are the activated charcoal filters, which are used to remove gasses such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which include formaldehyde, and even smoke particles. Many air purifiers have one or two filters and an activated charcoal filter.

A high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter is one of the best filters on the market, in part because it will attract and eliminate very tiny pollutants that other types of filters just can’t accommodate. A “true” HEPA filter, by law, has to remove 99.97% or more of the pollutants in the air, including those that are as small as 0.3 microns.

do Air Purifiers Work

In addition to HEPA and charcoal filters, today’s air purifiers can use other types of technology as well to clean the air, including:

  • UV air purifiers. UV air purifiers are best when they include a good filter system, and the UV light does a great job of killing germs such as viruses and bacteria. Pollutants pass by the UV rays and genetic damage occurs, which destroys the pollutants. Most UV air purifiers rely on one or more filters then use the UV light as the final stage of air filtration.
  • Ozone air purifiers. These purifiers intentionally produce ozone, which is a gas. The problem with them is that ozone is considered to be dangerous by most organizations who monitor these things. The more you study what ozone does and how it works in this capacity, the more you’ll become convinced that these air purifiers are not worth the potential problems they may cause.
  • Negative ion air purifiers. Negative ions will magnetically attract various airborne particles then form a new particle that is too heavy to remain in the air. At that point, the particle drops and attaches itself to another solid item in the room, such as a window or wall. The problem is, these purifiers don’t eliminate pollutants, they merely transfer them to another surface, where they might be able to become loose later on and recirculate back into the air.

Check out our article Air Purifier vs. Air Filter: Which Is Best for You?

Can Air Purifiers Help Prevent COVID-19?

The short answer is no, air purifiers will not prevent you from catching COVID-19.

However, studies have shown that air purifiers with a true HEPA filter can capture and even illuminate the virus that is attached to airborne particles. But make sure to read on as we explain the details.

We mentioned earlier that true HEPA filters can eliminate pollutants 0.3 microns in size or bigger, but does that mean they can eliminate COVID-19? The COVID-19 particles are smaller than 0.3 microns in size; in fact, they are only 0.1 microns. Nevertheless, the particles are always bound to something bigger, such as a drop of water.

In practical terms, this means that the air purifiers using HEPA filters can attract and eliminate the COVID-19 virus. The next question becomes, does this mean that you won’t get COVID-19 if you have a good-quality air filter? The answer is that it depends.

Studies have not yet proven that if, for example, a person with COVID-19 sneezes when close to you, the air filter in the room will prevent you from getting it.

Remember that air purifiers take time to capture and eliminate the particles. In the meantime, you may have already breathed in some of the particles associated with COVID-19. But if that person is not that close to you, the air purifier may have time to suck in and eliminate the particles so that you won’t get the virus.

More studies need to be done to come up with something definite, but we do know that a true HEPA filter will get rid of the COVID-19 virus because it gets filtered out just like other pollutants do.
Before you read too much into this, keep in mind that some of these studies didn’t take certain things into consideration, including airflow, open windows, and the size of the room.

While we know that the COVID-19 particles can be filtered out and eliminated with a good HEPA filter, this doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed not to get COVID-19 just because you own an air purifier. You still have to use common sense and take precautions against this virus.

Air Purifiers vs. Diffusers and Humidifiers

Air purifiers sanitize the air and remove pollutants, toxins, and allergens, but don’t confuse these devices with diffusers and humidifiers. Remember that diffusers and humidifiers add particles to indoor air. Diffusers add a scent to the air and humidifiers make the air more humid.

Air purifiers should also not be confused with filters, which only remove pollutants but do not eliminate or sanitize them. The type of air purifier you choose will determine the exact particles that are removed and eliminated.

Most experts agree that the best air purifiers are the ones that utilize a true HEPA filter and an activated carbon filter to eliminate particles and get rid of odors and gasses.

Choosing an air purifier with filters also requires that you remember to replace and/or clean those filters regularly. Your user manual will provide you with the information you need to make sure that they are cleaned or replaced on time.

When filters are not taken care of properly, the air purifier will work a lot less efficiently, which means you won’t be happy with the results. To keep air purifiers working the way they’re supposed to day in and day out, always make sure that you do what you need to do to keep the filters in good shape.

In Summary

A good air purifier will not only trap most allergens and pollutants but will also eliminate them. While some of them will always remain in the air, a good air purifier will remove most of these pollutants so that you can breathe better and be healthier.

People with allergies, asthma and any other type of breathing problem can breathe much better with a good-quality air purifier in their home.

This is especially true if you combine a good air purifier with other methods that are good for the air, such as cleaning frequently and using eco-friendly products when you clean. Together, these methods work miracles when it comes to being healthier despite what your indoor air brings.

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