UV sanitizers use ultraviolet light to sanitize your phone and offer a second layer of protection against viruses and other harmful microbes. But can they help protect you from COVID-19 and other germs?
The best ways to protect yourself against COVID-19 and other contagious illnesses are to get vaccinated, wash your hands frequently, socially distance, and use appropriate personal protective equipment such as masks. If you’re looking to take your precautionary game to the next level, you might be eyeing any number of the UV device sanitizers that have recently flooded the market. But do they work? And if so, which one should you buy? We’re here to help you figure it out.
Does UV Light Kill Bacteria?
UV light is one type of electromagnetic radiation that comes naturally from the sun and can also be created artificially with specialized bulbs. There are three types of UV radiation—UV-A, UV-B, and UV-C—none of which can be observed with the naked eye. Of the three, UV-C has the smallest wavelengths (180-280nm) and is the one required for UV disinfection.
Most commercial UV products are sold as sanitizers, and it’s important to note that sanitization and disinfection aren’t synonymous.Sanitization reduces the number of germs on a surface. Disinfection, on the other hand, “eliminates many or all pathogenic microorganisms, except bacterial spores, on inanimate objects,” per the CDC.
UV-C light is just one disinfection method shown to inactivate the COVID-19 virus in multiple studies. The EPA keeps a list of COVID-19-approved disinfectants that can be used on various surfaces. But make sure to read the directions carefully, as many of these products aren’t friendly to tech devices.
We’ve learned a great deal about COVID-19 transmission since the pandemic took hold in early 2020. Early studies and news stories that focused on COVID-19 contamination looked for traces of viral RNA; however, viral RNA is not infectious. Further studies show the virus is rarely viable on surfaces, and the CDC states that transmission from contaminated surfaces “is not thought to be a common way that COVID-19 spreads.”
Do UV Sanitizers Work?
After many months of discussion and testing, The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine confirmed UV light destroys the novel coronavirus. UV light is effective against other coronaviruses as well, including the one that causes MERS, and the US government released guidance in mid-2021 that defines standards for UV-disinfection-technology settings.
Furthermore, CleanSlate, a company that sells UV-C sanitizing solutions to the healthcare, hospitality, and food-processing industries, released data in July showing that UV-C light can kill 99.979% of MS2 bacteriophage, a surrogate for viral human pathogens such as the novel coronavirus, in just 20 seconds. Since most commercial laboratories don’t meet containment standards for handling the novel coronavirus, such testing is as close as we can get, for the time being.
Many hospitals already use UV light to disinfect against superbugs and have ramped up efforts in hopes that it will have the same effect on COVID-19. Duke University’s network of hospitals has used UV disinfection for years. And in 2017, a study published in The Lancet, funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found UV disinfection can reduce transmission of the four most common superbugs—MRSA, VRE, C. difficile, and Acinetobacter—by a cumulative 30%.
Airlines and hotels are also betting big on the technology. Several airlines use UV light robots that can disinfect an entire airline cabin within 10 minutes, and the Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts created an extensive health and safety protocol in conjunction with Johns Hopkins Medicine International, called Lead With Care, that includes the use of ozone technology for air purification and UV technology for HVAC systems at its properties.
Although UV-C irradiation destroys COVID-19, it should be used as a second line of defense against viruses and microbes in general, since vaccines, hand-washing, masks, and social distancing are easier and more effective. It’s also worth mentioning that the UV-C irradiation systems used in commercial settings are dramatically different than those of consumer products. In fact, we’ve found few consumer products in this category that we can recommend at this time.
What the Experts Say About UV Sanitizers
Hundreds of UV sterilizing bags, cases, and wands have flooded the market since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, but few manufacturers offer any in-depth details about their products, let alone lab tests that show they offer any protection whatsoever.
Amest Adalja, MD, a senior scholar and assistant professor at the John Hopkins University Center for Health Security, is skeptical about the efficacy of consumer UV sanitizers. In an interview with NBC News, he said, “I just have a hard time trying to find a role for [UV sanitizers] that is effective in the general public where you have an actual, meaningful impact, and not just some kind of marginal benefit that’s not really worth it.”
Richard Webster, a clinical researcher and methodologist at the CHEO Research Institute in Ontario, Canada, also has doubts about consumer-grade UV sanitizers. In an interview with the CBC, he said, “We think the amount of UV you need is about 20,000 joules per meter squared and you probably aren’t going to get that in your hand-held device.”
Andrea Armani, a professor of engineering at the Armani Lab at the University of Southern California, worked with a team of researchers and published “Build-at-home UV-C disinfection for healthcare settings“ early in 2020. In an interview with Discover, Professor Armani discussed her concerns about UV sanitation wands in particular. She says there is no way for consumers to test UV sanitizer wands and recommends people read carefully before making purchases. The product specifications should state the wand is 260 nanometers in range and give a specific duration that is no more than seconds. Since most consumer UV sanitizers require a few minutes to complete a cycle, Dr. Armani’s recommendation all but knocks out hand-held wands.
Professor Armani also recommends looking at prices, since high-powered UV-C LEDs are expensive, and you’ll need several for adequate sanitation. If you find a wand for $20, it’s most likely not going to provide any protection whatsoever. Finally, she—and other medical professionals—urge users to remember UV-C light is harmful to the skin and eyes.
How to Use a UV Sanitizer
UV light shouldn’t be your only defense against COVID-19 and other contagions. But if you’re going to use it in addition to well-established methods, you should make sure that you’re using it correctly.
UV sanitizers work best on nonporous objects without a lot of nooks and crannies since they only work on surfaces that are adequately exposed to UV-C irradiation. That means you’ll want to take your phone or any other device out of its case and make sure all the ports are open for the best results.
If you’re using a UV sanitizer with a lid, it’s important to clean both the smartphone case and the outside of the sanitizer itself with an EPA-approved disinfectant such as Lysol. Once the sanitization cycle is complete for your device, place it on a different disinfected surface, let the sanitizer run a second cycle (this is automatic on many units), then place your case in the sanitizer and run yet another sanitization cycle.
The Best UV Sanitizers
While UV phone sanitizers can destroy most germs, you should only pick one that can back up its claims. All of our recommended products come from reputable companies and have lab testing to back up their claims.
While pricey, the Simplehuman Cleanstation tops our list of UV phone sanitizers thanks to its slim form factor and ease of use. It has 30 UV-C LEDs and a reflective inner shell to improve device sanitization. It’s also the only sanitizer we’ve found that automatically feeds your phone into its sanitizing chamber and pushes it back out at the end of the cycle. Simply put your phone in the Cleanstation, wash your hands thoroughly, and your phone will be waiting for you when you’re done.
Belkin is a respected name in tech accessories. Its UV Sanitizer and Wireless Charger is large enough to fit your phone and other small items and eliminates up to 99.99% of bacteria. Within its three-minute cycle, the Belkin Sanitizer and Wireless Charger kills up to 97% of E. coli; if you’re looking for heavy-duty sanitization, opt for the 10-minute cycle. Since wireless charging is built in, this is a good accessory for a nightstand.
PhoneSoap has been in the UV sanitizer business for years and is one of the only companies to offer extensive lab-testing results. One of its newest products, the PhoneSoap Pro, is large enough to fit just about any cell phone and can take on smaller items, including jewelry, cash, AirPods, and even credit cards. It uses four UV-C bulbs and is the only consumer sanitizer with a vacuum-plated aluminum inner shell for additional reflectivity to aid in the disinfection process. It disinfects items in just five minutes and has both manual and automatic settings. It’s also one of the few sanitizers we’ve found to have a nonporous plastic exterior that can easily be cleaned with disinfectant wipes.
HomeSoap is PhoneSoap’s solution for larger items. It’s big enough to hold a 12.9-inch iPad Pro and can easily fit smaller items such as remotes, game controllers, baby bottles, and pacifiers. It has two large UV-C lights and a reflective inner surface to aid in the disinfection process, which takes 10 minutes. Like the PhoneSoap Pro, the HomeSoap sports a nonporous outer surface for easy disinfection, as well as automatic and manual modes.
Moshi’s Deep Purple UV Sanitizers is the most portable UV Sanitizer we recommend. This foldable sanitizer can easily fit in a bag and has a few features you won’t find on other products. Its LumiClear platform is a clear base that raises your phone from the surface of the interior. You can sanitize your phone and other small objects in four minutes with a single tap. And since it uses a USB-C cable and a power adapter instead of a hardwired plug, you can easily use a portable charger or power bank to operate the Deep Purple on the go.