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How Air Purifiers Became the Newest Wellness Craze

Air purifiers are being sold as health devices. But do they work?

AAdi struggled with eczema for years. At a young age, an allergist told the 30-year-old that he was allergic to house dust. He tried everything — “all the nonsteroidal prescription topical ointments, shots, changes in diet, various moisturizing creams” — to no avail. Then, he started researching air purifiers on Google. “It just makes sense, right?” he says. ”House dust allergy… reduce allergen… air purifier.” He ended up buying an AeraMax air purifier on Amazon. As he put it on Reddit: “Holy cow, did things change.”

“Within a couple hours, the effects were apparent — I was losing that gross ‘wet’ feeling on my skin that comes from inflammation, my itchiness was decreasing, and an overall calmness set upon my skin,” he wrote on Reddit. After a few days, his eczema was continuing to improve. “It’s still early, so we’ll see if I’ll be eating my words in a couple days, but for now, I think I’ve found relief,” he wrote.

There’s growing sentiment that air purifiers are a panacea for conditions as wide ranging as bronchitis and pet allergies to masking pipe tobacco smell in a “man cave.” On the internet, air purifiers are marketed as the new CBD oil, a proposed solution for all health ills. In Facebook mom groups and Amazon customer reviews, people share their favorite makes and models, and while some occasionally gripe about defects, the overall consensus appears to be that if you or a loved one struggle with asthma or pet allergies, air purifiers can be a game-changer.

The air purifier market is experiencing an unprecedented boom — especially abroad. In South Korea, air purifier sales have tripled since 2016, with the government recently announcing a plan to install the devices in all kindergarten and pre-K classes. In China, where severe air pollution has been linked to an estimated 1.6 million preventable deaths, as many as 7.5 million devices were sold last year, up from 3.1 million in 2013.

The upswing in sales across Asia can be attributed to government efforts to reduce air pollution levels, and “an increasingly large middle class who have the resources to be aware of the problem and the disposable income to look to the market for these devices,” suggests Kevin Stewart, the director of environmental health at the American Lung Association. In 2018, Bloomberg reported that appliance giant Dyson had filed a patent for an air purifier that doubles as a pair of headphones, joining other wearable options like air purifier necklaces, masks, and light-up bracelets.

[Air purifiers] won’t just be niche medical devices for families living in high-pollution areas, but appliances as ubiquitous as the air conditioner.

In the United States, the air purifier industry is also growing, though not quite as dramatically. A report from TechSci Research projected that the industry would be worth $3.9 billion by 2023, up from $2.6 billion in 2017. “We understand that knowledge of indoor air pollution has been steadily growing,” says Mark Heard, an advanced design engineer at Dyson, which launched its first air purifier in the U.S. three years ago. “The industry, as a whole, seems to share the collective goal of educating consumers about the importance of clean air in homes and potential sources of indoor air pollution.”

Though outdoor air pollution concerns in North America are less acute than in Asia, manufacturers are hoping that air purifiers will soon become a mainstay in American households as well. They won’t just be niche medical devices for families living in high-pollution areas, or struggling with allergies and asthma, but appliances as ubiquitous as the air conditioner. But while there is evidence that some air purifiers can effectively remove some indoor pollutants, questions about their overall effectiveness remain. Are air purifiers just the latest wellness trend?

TThe technology behind most air purifiers — the HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters — first came into the market in the 1950s. For decades, air purifiers were relegated to industrial spaces, hospitals, commercial airliners, and any place where access to clean indoor air is a high priority. In 1963, a pair of German brothers founded IQAir and introduced the first home air purifier unit marketed to customers as a health aid. “Typically, the people interested in them are the people who have asthma or have someone in their family with asthma, and who can really feel the difference between clean and polluted air,” says Denitza Blagev, MD, a pulmonologist and associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah.

But as Americans spend more time indoors — where air quality can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air — there has been increased interest in purifying that space. “All homes have sources of indoor pollutants,” says a spokesperson for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Sources of indoor pollutants include, but are not limited to, cleaning products, furnishings, building materials, fuel-burning combustion appliances, sources of moisture, radon, and outdoor air.” If a room doesn’t receive proper ventilation, it can lead to increased concentration of these pollutants, which can result in short-term symptoms such as “irritation of eyes, nose, and throat; headaches and fatigue.” Some indoor pollutants have even been linked to “development of long-term health impacts like respiratory or cardiac diseases or cancer,” per the EPA.

Today, air purifiers are not only marketed to individuals struggling with respiratory conditions, but also to consumers looking to improve their overall health and wellness. A spokesperson for Honeywell, which entered the portable air purification market in the 1980s, says “we feel every home should have an air purifier as it is an important form of proactive self-care.”

Some devices appear to be targeted specifically to anxious new parents: the company Vornado, for instance, has an entire division called Vornadobaby, which sells the Purio, a $159.99 air purifier intended for the nursery. Others like the Wi-Fi-enabled “smart” purifier GermGuardian, which connects to an app that monitors indoor air quality, seem to be aimed more at the mildly obsessive-compulsive set. “For anyone interested in wellness products, purifiers are a natural fit,” says Dyson’s Heard. “Consider it this way: you purify the water you drink, why wouldn’t you purify the air you breathe?”

Dilip Goswami, the co-founder and CEO of the air purifier manufacturer Molekule, says he expects to see air purifiers popping up everywhere in the coming years. “We see this as a wellness trend in the same way we think of organic food or yoga,” says Goswami, whose company raised $25 million in a funding round last fall. He foresees air purifier adoption following a trickle-down model: “Awareness starts with people with the most acute need, then people living in polluted areas, then people in a broader market.”

Goswami says Molekule is the brainchild of his father, a University of Florida chemical engineer who found that the HEPA filters he was using to control his son’s childhood asthma had a major shortcoming: they were able to trap particulate pollution, but they couldn’t filter other harmful gases like ozone or radon. Goswami developed Photo Electrochemical Oxidation (PECO), a technology that uses ultraviolet light to break down pollutants on a molecular level. “Because our technology is breaking down really tiny pollutants, as well as larger ones, we’re finally able to cure that problem by destroying these allergens in the air,” says Goswami.

Molekule’s $799 purifiers are significantly more expensive than standard HEPA purifiers, which typically retail for a few hundreds dollars at most, not counting the cost of maintenance and replacement filters. But Goswami argues that the price of a Molekule pales in comparison to the overwhelming cost of dealing with lifelong respiratory issues.

With its generic, stainless steel cylindrical design, the Molekule might look more like an oversized high-end toilet paper roll holder than an essential wellness device, but Goswami says the device has proved popular, and that the company is thriving. Though Goswami declined to share specific sales figures, he says that the company has reliably pulled in “seven figures every month” since it launched, and the purifiers have sold out many times over. “There has been incredible demand because of the scale of the problem,” Goswami says.

The company has partnered with the InterContinental Hotel in San Francisco to outfit its rooms, and is also in talks with automobile manufacturers about integrating their technology inside of cars. “We’ve created a lot of problems with spaces that are very tightly enclosed to make for energy-efficient air conditioning, so what happens is we don’t have a lot of air circulation and pollutants get trapped in these spaces,” he says. “So as a natural consequence of that, we have poor indoor air quality. And now we have a technology that can solve that issue.”

Some scientists believe that air purifiers are little more than a Band-Aid concealing a much larger problem. Ultimately, they don’t address the source of air pollution.

Still, it’s not clear that air purifiers are the most necessary or effective solution to indoor pollution. And while anecdotal testimonies attest to air purifiers reducing allergy or asthma symptoms, there is little research that definitively proves that these appliances drastically reduce patient symptoms or improve indoor air quality.

Though some air purifier studies show that they can alleviate symptoms associated with asthma and pet allergies, such results are “not necessarily consistent across the board,” says Stewart of the American Lung Association. It’s also worth noting that such studies are conducted “in a relatively controlled study environment,” he adds, and don’t account for human error when it comes to replacing filters and maintaining the device.

Part of the challenge with studying air purifiers’ effect on indoor air quality is that it’s “so incredibly variable,” says Blagev of the University of Utah. Tania Mucci-Elliott, MD, clinical instructor of medicine at NYU Langone Health, says that “indoor air quality can be impacted by more than just allergens, including secondhand smoke, cooking fumes, cleaning products, building materials, and home furnishings.” That makes it difficult to generalize how effective they are at improving overall indoor air quality.

Because research regarding the relationship between air purifiers and long-term health is scant, air purifiers are classified as household rather than medical devices, and organizations like the American Lung Association do not view them as medical necessities.

“We regard air cleaning as certainly sometimes necessary and appropriate to do, but in general, for most individuals, we have to look at it as a third line of defense,” says Stewart. “There are other things that should happen first. We should very clearly identify and eliminate the source of the problem” — for instance, ensuring your building has adequate ventilation, or reducing any secondhand smoke or other irritants. He likens consumers’ relying on air purifiers to maintaining a swimming pool. “You don’t want to make the pool dirty and then try to clean it up,” says Stewart. “You want to make sure the pool is clean to begin with.”

The EPA takes a similar, though slightly more purifier-friendly stance: “The most effective ways to improve your indoor air is to reduce or remove sources of pollutants and to ventilate with clean outdoor air,” the spokesperson says. “Research shows that filtration and portable air cleaners can be effective supplements to source control and ventilation.”

For his part, Goswami says those recommendations apply to old-school HEPA purifiers, and not the PECO technology his company has developed. “They’re making smart recommendations based on what we’ve seen with HEPA air purifiers. These things don’t work. Generic air purifiers don’t necessarily provide you with that much benefit,” he says. “At the same time, now for the first time with PECO, we have a technology that is a game-changer.” Goswami points to an initial 2018 study of 46 allergy sufferers in the Journal of Allergy and Rhinology that found that Molekule air purifiers reduced eye and nasal allergy symptoms. “I think we’ll see more organizations coming on and starting to review their recommendations,” he says.

Even if they provide health benefits, some scientists believe that air purifiers are little more than a Band-Aid concealing a much larger problem. Ultimately, they don’t address the source of air pollution — whether that’s household irritants, or particulate matter from global warming driven wildfires. “No air purifier is going to solve these problems,” says Elliott. “We need to focus our energies on reducing our carbon footprint and limiting gas emissions.”

The high cost of purifiers also means that these wellness appliances are only available to a limited group of people. “The vision has to be that we all work together and clean up the air for everybody,” says Blagev. “Not that the people who have the means can invest in an air purifier and put it in their homes.”

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