Startup Molekule Is Using the California Wildfires to Sell Its Crummy Air Purifier
Wirecutter called Molekule ‘the worst air purifier we’ve ever tested’
In November 2018, the Camp Fire blaze leveled the idyllic rural town of Paradise — tragically killing 85 people and burning 153,000 acres — and sent a cloud of noxious smoke into the Bay Area. For weeks, the smoke crept under doorways and between window panes. You couldn’t keep it out of your house, even if you tried.
As huge swaths of land went up in flames, some Bay Area residents noticed something odd: their social media feeds were peppered with content from the air purifier startup Molekule, a sleek, San Francisco-based company that claims its $800 air purifier can eliminate pollutants at the molecular level. The company saw a financial opportunity in the crisis, apparently, and targeted Northern Californians with ads for its products.
“Bay Area air quality has jumped to unhealthy air levels,” read one Instagram ad posted that November. “Molekule Air Purifiers not only filter out ash and debris from smoke — they destroy airborne pollutants.” Facebook’s Ad Library shows that in November 2018, Molekule ran promoted Facebook posts disproportionately targeted at California users.
California is again on fire. In Sonoma County, the Kincade Fire is ripping through communities and threatening to reach the Pacific Coast. It is one of half-a-dozen major fires currently threatening the state. Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes throughout the county, and even more are facing power blackouts by PG&E.
And Molekule is once again advertising against the disaster, running promoted posts on Instagram that play on the public’s fear of wildfire smoke. Molekule isn’t the only brand that stands to benefit from a burning California, but the company’s ads feel opportunistic. Compared to other air purifiers, Molekule’s air purifier is wildly expensive, and looks like something you’d find in a millionaire’s doomsday bunker.
As a technology, air purifiers land somewhere between legitimate health device and dubious wellness product. Many health researchers suggest that certain purifiers can reduce harmful airborne pollutants. “I recommend that people buy HEPA-based filters,” said Yifang Zhu, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who studies the effects of air quality on human health.
For individuals suffering from pulmonary conditions, or who are otherwise sensitive to particulate, air purifiers can be lifesavers. But as EJ Dickson wrote for OneZero, there are a lot of ineffective, and potentially dangerous air purifier products on the market too. “There are also air purifiers that, instead of removing particles, generate ozone, which is another type of air pollutant,” added Zhu.
By many accounts, Molekule is not a good air purifier. The device does not use HEPA filters and is not HEPA-rated; instead, it uses a proprietary UV light-based “photo electrochemical oxidation” technology to break up particulates. Wirecutter called it “the worst air purifier we’ve ever tested,” and said that having no purifier running at all was potentially better than running the device. Other reviewers have also given Molekule negative ratings.
Still, Molekule is pushing its devices and even donating free units. On Friday, a Molekule spokesperson told OneZero that the company sent 40 purifiers and 100 N95 masks to evacuation sites, first responder offices, and businesses in the area. When asked about its targeted advertising, the company’s spokesperson provided a statement from Molekule’s COO and co-founder, Jaya Rao, saying that it actually cuts prices during events such as wildfires. It reads in full:
Our number one goal as a company is to provide individuals education on, and access to, clean air. As mentioned earlier, our company responded within two hours of the Kincaid fire breaking out and had over $30,000 worth of donations in the impacted area the next day. This is on top of the nearly $100,000 worth of donations made during the Camp Fire last year. During times of need, we additionally absorb the cost of things like shipping, while equally significantly discounting our product, in order to provide more customers access to clean air.
None of that addresses the simple fact that Molekule air purifiers are bad — and should be avoided. If you’re shopping for an air purifier, most experts agree that HEPA is the way to go, and that it should have a high enough “clean air delivery rate” for the size of your room. HEPA filters are uniquely capable of trapping a large range of particles. And while HEPA filters generally cost more than lower efficiency filters, an air purifier doesn’t need to be as expensive as Molekule’s. Expect to pay somewhere in the $100 to $300 range.
“You don’t really need a fancy one,” said Zhu who added that sometimes the cost of air purifiers is driven by factors such as noise levels.
“The marketing may claim that low cost filters remove 99% of all particles,” said Mike Kleeman, a professor and urban air quality researcher at the University of California at Davis. But marketing can leave out important context, Kleeman adds, so consumers should do their research before purchasing any air purifier.
I live in San Francisco and following last year’s fires, I purchased a Blue 411 purifier by Blueair at roughly $100. I don’t know if it helped, but if offered a dose of serenity as smoke wafted into my apartment, and my lungs. But at least I didn’t pay $800.
Update: This story has been updated to add additional context about how Molekule has been reviewed by various outlets, including Consumer Reports. The location of the company’s headquarters has also been updated.