Air Purifiers: Ionic and Ionizers, Are They Bad for You?

Before you buy: Take a deeper look into the world of air ionizers. Explore what these “ionic air purifiers” do, their hidden dangers in producing ozone, and why you may not want them in your home.

As you get older, a number of things may become more important. Healthier food, a shorter commute, regular exercise, clean drinking water, etc. Of these items, one increasingly important part of our daily lives that is gaining more attention is access to cleaner air.

Whether you are a healthy person, or someone who may have respiratory issues such as asthma or allergies, you may be considering purchasing an air purifier to reap the many health benefits of better indoor air quality.

If you are embarking on a search to find the right air purifier for you and your family, you just might be feverishly scratching your head. Unfortunately, the world of air purifiers is filled to the brim with numerous jargon, marketing fluff, and misinformation. Our mission is to “clear the air” so you can make an educated decision on your quest to better air quality.

Today, we will dive into one of the more prominent types of air purifier currently on the market: air ionizers.

Read more about a new technology that works better than ionizers without producing ozone.

Ionizer Air Purifiers: How Do They Work?

When you search online for an air ionizer, you may come across these two terms: ionic vs. ionizer. What are the differences between these two air purifiers?

The fact is, both of these terms are used interchangeably by the market; however, they actually describe the same product. For the sake of consistency, we will refer to the general product group as “air ionizer” – of which there are two main types you will find on the market.

Two Common Types of Ionizer Air Purifiers:

Electrostatic precipitators Ion Generators
Often Sold As Standalone fanless units Standalone units, or a built-in feature of combination air purifiers
How They Work Charged particles are collected onto plates inside the device Ions are released into the air to alter particles outside of the device
Ozone (Pollutant) Higher production Lower production depending on ion generating method

(Above) Collecting plate of an electrostatic precipitator ionizer air purifier.

Electrostatic precipitators work by dispersing charged ions into the air via corona discharge. These ions then attach to airborne particles, which are then later collected onto an oppositely-charged flat plate. This is essentially what most “ionizers” on the market utilize – and in fact, is often their most touted feature – because you can simply take out these plates and wipe out the collected particles, whether they are dust or other pollutants that accumulate in your home.

Layman’s term: electrostatic precipitators “pull” in air from a room, charge particles with ions and leave the dirty particles on a collecting plate.

Ion generators, conversely, often disperse charged ions into the air without using collecting plates. They produce these ions by either corona discharge or UV lights. Some ionizer air purifiers are designed with this technology and often differentiate themselves by advertising the lack of having to deal with collection plates.

But where do the dirty particles go if they are no longer in your air? Simple: these pollutant particles are now stuck on nearby surfaces in the room such as your wall, table, bed, and other furnishings in your home – all within the reach of your hand.

Layman’s term: ion generators will emit negatively charged ions into your room and leave the dirty particles everywhere else but in the air.

You can imagine why air ionizers with collecting plates are often a more popular product among consumers. Beyond being cheaper to produce, consumers get to see the product in action, via the collected dust and dirt in those ionizer plates. Unfortunately, serious downsides exist for air ionizers, which we will discuss below.

The Infamous “Ionic Breeze”

When you think of an air ionizer, the first air cleaner that might crop up may be The Sharper Image Ionic Breeze (an electrostatic precipitator ionizer). With The Sharper Image’s vast infomercials that scattered the late night airwaves back in the late 90’s – many of these ionizer’s benefits were touted on television day in and day out.

You certainly can make an argument that these advertisements did their job properly, as every other home at the time seemed to have an Ionic Breeze in their home. But as quickly as these devices became the product to have, so too did they disappear years down the line.

For those not familiar, the downfall of the Ionic Breeze had its catalyst due to an investigative report published by the consumer advocate magazine Consumer Reports. In two separate reports, Consumer Reports tested fan-driven air purifiers against the Ionic Breeze and other similar devices. They found that these ionic air purifiers sorely lacked in air cleaning volume – a natural conclusion, given that they are often produced as a fanless device.

What really brought upon the decline of the ionizing air cleaners was Consumer Report’s second finding that these devices were generating high levels of ozone, a byproduct created because of how they work.

Ozone, according to the EPA, can cause harmful health consequences such as chest pain, coughing, shortness of breath and throat irritation.

As we covered above, most air ionizers on the market work by generating a large voltage difference across some volume of air  – a method that produces ozone in varying degrees, a non-ideal scenario for those seeking better indoor air quality. Particularly those who suffer from allergy or asthma as ozone can trigger symptoms.

Because of Consumer Report’s revelation, sales of the Ionic Breeze and similar “ionic” air purifiers went on a downhill spiral. Coupled with declining consumer confidence, The Sharper Image eventually reached bankruptcy.

Air Ionizer Dangers: Ozone Production

Air ionizer dangers: Ozone levels and corresponding health impacts

Chart: “Air Ionizer Dangers” showing levels of ozone (ppb) and corresponding health impacts. Air ionizers that produce ozone levels greater than 50 ppb fall into the moderately concerning or unhealthy ranges and should be avoided.

Because most ionizing air cleaners produce ozone, a byproduct that has been examined through almost a century as a harmful pollutant and a known lung irritant – you may assume that these products have long since been removed from the market. Alas, as self-regulated industry became filled with dubious products, many manufacturers and retailers continued to carry and sell air ionizers, despite the danger of ozone production.

Fact: Consumer Reports tested five popular ionizing air purifiers and found them to produce more than 50 ppb (parts per billion) of ozone near the machine.

In fact, certain large online retailers such as Overstock produce “fact sheets” about air ionizers, but neglect to mention the most important detail regarding potential side effects: ozone.

Because of its potentially dangerous health effects (particularly for those who suffer from asthma), it is unsurprising that government bodies such as the EPA have produced literature and consumer brochures about ozone.

Ozone health standards: the FDA requires ozone output of indoor medical devices to be no more than 50 ppb (parts per billion).

While limited in scale, some ionizers on the market do attempt to reduce their ozone output. If you must purchase a specific air purifier with ionizing features, a good rule of thumb is to look on the manufacturer or retailer’s store page for details on whether or not the device produces ozone, or whether the device makes an attempt to reduce ozone production. If the product makes zero mention of ozone – there is a high chance you would want to avoid purchasing that air purifier.

To simplify the matter altogether and avoid any potential ozone build-up in your home – we recommend skipping air purifiers with ionizing features.

Ionizer Air Purifier vs. HEPA Air Purifier

If you are wondering about the differences between an air ionizer and the typical HEPA filter on the market, below is a quick comparison chart that shows the differences between these products.

Ionizer Air Purifiers HEPA Air Purifiers
Fan-driven No Yes
Particle size filtered > 10 µm (microns) ~ 0.3 µm (microns)
Maintenance required Generally, plate cleaning Regular filter change
Negatives Produce O3 (ozone), a pollutant When filters are not changed, can produce mold and bacteria

You Should Not Buy an Air Ionizer

If you have made it down this far and digested all the information about air ionizers (whether they are marketed as an ionic air cleaner or ionizer) – you probably realize by now that most people should not buy an air purifier with an ionizing feature.

In fact, many manufacturers these days often include ionizing features into their air purifiers to simply “pad” the feature list to justify the air purifier’s higher cost. There is some irony in purchasing a product that is supposed to improve your indoor air quality, but instead introduces a pollutant byproduct into your home. It is unfortunate that despite a very public warning from a reputable consumer advocate outlet, a product that can actively cause harm is still being sold to consumers to this day.

If you are seeking an air purifier for your home, whether for the bedroom, living room, or home office – you will be better served by simply purchasing another air purifier, like HEPA or a Molekule, and doing your due diligence in changing the filters frequently.

Have you ever purchased an air ionizer for your home? Did you ever experience any problems with them? Share your thoughts below.

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