Can UV-C Light Destroy Coronavirus Particles?

Products that use UV-C rays aren’t all created equal. Here’s what you need to know before you make a purchase.
Photograph by Josh Scott

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has sparked an explosion of products aimed at protecting people from the invisible pathogen that causes the disease. One increasingly popular approach is the use of UV-C light, a virus-killing science that’s been deployed for more than a century to sanitize high-traffic areas, such as hospitals and federal buildings.

This germicidal ultraviolet light, which is quickly making its way into everyday life, mimics a sunray that’s powerful enough to destroy lingering coronavirus particles, along with other bugs and viruses, such as influenza. “If you can visualize a virus in the air, it has very tiny particles,” explains Eric Hansel, owner and founder of Expert Lighting Group, a Rochester Hills-based company that installs UV-C lighting locally and nationally for a variety of business sectors.

When installed as an HVAC-based air filtration system, UV-C lighting acts as a net for removing those particles, which can linger from sneezes and coughs, and even from people talking and breathing, Hansel says. It works a bit like a car wash, circulating air past the light, which then destroys any airborne virus particles. The same technology can also be used to sanitize frequently touched surfaces, such as keyboards and countertops.

UV-C light - HALO
HALO, from Ann Arbor-based Archimedes, “washes” hands with UV-C light. // Photograph courtesy of Archimedes

Many companies, including several here in Michigan, have UV-C-based products on the market. Knowing which product to choose can take a bit of legwork. “You’ll want to know the point of origin for the product you’re using,” Hansel cautions. He recommends checking that there’s actual science to back up a product’s claims, and that the company behind a product is transparent about how its devices are made. 

Hansel also urges buyers to check the company’s history before committing to a purchase, especially for large investments. “Do they have a long history of selling UV-C, or was it just a pivot for them?” he says, adding that he’s seen a number of false claims on the market since COVID hit, so doing research before buying is crucial. “If you can’t find much information on the brand, I wouldn’t buy from them at all.”

UV-C products come in several forms, including sanitizing wands, which can be waved over spaces and surfaces to help destroy pathogens. These more affordable options start at around $25 from more reputable brands. Other in-demand items include portable phone sanitizers, which act almost like microwaves for phones, keys, credit cards, and other small objects by zapping them in a compact UV-C-lit device. While local companies like Commerce Charter Township-based Homedics sell portable phone sanitizers that cost under $100, Hansel says commercial-grade UV-C boxes can run upwards of $5,000 but are capable of cleaning even N95 masks.

Also gaining traction in the UV-C product market are “hand-washing” devices that promise to clean hands with light. Special machines shaped like halos (among other shapes) sanitize without water, chemicals, or waste. Users place their hands inside these devices, which then emit small doses of UV-C light to destroy virus particles on the skin. The doses are strong enough to inactivate pathogens but too weak to penetrate the skin’s protective layer of dead skin cells, alleviating concern about possible radiation exposure.

UV Angel - UV-C light
UV Angel devices mount to keyboards, track their use, and adjust the UV-C dose accordingly. // Photograph courtesy of UV Angel

Ann Arbor-based Archimedes is among the companies that sell UV-C hand-washing halos. Archimedes’ founders are University of Michigan-grad scientists and researchers who study health care solutions and light-based skin decontamination. They say their HALO system can destroy more than 99 percent of germs in under five seconds. A study conducted by Archimedes found that 20 seconds of regular hand-washing can leave more than 720 colony-forming germ units on the skin, while five seconds under its device leaves zero colony-forming units behind. A commercial version of a UV-C halo from Archimedes will be available in the second quarter of 2021 and will cost around $999, while a consumer version is expected to follow at a lower price.

Surface-cleaning devices are also proliferating. Grand Haven-based UV Angel has developed an automated surface cleaning system for high-touch areas that uses patented UV-C light technology. Its devices, which resemble Bluetooth speakers, monitor high-touch surfaces such as keyboards and touch screens and vary the amount of UV-C light they emit to match the type of interaction they sense. Their surface product costs $316 and promises to be capable of hundreds of cycles a day.

In the end, consumers have no practical way to test how effective these products are themselves, so buying any products requires an educated leap of faith. “You don’t know if a product is effective or not, so you really have to trust the manufacturer,” Hansel says. “Check that they have medical doctors endorsing materials, they’ve gone through rigorous testing, and have a long history of using UV-C properly. Make sure they’re not only offering you a safe product, but one that will actually do its job.”