Does UV Light Kill Germs?

We asked doctors and germ experts to explain.

3/15/2020 4:28:00 AM

Sure, a UV cell phone sanitizer might help your peace of mind — but will it actually kill germs?

We asked doctors and germ experts to explain.

To find out, we talked to four medical professionals (and one Strategist staffer who swears by her UV-light-blasting water bottle). Eric Lee, a St. Louis–based physician, says that “UV light, the type used in most common devices on the market to clean household objects, has been shown to be effective in laboratory studies at killing bacteria on computer screens, toothbrushes, and other objects. It has also been shown to affect viruses in similar ways that it affects bacteria.” According Alex Berezow, a microbiologist who has written on the topic, “UV light is lethal to bacteria and viruses because of its high frequency that scrambles and damages their nuclear material. When it damages the DNA (or RNA) code of these pathogens, it also triggers lethal mutations that prevent them from reproducing properly.” (As we all try to protect ourselves from unnecessary coronavirus exposure, we also asked if the existing technology was effective against it. Our experts said it’s too soon to know if UV light could kill the coronavirus but that it is effective against other viruses like the flu.)

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With their advice in mind, we found a number of devices that use UV light to kill a range of dangerous bacteria and viruses from MRSA to E. coli. Like in hospitals, where UV-light-emitting robots quite literally zap operating rooms of all pathogens. And Boeing designed a prototype for a self-cleaning airplane bathroom that uses UV light to disinfect after each use. Outside of those industrial uses, there are a bunch of portable UV sanitizing boxes, wands, and water bottles that claim to kill 99.9 percent of bacteria and viruses on phones, toothbrushes, pacifiers, and a number of other surfaces.

Munchkin Portable UV Sterilizer $20 Linda Lee, environmental health expert and chief medical affairs and science officer at UV Angel, says UV light and chemicals like bleach or ethanol are equally effective methods for sanitizing surfaces. She suggests using whatever cleansing method is available to you, but points out that, in some situations, UV treatment can be superior. “For instance, chemical treatment might be difficult for a baby’s pacifier, because the way chemicals work, there’s a residual left behind that continues to treat the surface,” she says. So maybe don’t scrub your baby’s pacifier with a Clorox wipe and then hand it right back to them. Another benefit of UV light over wipes or paper towels is that you create less waste. Although Linda Lee has not tested this product, Munchkin claims that it has been put through rigorous testing by an independent lab.

$20 at Amazon Buy $20 at Amazon Buy BVibe UV Sterilizer Pouch $85 The skin in and around your private parts is extra sensitive. So whatever you use to clean your vibrators, butt plugs, and menstrual cups should be gentle and shouldn’t leave a chemical residue. Cleaning sex toys is especially important if it is used by more than one person, says Eric Lee, an ER physician, medical director of several nursing homes, and medical expert for Invigor Medical. “It is completely appropriate to want to disinfect it thoroughly between uses. A single exposure to certain pathogens during sex can lead to lifelong illness,” he says. Engle uses bVibe’s pouch sterilizer because it’s way less bulky than the bigger boxes like the Uvee Go Play and easier to travel with. “That’s a big plus because I’m international,” she says.

$85 at BVibe Buy $85 at Babeland Buy HoMedics UV-Clean Portable Sanitizer $100 Berezow, Eric Lee, and Linda Lee all agree that using UV light to disinfect a personal device such as a phone makes less sense than disinfecting something that is likely to come into contact with germs from multiple people. “The germs on your phone are most likely the same germs that are normally found on your hands,” says Berezow. Since most people touch their phones thousands of times a day, killing those germs is rendered pointless once you pick it up and start swiping again. But if your baby drops their pacifier on the subway floor or shares a toy with every kid on the playground, disinfecting it with UV light could reduce the spread of germs. This UV sanitizer from HoMedics can be used to disinfect phones as well as small objects like pacifiers, toys, or even teething rings.

$100 at Amazon Buy $100 at Amazon Buy BRIGHTINWD UV Light Mini Sanitizer Travel Wand $29 “I think these devices would make more sense in public places,” says Berezow, who strongly believes that industrial UV-light devices could reduce the transmission of diseases on a large scale if used in airplanes, restaurants, subways stations, and other places where people congregate. Until that is happening, and as an alternative to chemical cleaners, many UV sanitizing wands have been shown to work about as well as a Clorox wipe at killing bacteria and viruses on smooth nonporous surfaces like airplane tray tables. After looking into the research around UV wands for the Strategist, Berezow says, “I would say that UV-light wands may be useful as an alternative to chemical cleaners on tabletops or other ‘plain’ surfaces.” But he couldn’t find any information regarding rough services like fabric or hotel bed sheets. Purvi Parikh, an immunologist and allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network, says that portable devices such as this “are helpful on surfaces and objects such as your phone but should not be used on your skin.” Like many other UV-light wands on the market, the BrightInWD shuts off if you turn it over (to protect your eyes). But still, you should use it with caution.

[Editor’s note: UV-light wands like this are selling out fast, so we will be checking stock and updating this post often.]$29 at eBay Buy LARQ Bottle - Self-Cleaning Water Bottle and Water Purification System $95 $95 Buy at Amazon Buy $95 at Amazon Buy CrazyCap Water Purifier (Cap Only) with UV-C LED $59 $59 Buy at Amazon Buy $59 at Amazon Buy There are also several water bottles and bottle caps that harness UV light to kill germs in your water, reducing bad odors and in some cases making the water safer to drink. Strategist associate director of audience development, Stephanie Downes, who is immunodeficient and extra sensitive to bacteria due to her Crohn’s disease, got a Larq water bottle as a gift from her sister after several water bottles with built-in filters didn’t work for her. She says “because of my Crohn’s I can’t drink water from the tap. At home, I have a Berkey filter, but it’s nice to have this with me when I am out of the house so I can pour tap water in, press a button, and make it drinkable.” For a slightly less expensive way to sanitize your water, you can purchase this UV bottle cap that fits most S’well-shaped water bottles.

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