How exactly do UV sanitizers work?

UVC wand

If someone told you that you could trade all those hours spent dousing bacteria and germs in scalding water, soaking them in eye-stinging bleach, or sweating as you scrubbed away for a simple high-tech device that kills 99.9% of germs only with the light from a UVC wand, you’d probably think they were crazy. But the fact of the matter is that is exactly what a UVC wand does, and best of all? They’ve never been cheaper, more effective, or more accessible.

UVC light is so effective because it works at disrupting germs, bacteria, and viruses on a genetic level: literally penetrating the strands of their DNA and RNA, scrambling them to render them unable to reproduce. This makes it especially appealing as a cleaning method because where traditional cleaners work to poison these unwanted elements, they can leave survivors behind, procreating and spreading across household surfaces.

Why UVC light?

How it works on bacteria and germs is pretty complicated – more on that later – but the general principle is one almost any person can understand. Ever had a sunburn? That was caused by a (different) form of UV light. So a UVC light is basically like germs and bacteria getting the worst sunburn of their sickness-causing lives.

But not all UV light is created equally, it actually falls into three distinct wavelength categories: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVC light is the shortest wavelength of UV light and the only one that effectively breaks apart germ and bacterial DNA, leaving it unable to function or reproduce. For those interested, the ones that have us lobster-ized after a day at the beach are UVA and UVB. In other words? UVC light is uniquely germicidal. It’s what’s 99.9% effective at sanitizing surfaces.

How Does It Work On Germs And Bacteria?

As mentioned above, UVC light scrambles the very genetic material of bacteria and viruses, making them unable to pass it on. Since this is how they spread on surfaces through your home, UVC light is an extremely effective method when it comes to sterilization.

How We’ve Employed It For Sanitization

Though it may seem like a space-age technology, the use of UVC goes back over a century. It’s one of those technologies that exist in high-tech, purpose-built industries, but that slowly trickles down towards being a viable cleaning solution for home use. It would probably surprise most people to know that UVC light is most commonly used to make drinking water safe to consume.  In fact, a few years ago, New York City opened the world’s largest UV water sterilization plant

So while scientists have known for over a century that UVC light is highly effective at sterilizing things we interact with and even consume every day, you’re probably wondering why it’s not more common for personal use.

So Why Haven’t We Seen UVC Wands Before?

With so many things, it comes down to cost and practicality. For decades, huge industrial companies or municipalities were the only ones that could over the huge infrastructure (both financially and spatially) investment that UVC systems represented. They were enormous, expensive, and incredibly complex.

LED bulbs have changed the game when it comes to making a UVC wand portable. Inexpensive, powerful, and long-lasting, these bulbs have allowed UVC home sterilizers to become small enough and light enough to be practical. Best of all, they’re extremely energy efficient, working at 100% efficiency until the day they just stop (typically 10 000 – 15 000 hours of use).

Is A UVC Wand Safe?

As we learned during the example of how we get a sunburn from UVA and UVB light from the sun, the potential risk UV devices pose to us is a matter of what we use them for and exactly what part of the spectrum we’re using.

When it comes to UVC wands, there is a potential risk for damage when it’s employed in what’s known as ‘broad-spectrum’ form. For UVC light that means 200-280nm, a range that can damage both human skin and eyes with direct exposure. In a recent study in the scientific journal Nature, a small section of the UVC spectrum – known as Far-UVC – which is 207-222nm in length efficiently inactivates bacteria without harm to exposed mammalian skin”, which means that while still deadly to germs and bacteria, it’s relatively harmless to us humans. This is because they found that, “due to its strong absorbance in biological materials, Far-UVC light cannot penetrate even the outer layers of human skin or eyes…but because bacteria and viruses are of a micrometer or smaller in dimension…can penetrate and inactivate them.”

Why UVC Wands Are The Future Of Cleaning

Ultimately, UVC wands as a way to sterilize our homes and the things in them have been a long time coming. A technology that has been battle-tested in the field for over 100 years has finally made it to your doorstep (and not a moment too soon). Safe to use, cost-effective, and highly efficient at sterilization, it’s likely that UVC light wands will become the only way to clean. The messy, time-consuming, and labor-intensive way of cleaning our homes with potentially harmful chemicals is one that has been around for about as long as humans have been cleaning. What UVC wands represent is a cleaning solution that has finally caught up to our modern lives.

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Erik Adler

Erik Adler