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Sales of air purifiers skyrocketed during pandemic — but do they really help?

Find out what you need to know before buying one for your own space.
/ Source: TODAY

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, air purifiers have become a booming business, growing from $669 million in sales in 2019 to over a $1 billion in 2020. And there’s no signs of those sales slowing down this year — especially now, with winter approaching and many of us spending even more time inside.

But before the lure of cleaner air prompts you to purchase one for your own space, there are a few things to consider about these popular devices.

NBC’s investigative and consumer correspondent Vicky Nguyen joined TODAY Wednesday and spoke to experts to help potential buyers make the best choice for themselves.

What to look for in an air purifier:

  • A HEPA filter

High efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters can trap 97.97% of mold, dust, pollen and even some airborne pathogens. Tanya Christian, from Consumer Reports, revealed that’s a top recommendation for any air purifier.

“It is going to capture small microns, dust, pollen, smoke that is in the air,” she said. “And you know that it's certified to capture that.”

Can an air purifier really help where the coronavirus is concerned?

  • It’s possible but not certain.

“There is nothing that says they definitely capture coronavirus particles,” Christian said. “What we found is that air purifiers with a HEPA filter can capture particles that are smaller than a coronavirus, which means that it is possible that they do capture the coronavirus.”

What you need to know:

  • Size matters.

A purifier’s air-cleaning capabilities can be limited if it’s placed in a room that too big.

“On the box, they're all going to have a clean air delivery rate,” Christian explained. “And what that tells you is the square footage of space that you can use these in. That's important because you want one that is designated for this space that you want to clean.”

One designed for a small room but placed in a large space can come up short on efficiency. So it’s best to get a product made for the room size it’s going to be placed in — or to err on the side of a device that promises to clean a bigger space than needed, as Christian added, “It’ll be more effective.

Do you really need one?

  • It depends.

Air purifiers can be pricey, so before making the investment, keep in mind, they aren’t the only way to freshen the air in your home or office.

Linsey Marr, a Virginia Tech professor who’s studied how viruses travel in the air, pointed out that just opening a window can create an air exchange that will allow pollutants to leave a room and fresh air to enter.

But that doesn’t mean that she would discourage anyone from adding an air purifier to their space.

“An air purifier is helpful, especially when you don’t have another good way of getting outside air into your room,” Marr said. “If you’re in a room that doesn’t have windows, for example, then an air purifier is going to be really helpful.”

And if you’re uncertain, Marr would advise taking the air purifier plunge.

“I think they’re a very worthwhile investment,” she said. “Even if you can open the windows, adding an air purifier never harmed. It can only help.

What about price?

  • You get what you pay for.

This a case where the price you pay correlates with quality.

Nguyen noted, “You’re looking for something, of course, with a high clean air delivery rate and a HEPA filter, but the price point does matter. Typically, they are more effective when they’re more costly.”