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Does UV Light Kill Viruses and Germs?

Apr. 21, 2020

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. While our experts say there haven't been conclusive tests showing that UV light can kill the coronavirus, Berezow says "UV light kills everything: bacteria, fungi, viruses. It should kill coronavirus." What we do know for sure is that it is effective against other viruses like the flu.)

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. One of them is a UV-light-emitting robot that quite literally zaps operating rooms clean of all pathogens. According to CNBC, the manufacturers of these robots, Danish company UVD Robots and Texas based Xenex Disinfection Services, believe that they are effective at killing the coronavirus and have sent shipments of the disinfecting devices to Italy and East Asia in an effort to stop further spread in hotels and hospitals. In addition, Boeing has 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. Note that, while none have been proven to kill the coronavirus, a number of them have been put through rigorous third-party lab testing to support their claims. And just in case we need to say it, UV light should never be used on the skin or any other part of the body. Also, you should be careful not to look at it when using a UV-light device to clean objects or surfaces.

[Editors' note: No matter how effective these devices are at killing germs, none of them can replace frequent hand-washing, social distancing, wearing fabric face masks, and staying home as much as possible.]