En español | Water dispensers that kill germs. A closet steamer that eliminates bacteria from fabric. A robot that uses ultraviolet light to sanitize high-traffic areas. A “disinfecting cabinet” to zap items like cell phones, keys and wallets.
As it appears that COVID-19 will be a part of our lives, in some way, for the long term, the $588 billion global appliance industry has pivoted to focus on hygiene. Companies are rolling out new coronavirus-inspired upgrades.
Appliance-giant Samsung noted, “The events of 2020 fundamentally changed the global home appliance industry."
People have spent more time quarantining at home this last year cooking, filling their freezers and washing more loads of laundry and dishes than ever before, and they're in the market for new appliances. Data shows appliance sales increased 8 percent in 2020, with sales of water filtration devices, filters, cleaning devices and air purifiers experiencing double — and sometimes triple — digit increases.
But do people really need these extra disinfectors and sanitizers? Medical experts aren't too sure.
"I applaud the appliance industry for thinking about ways to keep people safe,” says Claudia Hoyen, M.D., codirector of infection control for University Hospitals in Cleveland. “But I think for this virus, some of those things might not be necessary."
Some advantages to appliances that sanitize
Still appliance-makers are forging ahead, thinking these “extras” will help them market to a buying public on high-alert about coronavirus infection.
Samsung introduced the AirDresser, an in-closet appliance that uses high temperature steam to sanitize clothing and eliminate bacteria from fabrics. Whirlpool also focused on sanitizing clothing and linens, adding a “sanitize cycle” to its washing machines to remove 99.9 percent of three common household bacteria the manufacturer claims might still be lurking in laundry washed in regular machines.
LG Electronics added ultraviolet LED lights to the nozzles on the drinking water dispensers in its refrigerators, noting that the feature removes up to 99.9 percent of bacteria. The South Korean appliance manufacturer also announced it is developing an autonomous robot, to be unveiled later this year, that uses ultraviolet light to disinfect surfaces in high-traffic areas to reduce exposure to harmful bacteria and germs.
Both approaches could be effective: Research shows that UV radiation can kill harmful microorganisms in drinking water and can be used to inactivate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
While COVID-19 can live on surfaces like plastic, stainless steel and metal for periods ranging from a few hours to a few days, the latest studies show that the risk of transmitting the virus through contact with contaminated surfaces is low.
"If touching contaminated surfaces had been the largest mode of transmission, we would've had a lot more cases,” Hoyen says. “The biggest spread is ‘droplet spread’ that is best stopped by wearing a mask and washing your hands."
However, Hoyen says there might be advantages to using the bacteria-and virus-killing features to prevent the spread of bacteria like salmonella and E. coli, though regular cleaning and handwashing with soap and water are also sufficient to kill the coronavirus.
A cutting-edge tool worth considering
To kill COVID-19 you should still take precautions, using disinfecting wipes on frequently touched surfaces such as the handles of the refrigerator, dishwasher, oven and microwave. Charles Gerba, professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona, also suggests wearing disposable or washable gloves to handle clothing if someone in the house is ill because microorganisms can spread through dirty clothes.
Washing face masks is also essential. A 2020 study published in BMJ Open found that laundering face coverings in hot water daily was effective for protecting against COVID-19 infections, but you don't need a new washing machine with a sanitizing cycle to do it.
"SARS-CoV-2 is a pretty wimpy virus,” Gerba says. “Common disinfectants, wiping things down and detergent and hot water are enough to kill it."
Even though Gerba isn't sold on the need to upgrade to appliances with advanced hygiene features to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, he does think there is one appliance that might be worth adding to your home: a disinfecting cabinet.
Turkish manufacturer Beko introduced several appliances with “HygieneShield” features that are designed to eliminate bacteria, viruses and germs, including a UV cleaning cabinet. The unit, similar in size to a small microwave, uses ultraviolet light to zap viruses, including the coronavirus, on high-touch items like keys, mobile phones and wallets during a 20- to 40-minute cycle.
These types of tools are used in the medical community. While they might not be a necessity for COVID-19, they might be a good investment to combat bacteria that are more hardy, Gerba says. “For disinfecting high-use, commonly shared items, it might be worthwhile."
Jodi Helmer is a contributing writer who covers gardening, health and the environment. She has also written for Scientific American, National Geographic Traveler and NPR.