Ultraviolet (UV) sanitisers are marketed as an effective way of sanitising small items you carry around and use a lot. They started to gain attention in 2020, as the spread of Covid-19 made people more aware of the presence of bacteria and viruses on the surfaces we touch multiple times a day.

You can wash your hands all the time and regularly disinfect high-touch surfaces like door handles, but what about the tech you carry around and touch all the time? You can't dunk your phone in soapy water or scrub your earbuds.

That's where sanitising devices come in. They can also be used to disinfect the other small items you take with you when you go out – your phone, glasses and keys – and they may help to prevent you from transferring microbes from the outside into your home. 

How does a UV sanitiser work?

A UV sanitiser, also called a phone steriliser or disinfecting box, cleans by killing germs. Place an item under the UV light and it should destroy the bacteria and viruses living on its surface.

There are three types of UV light: UV-A, UV-B and UV-C. UV-C has been shown to be effective at killing microbes, including bacteria and viruses. UV-A and UV-B are less effective, or not effective at all.

But there’s a catch. UV-C light destroys microbes by breaking down their DNA – which means it’s also dangerous to people and animals. That’s why we can’t have people passing under UV lights in train stations or airports to remove germs on their skin. The exposure to UV-C light would be hazardous. Strong UV-C light can damage eyes, give people sunburn in seconds and lead to cancer.

Which type of UV sanitiser works best?

UV sanitisers generally come in two forms: boxes, into which you place your tech and personal effects, and wands.

The better type to buy is a box, which can safely contain effective UV-C light. 

However, you should bear in mind the limitations of this tech. The UV light is most effective on flat, non-porous surfaces. It won't reach into nooks, cracks and gaps in your devices. That means you'll need to remove your phone case to clean your phone. And, if the box contains a single light source, you'll probably need to turn it over to ensure both sides are clean.

It's also important to note that the type of powerful UV-C light used to disinfect items in industrial settings will be far removed from the consumer technology available to buy and use at home. Products you buy won't be as effective as the lights used in lab studies you may read about. 

Don't count on any UV-C cleaner to remove all bacteria and viruses. There's no agreed upon period of exposure to UV-C light that will kill germs and no standard strength for the bulbs used.

If you buy a UVC sanitising unit, you should consider it to be an additional way of cleaning items but should still use other cleaning methods as usual.

Do UV sanitising wands work?

The short answer here is probably not – and if they do, you shouldn't use them. There are two key reasons why. The first is that as there’s no protective barrier to shield people’s skin and eyes from UV-C rays, a UV-C wand that’s strong enough to destroy microbes will also be very dangerous to people. So, the chances are that a wand will only have a very weak form of light.

Second, UV-C rays don’t kill microbes instantly. The UV sanitisers that are likely to be effective have a cleaning cycle that will take several minutes, at least.

This means that you'd have to hold a UV wand over a surface you want to clean for minutes at a time. A quick swipe won't do anything at all.

We don't recommend buying a UV sanitising wand, and for the same safety reasons, we wouldn't recommend buying an uncovered UV lamp.

Are UV sanitisers for phones safe?

UV sanitisers will be safe for people and animals as long as the UVC light within them is contained. You shouldn't look into the light, or point it at your skin.

Will a UV sanitiser damage your phone?

UV sanitisers are safe for use on all technology, although it's worth pointing out that no long-term studies have been done to find out of they will degrade materials such as plastic over time.

Will a UV sanitiser work against Covid-19?

A recent study published in the American Journal of Infection Control (AJIC) showed that UV-C light is highly effective at destroying coronavirus, doing so in 9 minutes. The same test showed that UV-A light was ineffective.

However, this doesn’t mean that the UV light sanitisers you can buy commercially will be as effective as the devices used in the test or that you can forgo other sanitising methods and be safe from Covid-19 or other infections.

What features should you look out for in a UV sanitiser?

As we've said, the best sanitisers will be boxes. Some, like Moshi's Deep Purple, can fit all the bits and pieces you carry around with you and are easily portable. In the case of this device, it can be folded flat for easy storage.

Moshi's Deep Purple is foldable

Others double as a wireless charger, like QDOS's UV sanitiser, which which you can buy from Amazon for £52.57

QDOS sanitiser and charger

UV bulbs will dim over time, so look out for products with UV LEDs, which will likely have a longer lifespan. 

Larger sanitising units

You can expect to see more sanitising tech coming on to the market in the near future. Appliance manufacturer Beko will be launching a UV light disinfecting cabinet later this year. It’s the size of a small microwave and is designed to sit on your hall table and sanitise your phone, wallet, tablet, keys, mask, sunglasses and similar items.

A sanitising cycle will take 20-40 minutes to complete and, like a microwave, won’t start until the cabinet’s door is closed – with your fingers safely outside.

Beko sterilising cabinet

A sanitiser of this kind will be more expensive, and probably more effective, than a standard UV phone sanitiser.

We tested the Coral UV 2, which has a similarly large capacity and additional functionality, so you can sanitise home medical equipment, things for your baby and kids' toys as well.

Do I need a UV phone sanitiser?

The best form of protection from Covid-19 and other infectious diseases is to wash your hands regularly and follow public health guidelines. But using a UV sanitiser can offer another layer of protection to your routine – and may bring with it some peace of mind.

To see all the sanitisers we recommend and find out how the Moshi, QDOS and Coral UV 2 rate, check out our round-up of the best UV sanitisers we've tested.