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Special Report: Consumer Reports Air Purifier Ratings

Special Report Contents

  1. Understanding Consumer Reports Air Purifier Ratings
  2. Complaints Against the CR Rating System
  3. Consumer Reports' Accomplishments
  4. Summary and Conculsion
  5. Most Recent Consumer Reports Air Purifier Ratings (Years 2010, 2007, 2005)


Many people consider buying an air purifier with hopes it will provide some form of relief for asthma and allergy symptoms. Although there is no clear-cut medical proof that the use of an air purifier alone can relieve respiratory symptoms, some consumers believe they are still a worthwhile purchase.

Air purifiers are designed to filter the air inside a room by removing any dust, pet dander, mold, pollen or other harmful pollutants that can cause respiratory problems.  However, there are few scientific tests that objectively evaluate the effectiveness of air purifiers and the claims made in marketing such products.

Consumer Reports is one organization that has sought to objectively test the effectiveness of select air purifier models. However, some of their test procedures have come under fire from a few companies in the air purifier industry, an industry expert, and a subscriber who had poor results with CR recommended air purifiers. 

This Air Purifier Guide Special Report seeks to help you understand the pros and cons of Consumer Reports' air purification rating system.

Understanding Consumer Reports’ Ratings

Consumer Reports is a well-known, non-profit organization that conducts product testing on a variety of items consumers use every day. By providing non-biased reviews, they hope to guide buyers to the best products available in the market.

How Consumer Reports tests its air purifiers

Air purifier tests done by Consumer Reports are conducted in a controlled environment. Inside this controlled environment, usually a room or chamber, a tester introduces different outside variables that will eventually interact with the selected air purifier. A special system is also installed inside this room that will inject dust into the air, as well as smoke produced by a cigarette. A measurement is taken by the tester of the concentration of dust and smoke that’s floating in the air.

Consumer Reports video on buying an air purifier and a few brief comments on testing.

The next step places the air purifier that’s being tested into the room with the contaminated air. The air purifier is turned on and the tester starts measuring how long it takes for that particular unit to remove the dust and smoke from the air. The same procedures are then used on all the other units selected for testing.

After all the selected purifiers were tested, Consumer Reports noted that the performances of the air purifiers varied considerably among the brands tested. They suggested that buyers should look for room air purifiers with timers that can be set to turn the unit on or off when no one is at home. In addition, a filter indicator light should be included so the buyer will know when to clean or change the filter. It was also suggested that air purifiers that use ozone generators should not be used since they release ozone back into the air which has been proven to irritate the lungs.

Consumer Reports also reported that the following features are not worth considering when buying an air purifier.

  1. Air purifies which state they remove odors from the air “usually” do not work and if they do work, they take too long to do the job.
  2. Air quality sensors are not worth their extra cost.
  3. If a person doesn’t have asthma, allergies or any other respiratory problems, they may not even need to buy an air purifier at all.

How Consumer Reports picks models to test

Consumer Reports' testing strategy involves choosing a range of products within a particular market. They look for products with advanced technology and new features that fall within varying price categories. The product’s market share is examined, along with advertising and promotional materials used by the particular product manufacturer. Consumer Reports uses managers from their technical and editorial divisions to review select products which their analysts will then use to create a list of models to be tested. They also choose products that are available from the manufacturer for at least three months after Consumer Reports publishes its ratings report. (Further Reading - CR's explanation of how they pick models to test)

Consumer Reports then sends out staff employees to purchase the selected products either online or from retail establishments located throughout the Northeast. They will also use shoppers located across the country to buy any best-selling regional brands.

During this entire process, Consumer Reports never reveals to any retailer that the product being purchased will be used in their testing program. Every product they use in testing is purchased at a retail store and not received directly from a manufacturer.

Complaints Against CR Air Purifier Ratings

Not everyone believes Consumer Reports product rating tests are accurate. In fact, a few air purifier manufacturers feel Consumer Reports’ tests are flawed. The following are companies and individuals who do not agree with CR's testing methodology.

Complaint #1 - IQAir

IQAir North America, Incorporated, is part of the Swiss based company, IQAir Group. This company is the only educational partner in the portable air purifier industry that works with the American Lung Association. They are manufacturers of several air quality products including portable air purifiers that are used throughout the world by hospitals and other similar environments.

In November 2007, IQAir North America issued a press release that introduced some critical argumentative-points about Consumer Reports testing process. IQAir stated that Consumer Reports admitted they rated a specific air purifier as #1 for 15 years even though it produced potential ozone hazards. According to IQAir North America, the continued lack of in-depth comparisons done by Consumer Reports is “still causing them to recommend inferior and potentially unhealthy products while failing to acknowledge IQAir’s vastly superior HealthPro Plus room air purifier.” The President of IQAir, Frank Hammes, added, that it could take Consumer Reports another 15 years before they realize their entire test rating process is flawed. His belief is that Consumer Reports’ testing process holds little substance and is causing them to give the wrong recommendations to buyers.

In January 2006, IQAir met with Consumer Reports to recommend a number of ways they could improve upon their testing processes. One of IQAir’s suggestions was to rate air purifiers based on whether or not they produced ozone. Hammes stated that Consumer Reports “should test air purifiers as medical devices – not toasters.” According to Mr. Hammes, Consumer Reports listened to his advice and made the suggested changes.

The new rating procedures used by Consumer Reports caused the original #1 rated air purifier to now be rated at #28. Frank Hammes then commented, “If they (Consumer Reports) would incorporate all of the necessary changes to their review process, you would see every one of their top recommended products drop down in rating....They need to recognize that air purifiers are primarily purchased by people with allergies, asthma, and other respiratory conditions.”

Since IQAir’s HealthPro Plus air purifiers received top reviews from reputable sources worldwide, and they are used in medical environments and hospital in over 100 countries, IQAir suggested several criteria that Consumer Reports should use in their air purifier tests, going forward. The following information represents IQAir’s statements from their November 2007 press release.

  1. Permanent Particle Removal – Many top recommended air purifiers tested by Consumer Reports use ionization which adds an electrical charge to particles so they will adhere to surfaces. These ionized particles are emitted into the air and fall onto floors, furniture and other surfaces. Consumer Reports informs buyers that these particles get trapped inside the air purifier, which is not true. Medical professionals are concerned that these particles can end up inside a person’s lung tissue causing allergies. Every time the unit is turned on or off, these particles get re-dispersed into the air. IQAir’s HealthPro Plus does not use ionization but rather a mechanical filtration process that permanently traps these particles inside its included HyperHEPA filter. The particles are never re-released into the air.
  2. Long-Term Efficiency – Since air purifiers are purchased by hospitals and medical facilities, they need to continue to work over longer periods of time. Consumer Reports only tests air purifiers for their first 30 minutes of use. If long term testing were done on these air cleaners, Consumer Reports would find the air purifier’s performances deteriorated rapidly. By rating these air cleaners based on their high initial air flow, without longer periods of test time, Consumer Reports is not realizing that the air cleaners ”can lose as much as 50% of their initial function in just a few weeks.” IQAirs HealthPro Plus uses a high-grade HEPA filtration system that will never lose its efficiency.
  3. Ultra-fine Particle Filtration – Eighty percent of all airborne particles are smaller than 0.1 microns. Consumer Reports only tests air purifiers for their filtration of “particles down to 0.1 microns.” Scientific studies have shown that airborne particles that are ultra-fine in size are the most harmful to a person’s health. They can increase a person’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke. The HealtPro Plus has been “tested and certified to filter down to 0.003 microns with a guaranteed minimum efficiency of over 99.5%.”
  4. Gas and Chemical Filtration – A majority of the air purifiers tested by Consumer Reports do not contain any effective gas or chemical filtration systems that would back up their claims of being able to remove household odors from the air. One of the top reasons consumers look to purchase an air purifier is to remove odors from the air. Consumer Reports does not rate air purifiers based on gas or chemical filtration because this type of technology lowers the purifier’s airflow. In fact, they downgrade the ratings on air purifiers that include effective gas or chemical filtration. IQAir claims their HealthPro Plus air purifier “contains the most effective gas and chemical filtration ever available in a residential air purifier.”

IQAir believes their testing criteria must be followed by Consumer Reports if they wish to provide an accurate buying guide for consumers to help them choose the best air purifiers.

Complaint #2 - Asthma Advocate Lisa Whiting

Another related complaint against Consumer Reports’ tests was made by asthma advocate, Lisa Whiting. She claimed Consumer Reports air purifier ratings was misinforming consumers and could lead to very dangerous health situations. According to Ms. Whiting, Consumer Reports’ recommendations endangered her son’s life. After an incident occurred where her son went into full respiratory arrest due to asthma problems, she purchased several air purifiers that were recommended by Consumer Reports. None of the products worked, so she did her own research and ended up purchasing IQAir’s HealthPro Plus air purifier. Switching to that air purifier changed her son’s life for the better. (Ms. Whiting's statements can be read in the IQ Air Press Release)

Complaint #3 - Absolute Air Cleaners and Purifiers, Inc.

Barry Cohen is the owner and operator of Absolute Air Cleaners and Purifiers, Inc. His business has been in existence since 1989, and specializes in HEPA air purifiers. In response to questions he receives from many of his customers, Mr. Cohen created a report which explains why Consumer Reports only tests “lower quality, inexpensive HEPA air cleaners and air purifiers,” and not any "higher quality" ones. According to Mr. Cohen, Consumer Reports magazine uses air purifiers that are easy to find and that have a large share of sales in the market. The brands they choose are low quality brands that are inexpensive and are sold in discount chain stores like Wal-Mart, Sears and Home Depot.

Cohen believes consumers are educated and use the internet to do their own research into the best air purifier brands. They can discover that there are affordable, higher quality HEPA air cleaners and air purifiers available such as EZ Air, TRACS and Austin Air. These brands are not tested by Consumer Reports. In a letter addressed to Consumer Reports magazine, Barry Cohen requested that they do testing and ratings on higher quality HEPA air cleaners and air purifiers. 

Consumer Reports' Response to Barry Cohen

Consumer Reports responded with their own letter addressed to Mr. Cohen. In the letter, Consumer Reports’ Customer Relations Representative Paul Hanney stated the following:

  1. Marketing analysts do research on each brand-name air purifier and select the ones that have the highest market share at that time the testing will begin. Secret shoppers also go out to purchase the selected models they have chosen to be tested. Sometimes, certain models may be excluded in the testing process if the shopping team cannot purchase those models due to unavailability.
  2. Strict testing deadlines may also hinder the selection of specific models that are not readily available for purchase. A notation was made that any omitted models does not mean Consumer Reports believes they are poor performers.
  3. Paul Hanney informed Barry Cohen that his letter would be forwarded to the appropriate technicians and editors for further review and consideration. Also, Consumer Reports would like to know what particular products consumers are interested in purchasing.

(For more information, read the full text of Cohen's complaints and CR's response)

Complaint #4 - Air Purifier Power

Ed Sherbenou is the creator of Air Purifier Power, a site dedicated to answering emails he receives from readers looking for information on air purifiers. He publishes the emails he receives and responses to them on his website so all readers can benefit from the information.

One area Mr. Sherbenou touched was the issue with Consumer Reports' low ranking of well-respected air purifier brands. Consumer Reports rightly exposed some questionable practices from two allergy foundations that granted approval of Oreck and Sharper Image air purifiers which emitted ozone into the air.  However, when Consumer Reports gave the respect IQAir and Austin Air purifier units a poor rating in their 2005 issue, trust in Consumer Reports rating process became stained within the air purifier industry. The result was a higher market share, ozone-emitting air purifier receiving a higher rating versus the IQAir and Austin Air models which emit no ozone and have been shown in other tests to perform quite well.

Sherbenou suggests that Consumer Reports makes the following changes to make their tests more helpful:

  1. Changing testing procedures to not be similar to the potentially flawed Clean Air Delivery Rate specs put forth by the pro-appliance manufacturer group AHAM
  2. Testing for volatile organic compound, gas, and odor removal
  3. Adding some type of sound-level-to-air-delivery-rate calculations in its reports to show measurements of the noise levels emitted from air purifiers. (He made a note of two air cleaners that have noise levels at different spectrums that are being rated as the same for sound levels in their report).
  4. Including an “air delivery performance-to-sound ratio” should be used rather than rating air purifiers based solely on which fan is the loudest on high.

Consumer Reports’ Accomplishments

Despite the complaints against Consumer Reports’ ratings and test procedures, it is important to recognize the meaningful accomplishments they have made toward improving air purifier education and protecting the public from misleading claims.

Accomplishment #1 - Upholding Its Negative Reviews of the Sharper Image/Ionic Breeze Brand

In 2002, Consumers Reports’ tests showed the Ionic Breeze Quadra air purifier had “almost no measurable reduction in airborne particles” based on the industry standard CADR measuring criteria. Sharper Image disagreed and believed their air purifier would fare better in longer running tests. Consumer Reports decided to run additional long-term tests to see if the Ionic Breeze Quadra would improve performance. It was tested against the similar quality Honeywell Environizer and two higher scoring air cleaners, the Friedrich Electrostatic Precipitator and the Whirlpool HEPA Filter. Sharper Image’s Ionic Breeze Quadra did not perform well in these longer tests. Along with the Honeywell Environizer, the Ionic Breeze Quadra barely cleaned the air when compared to the other two higher scoring brands.

In 2003, Consumer Reports won a lawsuit filed against them by the Sharper Image Corporation who claimed Consumer Reports’ tests concluded that the Ionic Breeze Quadra air purifier was “ineffective” in removing any measurable airborne particles from the air. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissed the suit claiming Sharper Image Corp. had not shown that Consumers Reports' test protocols were scientifically invalid. Sharper Image also had not “demonstrated a reasonable probability that any of the challenged statements were false."

Accomplishment #2 - Exposing Health Risks From Ozone-Producing Air Purifiers

In 2005, Consumer Reports found that the Ionic Breeze Quadra S1737 SNX and four other competing brands did not clean the air and ultimately emitted “excessive amounts of ozone” into the air that could cause respiratory problems to anyone close to the units. The negative publicity surrounding Sharper Images Ionic Breeze Quadra air purifier eventually caused the company to file Chapter 11 bankruptcy on February 19, 2008.

Accomplishment #3 - Offering Tips For Improving Indoor Air Quality Without Buying An Air Purifier

Consumer Reports, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the American Lung Association, advises consumers to try a few “common sense steps” before purchasing an air purifier. By following these tips, consumer may discover that they may not need to purchase an air purifier after all.

  1. Vacuum your home often.
  2. Do not smoke inside your home.
  3. Keep pets out of bedrooms.
  4. Remove carpeting and any other furnishing which can trap dust mites in its fibers.
  5. Use mite proof pillow covers and mattress covers
  6. Wash laundry in the hottest water possible
  7. Open windows in your home whenever it’s possible.
  8. Minimize your use of candles, air fresheners and wood burning fires.
  9. If you need to use an exhaust fan in the kitchen, bathroom or laundry room, make sure they are outdoor venting fans, which can blow the air inside your home, out. This step can help expel excessive moisture, odors, and combustible gases from your home, thereby preventing mold and other allergen build-ups.
  10. Do not store pesticides, chemicals, solvents, or glue inside your home.
  11. Test your home for radon gas. This gas can cause lung cancer.
  12. Properly maintain all heating equipment, fireplaces, chimneys, wood stoves and vents by installing carbon monoxide detectors inside your home. This will help avoid the risk of deadly carbon monoxide gas poisoning.
  13. Lastly, do not run fuel-burning power equipment or idle your vehicle near your home. Avoid lighting a barbecue grill inside your garage, basement or in any other confined space that’s near your home.

By offering these tips, Consumer Reports has accurately educated its readership and possibly helped many avoid making an expensive air purifier purchase they didn't really need.

Summary and Conclusion

Over the years, Consumer Reports has fielded complaints regarding their testing methodology for room air purifiers. A few companies in the air purification industry expressed their opinions publicly about what they claimed were unacceptable testing procedures used by Consumer Reports. Despite those claims, consumers still look to Consumer Reports as a source of objective air purifier testing.

The following are some of the reasons why Consumer Reports has maintained its standing as a reliable source of information that consumers can depend on to help them choose the best room air purifier.

Positives of the CR Rating System

Although Consumer Reports has accomplished positive milestones over the years, they did encounter a few stumbles along the way.

Complaints Against the CR Rating System

In the United States alone, consumers have spent more than $500 million dollars a year on the purchase of air purifiers, hoping they will provide some form of relief from allergy and asthma symptoms. Although there is little medical evidence that confirms a room air cleaner can do this alone, an air purifier is still a much sought after product. As a result, Consumer Reports continues to test these appliances and publish its findings every three years and remains a primary source for objective results.

Through the many accusations and lawsuits, followed by the triumphs of credible explanations and test protocol revisions, Consumer Reports has continued to position itself as a trusted and reliable organization that looks out for the fairness and safety of the public. 

Consumer Reports' Historical Air Purifier Ratings

Listed below are the highlights from Consumer Reports air purifier ratings that are published every 3 years.  We included recommended models, the most recent do not buy warnings, and links to the full results for older ratings.  For the most complete and up to date information, you can purchase an online subscription to Consumer Reports for $26 a year and gain access to the full ratings of 20 select room air purifiers and 2 whole house systems.

September 2010 Summarized Results

CR Recommended Portable Air Purifiers

Models With a "Don't Buy" Warning

Other Models Rated In This Issue

December 2007 Summarized Results

CR Recommended Portable Air Purifiers

Consumer Reports Complete December 2007 Air Purifier Ratings (PDF)

October 2005 Summarized Results

CR Recommended Portable Air Purifiers

Consumer Reports Complete October 2005 Air Purifier Ratings (PDF)

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