The Best Pulse Oximeter for Home Use (2024)

The research

  • Who this is for
  • Why you should trust us
  • How we picked
  • How we tested
  • Our pick: Innovo Deluxe iP900AP Fingertip Pulse Oximeter
  • Runner-up: Walgreens Fingertip Pulse Oximeter
  • Other good pulse oximeters
  • How and when to use a pulse oximeter
  • The competition
  • Sources

Who this is for

A fingertip pulse oximeter shines light through the fingertip to estimate the percentage of oxygen in your blood. It can be an easy, relatively inexpensive, and noninvasive way to monitor your health, particularly if you have tested positive for COVID-19, have pneumonia, have a chronic lung disease, or have been diagnosed with another condition that requires monitoring your blood oxygen levels and pulse rates at home.

In just a few seconds, a fingertip pulse oximeter can approximate your blood oxygen level. A healthy person typically has an oxygen saturation, or SpO2, of 95% or higher.

Medical professionals generally advise sick patients to reach out for medical care if their oxygen level drops below 95%, especially if they have other symptoms such as shortness of breath. An SpO2 of 92% or lower indicates that a patient may have hypoxia—a condition in which not enough oxygen reaches the body’s tissues—which could be life-threatening. (Note, though, that a healthy person can also have low blood oxygen levels if they travel somewhere with high altitudes, said Dr. Luke Davis, a pulmonary and critical care specialist with Yale Medicine.)

Used under the guidance of a medical professional, a pulse oximeter can help you track your health over time, arm you with data, and help you make decisions regarding your care. It can reassure you as you’re recuperating at home and warn you if you need to see a doctor. At the same time, the FDA, which reviews manufacturer-submitted data for medical devices including pulse oximeters, has cautioned that at-home pulse oximeters have limitations and can be inaccurate. You should still pay attention to “all signs and symptoms” and communicate them to a medical professional, the FDA said in a statement.

Why you should trust us

To learn more about monitoring oxygen saturation and pulse at home, we interviewed four doctors who regularly use pulse oximeters in the care of their patients: Dr. Philip Bickler, chief of ​​neuroanesthesia at the University of California San Francisco and the director of the Hypoxia Lab, an independent, university-based facility that tests pulse oximeters and other medical devices; Dr. Jason Adams, a pulmonary and critical care medicine physician at UC Davis Health; Dr. Luke Davis, a pulmonary and critical care specialist with Yale Medicine; and Dr. Tom Valley, a pulmonary and critical care physician and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan.

I’m a regular contributor to Wirecutter, where I cover everything from kids smartwatches to COVID-19 rapid antigen tests. While I was evaluating the pulse oximeters we tested for this guide, I contracted COVID-19. Though of course I’d rather not have had COVID-19, my illness presented the opportunity to use a variety of pulse oximeters while sick. (Indeed, the physician’s assistant I saw advised me to use one to track my blood oxygen level and to reach out if it dropped.)

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How we picked

The Best Pulse Oximeter for Home Use (1)

An increasing number of devices now promise to tell you if a healthy amount of oxygen is in your blood, from a phone that can act as a pulse oximeter to a ring that tracks blood oxygen levels during sleep.

For this guide, we focused only on fingertip pulse oximeters for adults. Their main purpose is to measure blood oxygen levels. While we did test one pulse oximeter that connects to a smartphone app, we did not test pulse oximeters designed to collect data overnight and monitor sleep apnea. We also did not test smartphones, smartwatches, or other wearables that can indirectly calculate blood oxygen levels. (We do, however, have separate reviews of the Oura Ring and Apple Watch, which tout SpO2 and pulse rate monitoring.) Though connected devices like these may be handy in a pinch, their reliability in pulse oximetry is not fully substantiated. Generally, these devices “are not quite ready for prime time,” said Dr. Jason Adams, a pulmonary and critical care medicine physician at UC Davis Health.

Medical-grade pulse oximeters have been used in hospital settings for decades as a way to noninvasively monitor patients’ blood oxygen levels. Oxygen saturation is sometimes referred to as a fifth vital sign (in addition to temperature, pulse rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate). Hospital-grade pulse oximeters have undergone independent lab tests and are cleared for medical use by the FDA. These devices generally cost hundreds of dollars. Most pulse oximeters sold to the general public, however, are considered useful only for recreational purposes (you may find references to sports or aviation on their packaging) and are not considered medical devices. Although recreational pulse oximeters likely use similar technology, these devices technically do not need to be reviewed by the FDA before they are sold to individuals. Some device makers elect to apply for FDA marketing clearance. We focused on readily available, non-hospital-grade devices for this guide.

To come up with our list of devices to test, we combed through reviews and other guides to pulse oximeters. We also narrowed our selection by filtering for devices that have received 510(k) clearance from the FDA, which means that the manufacturers have shown that these devices are safe and effective, and that they perform “substantially” as well as a similar device (in this case, another pulse oximeter that has already undergone FDA review). That means that these pulse oximeters have been vetted to some degree, though they have not received official FDA approval.

We also cross-checked contenders against Open Oximetry, a database of pulse oximeters created by members of the Hypoxia Lab at the University of California San Francisco. This database features a growing list of pulse oximeters that are sold to the public and have been independently tested for accuracy. We eliminated devices with a poor performance record. If we didn’t find a device in the database, that in itself was not a dealbreaker—the database includes many but not all pulse oximeters available for sale.

We found that a massive number of devices, variations, and distributors are in the pulse oximeter market—along with plenty of obfuscation of information. “Some of these devices claim they are FDA cleared, and when you look into it, the FDA was never involved. There is a lot of misinformation,” said Hypoxia Lab director Dr. Philip Bickler, chief of ​​neuroanesthesia at UCSF.

We ended up testing eight devices that had either received FDA 510(k) clearance or, as shown in Open Oximetry, been independently vetted in a lab. Some are both 510(k) cleared and independently vetted.

What about pulse oximeters for kids?

Some companies market fingertip pulse oximeters for use with children (many with cute animal faces, of course). In most instances, it is fine to use a fingertip pulse oximeter marketed for adult use on a child 2 or older, as long as their finger fits snugly inside the device. (Oximeters used in medical settings for children under 2 are typically outfitted with sensors meant to be wrapped around a toe, a finger, or elsewhere on the body.) We did not consider any so-called pediatric fingertip pulse oximeters for this guide.

Consult a medical professional with questions about using a pulse oximeter with children.

How we tested

I tested eight pulse oximeters on myself and half a dozen other people, including a 2-year-old, a 6-year-old, a 75-year-old, and a 78-year-old, as well as people with both darker and lighter skin pigmentation. I personally tested the pulse oximeters in various scenarios: in direct sunlight, with nail polish on, after holding a handful of ice, mid-flight on an airplane, and during a week I spent sick with and recovering from COVID-19.

At minimum, a pulse oximeter should have a display that includes not just SpO2 but also heart rate, which is usually labeled as PR (pulse rate), bpm (beats per minute), or simply a heart symbol. It should also include something that shows the strength of the signal, such as a pulsating wavelength or bar, said Bickler.

The gold standard for verifying the accuracy of a pulse oximeter is comparing the device’s readings with those of a blood test, called an arterial blood gas test, which directly quantifies the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood, said Bickler. For our nonscientific purposes, we compared readings from the devices we tested with those from the Nonin Onyx Vantage 9590, a $250 fingertip pulse oximeter with medical-grade technology that’s widely cited as highly accurate. This provided us with a rough baseline to check the accuracy of the devices we tested. All the devices we tested produced results that either matched or came within 1 to 2 percentage points of the Nonin fingertip pulse oximeter. We also tested the Nonin model, along with our two eventual picks, at a doctor’s office; our results, for both SpO2 and pulse rate, were the same as the results on the medical-grade device at the doctor’s office.

We also evaluated 510(k)-cleared and lab-tested pulse oximeters based on four additional factors:

Display: We looked for displays that were clear and simple to read and understand. We preferred displays that used contrasting colors and large lettering and numbering, making the labels, symbols, and results easy to see and interpret. We also considered whether the results could be accidentally misread.

Comfort: We considered how comfortable the pulse oximeters felt to wear on the finger, including for a prolonged period of time. We kept them on for about 20 minutes at a time to gauge comfort.

Cost: We looked for reasonably priced pulse oximeters in the $10 to $60 range.

Availability: Demand for pulse oximeters has waned since the start of the pandemic (when most devices were completely sold out), but they may still be hard to find in some stores or even online.

All of the devices we tested require minimal setup, apart from inserting AAA batteries (or, in the case of one device, charging via USB).

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Our pick: Innovo Deluxe iP900AP Fingertip Pulse Oximeter

The Best Pulse Oximeter for Home Use (2)

Our pick

Innovo Deluxe iP900AP Fingertip Pulse Oximeter

Reliable, easy to use, and comfortable

This FDA-cleared, independently vetted pulse oximeter is easy to use and especially comfortable on the finger.

Buying Options

$35 from Amazon

Of the eight pulse oximeters we tested, the Innovo Deluxe iP900AP Fingertip Pulse Oximeter is our overall favorite. It was reliable in our testing, and it’s exceptionally easy to read and comfortable to use, with one of the widest finger beds of any device we considered. It received 510(k) clearance from the FDA through Beijing Choice Electronic Technology Company (as confirmed by an Innovo representative). Clinimark, a research and clinical laboratory for medical devices, tested and vetted the device, according to Open Oximetry.

The Innovo pulse oximeter turns on with the press of a button. Sharp, contrasting colors make the display easy to read: The large numbers light up in bright blue while the labels for SpO2and pulse rate light up in bright orange. When you take your finger out of the device or if your finger slips out, it reads “finger out” before turning off automatically. A small battery symbol indicates battery level.

Pressing the power button changes the display’s orientation. It has six options, including both horizontal and vertical and facing you or facing away from you. It also offers either a blue pulsating bar or a blue waveform to show the signal strength.

Our testers said that the Innovo model felt the most comfortable on the finger, as it didn’t pinch as much as the other pulse oximeters in our test group. It also has a finger bed that is about 2.4 centimeters wide—among the widest of those on the devices we tested.

The Innovo pulse oximeter runs on two AAA batteries (included). Once the batteries are in, no setup is required. It is under warranty for one year.

Flaws but not dealbreakers

In addition to SpO2 and pulse rate, the Innovo model’s display shows your perfusion index. The perfusion index, which lets you know the strength of the blood flow in your finger, ranges from less than 1% to 20%. This data point, however, is so tiny on the display that it is hard to read.

The Innovo pulse oximeter also claims that an auditory alarm will sound if your SpO2 and pulse rate fall below set limits, but we found the set limits unclear and confusing to set up. When I tested it on an airplane, my SpO2 fell briefly to 88%. While the numbers flashed in warning, I did not (or could not) hear an alarm.

Runner-up: Walgreens Fingertip Pulse Oximeter

The Best Pulse Oximeter for Home Use (4)

Runner-up

Walgreens Fingertip Pulse Oximeter

Reliable, easy to use, slightly less comfortable

This widely available, easy-to-use pulse oximeter is not FDA cleared but has been independently tested for accuracy.

Buying Options

$45 from Walgreens

The Walgreens Fingertip Pulse Oximeter is another reliable device that has an easy-to-read display, is relatively comfortable to use (though not as comfortable as our top pick), and is widely available in stores and online. It’s the one we’d grab if the Innovo Deluxe iP900AP were unavailable.

Although it is distributed through Walgreens, and the Walgreens logo is on the device, this pulse oximeter is by ChoiceMMed and manufactured by Beijing Choice Electronic Technology Company. Specifically, it is ChoiceMMed’s OxyWatch C20 model. A Walgreens representative confirmed that this store-brand model does not have 510(k) clearance; it is listed for recreational use only. It was, however, independently tested at the Hypoxia Lab at UCSF, and its results were compared against blood tests. Part of a study of six low-cost pulse oximeters that was published in the journal Anesthesia & Analgesia, the C20 model was one of two devices with results that were closest to the control readings. It is also listed in the Open Oximetry database. (Note that another ChoiceMMed pulse oximeter, the MD300C23, did not pass muster in the same study.)

A small button turns the Walgreens Fingertip Pulse Oximeter on, and within seconds, the display lights up with your SpO2 and your pulse rate. The contrasting colors on the device are more muted and less bright than those on the Innovo model, though they are still clear and easy to read: The numbers are a light blue and the labels are orange. Like the Innovo pulse oximeter, it also has a battery symbol to show the battery level, and when you remove your finger, it reads “finger out” before turning off automatically.

If you press the power button, the display changes direction. Like the Innovo device, the Walgreens pulse oximeter offers multiple display options, including both vertical and horizontal, and either a pulsating bar or an undulating wavelength to indicate signal strength, which either flatlines or loses the even waveform when the finger is not positioned quite right in the device.

Our testers found that the Walgreens pulse oximeter clamped onto the finger a bit tighter than the Innovo model, but it still felt sufficiently comfortable.

The Walgreens pulse oximeter runs on two AAA batteries (included). The device is ready to use as soon as the batteries are in. Walgreens does not offer a warranty for the device.

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Other good pulse oximeters

The Best Pulse Oximeter for Home Use (6)

If you’re looking for an ultrareliable pulse oximeter with medical-grade technology: The Nonin Onyx Vantage 9590 is a great, though expensive, option. At close to $250, it costs much more than most mass-market pulse oximeters. (Masimo, another company that makes medical-grade pulse oximeters for hospitals, sells the MightySat for about $300. We did not test it.) For that price, you’re paying for a clinically tested device (the Onyx Vantage 9590’s accuracy was touted in a peer-reviewed study) with the same technology Nonin uses in its hospital-grade pulse oximeters. Nonin Medical makes this model in addition to pulse oximeters for hospitals, clinics, the US Army, and the US Air Force. The Onyx Vantage 9590 received FDA 510(k) clearance (PDF).

The Nonin pulse oximeter—the only model we considered that comes with a four-year warranty—feels the sturdiest of all the pulse oximeters we tested, like it could withstand years of frequent use. The device automatically turns on when a finger is inserted; a flashing light blinks red, orange, or green to indicate the strength of the signal. The vertical display is average. The numbers light up in red while the labels for SpO2 (on top) and heart rate (a heart symbol, on the bottom) are in small, white lettering. The display faces outward (for someone else to read), so if you are assessing yourself, you must bend your finger or turn it to face you.

If the Innovo and Walgreens models are unavailable: Consider the iHealth Fingertip Pulse Oximeter. Though sold through iHealth, this pulse oximeter is made by Contec (model CMS50DA) and received 510(k) clearance. The display is easy to read, with the results in a large, bright blue font and the identification for SpO2 and pulse rate in yellow, and the device turns on with the press of a button. For about the same price, however, the Innovo Deluxe iP900AP Fingertip Pulse Oximeter offers more features, such as a display that can change direction and a more comfortable fit on the finger.

How and when to use a pulse oximeter

Fingertip pulse oximeters gauge blood oxygen levels by clipping onto your finger, shining a light through the skin, and calculating the saturation of oxygen in your red blood cells.

To use one, insert your middle finger or fourth finger; your index finger (video) is also fine. A pulsating bar, wavelength, or light indicates whether the pulse oximeter has a strong signal. Within seconds, it should tell you your SpO2 and your pulse rate.

A healthy person has a resting pulse rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute and an SpO2 of 95% to 99%. Because a pulse oximeter provides an estimate of your blood oxygen level, your SpO2 could actually be slightly higher or lower. It’s therefore important to watch for trends: If your SpO2 starts to drop, it’s a sign that you should reach out to a medical professional, especially if it coincides with other factors such as shortness of breath, chest pain, or a rapid pulse rate. Patients with low blood oxygen levels may need oxygen therapy.

Keep in mind that several factors can get in the way of an accurate reading, such as dark nail polish, direct light (PDF), your skin tone, and thick skin (callused or especially thick skin can make it harder for the light to pass through). A pulse oximeter may also give you a low reading if your hands are cold.

You can check if your pulse oximeter is reliable by taking it to a doctor’s office and comparing the results (as we did). You can also manually check your pulse rate and see if it matches the pulse rate on the device. If you’re already ill, you can have someone healthy test the pulse oximeter and compare the results. (More than 80 customers who bought a top-selling pulse oximeter on Amazon, the Zacurate 500DL Pro Series, have complained in reviews that their devices inaccurately gave them low results; you’ll know a pulse oximeter is inaccurate if a healthy person also receives a low result. The FDA encourages you to file a report if you’ve experienced a problem or injury that may have been related to your pulse oximeter.)

Another good rule of thumb is to test your blood oxygen level while you’re healthy to get a sense of your baseline. Doing so gives you an idea of the patterns in your blood oxygen level, as it can fluctuate throughout the day.

Data from a pulse oximeter can help detect changes in your health. During the early days of the pandemic, for instance, some COVID-19 patients were much sicker than they felt. Their blood oxygen levels turned out to be lower than normal, which was a sign that they needed more intensive medical care. Even now, many medical professionals advise COVID-19 patients to track their blood oxygen levels as they’re recovering at home.

At the same time, a pulse oximeter should not be the sole means for assessing your well-being. Pay attention to other signs, such as any difficulty in breathing, said Dr. Luke Davis, a pulmonary and critical care specialist with Yale Medicine. The American Lung Association cautions that not all pulse oximeters are created equal and that the pandemic has spurred “an upcropping of opportunistic manufacturers selling pulse oximeters as a medicine cabinet staple.”

Last year, the FDA also published a notice that pulse oximeters, while valuable tools, have limitations. This is especially the case for Black people and people with darker skin tones.

Research has found that hospital-grade pulse oximeters showed inaccurate results for some Black patients, which was especially problematic during the pandemic, when overwhelmed hospitals had to send patients home to recuperate from COVID-19. In a University of Michigan study published in 2020, pulse oximeters were three times more likely to overestimate the blood oxygen level of Black patients, which made it more difficult to detect hypoxemia and meant that they were less likely to receive the care they needed.

The theory is that darker pigmentation of the skin can interfere with a pulse oximeter’s light, though more research needs to be done: The University of Michigan study compared data from only white and Black patients, not patients of other races and ethnicities. The FDA has said that it plans to convene in November 2022 to discuss how race affects pulse oximeter reliability.

For now, folks with darker skin tones should be more skeptical of your results from a pulse oximeter, said Dr. Tom Valley, co-author of the study, a pulmonary and critical care physician, and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan. People with darker skin should consider using a higher SpO2 threshold for seeking medical care and should not necessarily be reassured by a normal reading, especially if you feel poorly.

“Pulse oximeters are still a valuable tool. I still use them every day,” Valley said. But “we need to acknowledge that these devices are imperfect, and they may be more imperfect for certain people than other people.”

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The competition

Like our picks, the ChoiceMMed Black OLED Pulse Oximeter is also made byBeijing Choice Electronic Technology Company; this particular model is the MD300C2F, which is not 510(k) cleared. Compared with our picks, another model in the same product series performed poorly in independent testing. The numbers light up in the same bright blue as on the Innovo model, and the labels for SpO2 and pulse rate are the same bright orange; even the bright blue pulsating bar showing the signal strength is the same. Compared with the Innovo pulse oximeter, however, this model lacks an indicator for battery level and perfusion index. Though the display also changes direction when you press the power button, it offers only four options, all with a pulsating bar (it doesn’t offer a waveform).

The Contec CMS50DL Pulse Oximeter was the least expensive model we tested. We found it reliable, if basic, but potentially confusing to read compared with our picks. It was one of six low-cost pulse oximeters tested in a lab, with the results published in a peer-reviewed journal; of the six pulse oximeters, this Contec model was one of two that produced results in line with a blood test (that is, with less than a 3% margin). It also received 510(k) clearance.

A small, white button turns on a vertical display. The results light up in red, with the pulse rate on the top, SpO2 on the bottom, and a pulsating bar on the side indicating the signal strength. Although the numbers themselves are large and easy to read, it’s hard to tell which one is which—the labels for the pulse rate and SpO2 are in minuscule, white lettering that’s hard to see (and it doesn’t help that the two results are the same size). If you are taking your own reading, you must also bend your finger or turn the device to face you so that it’s right-side up. One of our testers accidentally read the results upside down, thinking at first that their blood oxygen level was 86 instead of 98.

Finally, while the other battery-operated pulse oximeters we tested come with a set of AAA batteries, this Contec model does not.

If you want a smart pulse oximeter, the iHealth Air Pulse Oximeter can link to iHealth’s smartphone app, to which it transmits readings via Bluetooth. (The iHealth MyVitals app, available for iOS and Android, connects to several iHealth devices, including the pulse oximeter, a wireless scale, and a blood pressure monitor. Although we’ve toyed with the app, we haven’t thoroughly tested it.)

The iHealth Air Pulse Oximeter was the sleekest and most sophisticated-looking pulse oximeter we tested; it’s a monochrome white when off. The horizontal screen turns on when you press a button, displaying your SpO2 on the left, your pulse rate on the right, and a pulsating up-and-down bar in the middle to indicate the signal strength. All words, numbers, and symbols light up in green. Depending on the amount of lighting in the room, we found that the display could be hard to read.

The iHealth device received 510(k) clearance and has been used in academic studies to monitor patients’ SpO2 at home. However, it is not as easy to use as our picks. It only charges via USB and comes only with a USB charging cord. The manual also instructs you to place your finger in the pulse oximeter nail-side down, which is counter to other finger pulse oximeters we tested. (We found that it worked both ways.) At roughly $60, it was also the most expensive pulse oximeter we tested (besides the medical-grade Nonin pulse oximeter).

We tested the Zacurate 500DL Pro Series Fingertip Pulse Oximeter because it is one of the most popular pulse oximeters on Amazon (to date, this model has more than 200,000 ratings). A lab test found that the Zacurate model’s results were accurate within a 1% to 2% margin, according to Open Oximetry. Einstein Associates, the manufacturer, is registered with the FDA, but when we requested confirmation from a representative about 510(k) clearance, we did not receive a response.

Like the Contec pulse oximeter, the Zacurate model is a relatively inexpensive and basic pulse oximeter, with a vertical screen that lights up with the press of a button. All words, numbers, and symbols light up in red, with the SpO2 on top in a slightly larger font, the pulse rate on the bottom, and a pulsating bar on the side to indicate signal strength. If you are taking your own reading, the vertical display faces you, so you need only hold up your hand to see the result. We found that it often showed a slightly low blood oxygen level for several seconds before climbing to the actual result.

This article was edited by Tracy Vence and Kalee Thompson.

Sources

  1. Philip Bickler, MD, PhD, chief of ​​neuroanesthesia and director of the Hypoxia Lab at the University of California San Francisco, phone interview, March 31, 2022

  2. Jason Adams, MD, pulmonary and critical care medicine physician at UC Davis Health, phone interview, April 12, 2022

  3. Luke Davis, MD, pulmonary and critical care specialist with Yale Medicine, email interview, May 5, 2022

  4. Tom Valley, MD, pulmonary and critical care physician and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Michigan, phone interview, June 3, 2022

  5. Michael S. Lipnick, MD, John R. Feiner, MD, Paul Au, et al., The Accuracy of 6 Inexpensive Pulse Oximeters Not Cleared by the Food and Drug Administration: The Possible Global Public Health Implications, Anesthesia & Analgesia, August 1, 2016

  6. Michael W. Sjoding, MD, Robert P. Dickson, MD, Theodore J. Iwashyna, MD, PhD, et al., Racial Bias in Pulse Oximetry Measurement, The New England Journal of Medicine, December 17, 2020

The Best Pulse Oximeter for Home Use (2024)

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