A pulse oximeter is a medical device that measures the oxygen level of a person’s blood as well as their pulse. It is most commonly placed over the end of the finger and uses light to determine blood oxygen levels.
The device is completely non-invasive and is considered generally accurate by health professionals. People with asthma or emphysema, athletes, and those diagnosed with the coronavirus can all benefit from a pulse oximeter.
There are scores of pulse oximeters on the market, but not all are created equal. After a comprehensive vetting process, we determined that the following are the best pulse oximeters of 2021.
1. CKeep Pulse Oxygen Monitor
CKeep makes several different pulse oximeters, and this is our favorite of theirs. It’s a reliable piece of tech to have in the family health kit or to have in the gym bag or the backpack for the athletically inclined.
What we like: We appreciate the outstanding build quality of this oximeter. We like the comfortable manner in which it grasps your finger and that it’s not too heavy. It typically works fast and has a modest margin of error.
Flaws: Can’t really clip it to your belt when hiking or walking.
2. Choicemed Finger Pulse Oximeter
The Choicemed Finger Pulse Oximeter is one of the smaller, lighter, and more comfortable of the units we tested. Yet despite its lack of heft, it doesn’t feel cheap or insubstantial. You’ll get fast, reliable results in about 10 seconds in most cases.
What we like: The device is ready to go right out of the box. We appreciate that it doesn’t burn through batteries and that it weighs a modest 3 ounces. Hikers will also enjoy being able to sling it via the included lanyard.
Flaws: The readout is oriented toward the person using it. So, it’s not for medical professionals.
3. Mibest OLED Finger Pulse Oximeter
The Mibest OLED Finger Pulse Oximeter has a sleek contemporary look and one of the best displays you’ll find. The margin of error is typically less than 1%, and the device tips the scales at a very svelte 3 ounces.
What we like: We appreciate the clarity of the display on this pulse oximeter. The device is also easy to set firmly on the finger and has a low margin for error. We also like that it comes with batteries and a nifty carrying case.
Flaws: Has a pretty insubstantial feel to it. And it’s not so great if you have thick fingers.
4. Metene Pulse Oximeter
The Metene Pulse Oximeter is very popular. And when you see it in action, you’ll know why. It’s fast and accurate and displays the information in a very easy to read format. The Metene Pulse Oximeter is an excellent choice for mountaineers or anyone with respiratory issues.
What we like: This is a handsome, affordable device that is highly accurate and has a nice clear display. There’s a detachable lanyard for carrying it on your hike or even to work. And the silicone body feels comfortable against the skin.
Flaws: It’s pretty small, so those with less than perfect eyesight may have difficulty reading the display.
5. SantaMedical Generation 2 Pulse Oximeter
While the display on this pulse oximeter is a bit cluttered, the device itself is simple, fast, and reliable. It’s one of a growing number of oximeters that will record blood oxygen levels for you while you sleep. Great for those with sleep apnea.
What we like: The device provides SpO2 levels, pulse, Perfusion Index, which roughly translates to the strength of the pulse, and the pulse waveform. You get more than 30 hours of continuous operation on one set of batteries.
Flaws: The readout is a nice size, but sometimes half the readout can be in portrait mode and the other half in landscape mode.
6. Asobilor Fingertip Pulse Oximeter
The display on the Asobilor Fingertip Pulse Oximeter can be reformatted half a dozen different ways. The device is also very reliable and fast, although it is a bit larger than most other entries on our list.
What we like: We appreciate that the device does an equally good job on adults and kids. What the readout is modest in size but very clear. We love that the display rotates to suit the situation.
Flaws: Some of the info on the display screen is too small. Also, it sometimes gives slightly different readings depending on the finger you use.
7. Facelake FL400 Pulse Oximeter
The Facelake FL400 is a simple device with a simple design that typically produces accurate results in about 10 seconds. It’s surprisingly durable, and, unlike a lot of other pulse oximeters, it comes with a full one year warranty.
What we like: We like how easy the device is to use, the uncluttered display, and the affordable price. We also appreciate that hikers can sling this device using the lanyard loop. And the nylon carrying case is well made.
Flaws: Has a cutesy air that isn’t going to appeal to everyone. It also feels a bit fragile.
8. Zacurate Pro Series 500DL
Zacurate has the outdoor users in mind. The robust build quality is evidence of that. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use it in your home. It has a low margin of error of typically around 1%. And while not waterproof, it is moderately water-resistant.
What we like: The Zacurate 500DL is light, accurate and has a large easy to read display. We like how light it is and that the lanyard loop enables you to take it anywhere. It’s also one of the best at carving out readings for those with low blood pressure.
Flaws: Battery life isn’t exactly robust. It can sometimes be slow in displaying the result.
9. Atmoko Pulse Oximeter Fingertip
Atmoko specializes in personal care and grooming products. But they also just happen to make one of the best pulse oximeters on the market. Compact and comfortable, it’s a perfect choice for home or gym.
What we like: This is a take-anywhere pulse oximeter with a low margin of error. We like the portability and comfort. We like the rapid results, and we like the affordable price point. And we like that you can adjust the screen brightness.
Flaws: Installing the battery can be a clumsy process. Doesn’t always like it when you switch fingers.
10. AccuMed CMS-50DL Fingertip Pulse Oximeter
The last of our pulse oximeters comes from AccuMed. Their CMS-50DL has an unremarkable appearance but is nonetheless accurate, quick, and reliable. An excellent choice for traveling, hiking, camping, or vigorous walks in the park.
What we like: We appreciate that it’s accurate and doesn’t make you wait all day for results. That the screen is easy to read and that it comes with batteries and a durable lanyard. We also like that it turns itself off to save battery power.
Flaws: The readout isn’t meant to be read by the person using the meter as it displays away from them.
Who Needs a Pulse Oximeter?
Anyone suffering from asthma, emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, or any other respiratory condition should have a pulse oximeter. Also, anyone who has contracted the coronavirus will want to have a pulse oximeter on hand to monitor their condition. That’s because most fatalities related to covid-19 occur when the person develops Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome as a result of the virus.
Parents may also want to have a pulse oximeter to monitor the health of their children. When a child has a cold, this information can be as valuable as knowing their temperature. Because oxygen delivery to the muscles is vital to physical performance, athletes can also benefit from having a pulse oximeter. That way, they can monitor their blood oxygen levels.
How We Ranked
With a pulse oximeter, the most important thing is that it be as accurate as possible. However, short of having your doctor do a blood test to confirm your blood oxygen levels, there is not an ironclad way to verify the accuracy of the device. So it comes, at least to some degree, to common sense.
Therefore, if we tested a device on a person who was in robust health and the oximeter indicated an SpO2 level less than 90%, the device was likely having problems and did not make our list. Likewise, if the instrument returned different readings for the same person, it didn’t make our list. But, to be sure, troublesome devices were rare.
Beyond accuracy, we considered things like comfort and useability. Did the device pinch the finger to any degree? Was it too heavy? Was the readout large and bright? Was the display confusing? These devices also provide the user with their heart rate. Was that reading accurate?
We also gave extra points to devices that are easily synced with smartphone health apps, units that exhibited long battery life, and oximeters that were more reasonably priced. Build quality, durability, warranties and customer service were also part of the vetting process.
A pulse oximeter can help those with asthma and other respiratory conditions. Patients with respiratory conditions like asthma (1) need to know their blood oxygen levels to know if their treatment is effective. With a pulse oximeter, they can track their blood saturation levels and then share those numbers with their doctor. The doctor can then use that information to refine their treatment if necessary.
A pulse oximeter can help people with sleep apnea. Many folks who suffer from sleep apnea (2) use CPAP machines (3) to keep their airway open as they sleep. It’s the most effective treatment known for this troubling condition. If they have a pulse oximeter that allows them to record results (not all do), they can review those results with their doctor. This will help the doctor determine if the pressure needs adjusting on the CPAP machine.
A pulse oximeter may help improve physical performance. Vigorous exercise is the key to good health at every stage of life. But people don’t always make the most of their workouts. That’s because they aren’t always aware of their blood oxygen levels at any given time. And blood oxygen levels are the key to effective exercise (4). A pulse oximeter can help you keep track of oxygen in your blood an adjust your workouts accordingly.
A pulse oximeter can help those with the coronavirus. The device helps those who’ve tested positive for coronavirus (5) stay up to date on how efficiently their lungs are working. And that’s crucial because pulmonary function is a clear indication of whether their coronavirus is in danger of morphing into the much more dangerous ARDS or Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (6). ARDS has been responsible for most of the covid-19 related deaths.
A pulse oximeter is very easy to use. In fact, it’s one of the easiest medical devices known. Just turn the device on and squeeze the ends to open it up then close it over the tip of your finger. Some units work faster than others. But in any case, you should have your blood oxygen level and blood pressure in 10 or 15 seconds. It might take a little more if you move your hand about.
A pulse oximeter can help someone with cardiac problems. People are often advised to use supplemental oxygen at home (7) if they have lung disease, or they’ve had open heart surgery (8). If you’ve been sent home with the instructions to use supplemental oxygen, a pulse oximeter can be of immense help. It can tell you when oxygen levels in your blood are dropping, so you know it’s time to don the mask and use the supplemental oxygen.
A pulse oximeter is affordable. 50 years ago, when the oximeter as we might recognize it today first appeared, the device was several times the size of the average PC. It was so big it was rolled around the hospital on a cart. It also cost more than $20,000, which at the time was a substantial amount of money. Today, the pulse oximeter can be had for less than $50 and is so small and light you can carry it in your pocket.
A pulse oximeter can help protect mountain climbers from hypoxia. If you’ve ever seen a documentary about Mount Everest, you no doubt noticed that on the upper part of the mountain just about everyone is using supplemental oxygen. That’s to prevent hypoxia (9), commonly known as ‘altitude sickness.’ A pulse oximeter can help you avoid hypoxia by altering you that your blood oxygen levels are falling.
A pulse oximeter is extremely portable. In fact, today’s pulse oximeters are so small that they’ll slip easily into your pocket. If you’re traveling, they’ll take up almost no space in your purse or carry on. If you’re a casual hiker or mountain climber, you can sling it from your belt or put it in one of the pockets of your backpack. The point is the pulse oximeter will go wherever you go and never get in the way.
A pulse oximeter can help pilots avoid hypoxia. Pilot spend a large portion of their lives up in the thin air. It’s important that they stay alert at all times. In the air it is crucial that blood oxygen does not drop below the 90% threshold. A pulse oximeter can provide a pilot with valuable, real-time information regarding his or her blood oxygen level. This, in turn, increases safety for everyone on board the aircraft.
A pulse oximeter is non-invasive. That’s one of its most attractive qualities. So many procedures, therapies, and diagnostic tests today are invasive. We’re thinking anything that involves drawing blood (including diabetic test strips (10) that require the user prick their finger), arthroscopic and laparoscopic surgery (11), and more. It’s rare to find any type of test that is both important and non-invasive like the oximeter.
A pulse oximeter can alert people to the side effects of different medicine. Most people aren’t aware of it, but there is a laundry list of medications that have the potential to create respiratory problems (12). These include seizure medications, rheumatoid arthritis medications, chemotherapy drugs, and more. If you are taking a medicine that has the potential to cause breathing problems, you’d be smart to have a pulse oximeter on hand.
A pulse oximeter can provide peace of mind. Uncertainty is a major cause of stress. And stress is a well-known aggravator of numerous ailments (13). If you suffer from a respiratory illness, the last thing you need is stress to make things even worse. A pulse oximeter that enables you to keep tabs of your pulmonary condition can go a long way toward alleviating unnecessary levels of stress and improving your health and quality of life.
A pulse oximeter can help you determine if your inhaler is effective. The inhaler is one of the most commonly used medical devices. People with COPD (14), asthma, acute bronchitis (15), and more all use inhalers to obtain relief. But in many cases, they’re not getting what they need from their inhaler, and they don’t even know it. A pulse oximeter can provide evidence that their inhaler is or isn’t working.
A pulse oximeter can be useful during an emergency. The pulse oximeter is incredibly easy to use. You don’t need special training, and it doesn’t present a threat to the person being tested. For this reason, it’s an outstanding device to have on hand in case of an emergency. If someone is suffering from a respiratory event, virtually anyone in the family can get a read on their blood oxygen levels and relay that to EMTs.
A pulse oximeter doesn’t require an external power supply. No matter if you’re on the beach or in your yard or halfway up a mountain, you can obtain a quick and accurate measure of your blood oxygen level. And in most cases, your blood pressure and heart rate too. That’s because these devices are entirely battery-powered. So there’s never a need to search for an outlet.
A pulse oximeter can be used in conjunction with other health-related apps. While most pulse oximeters won’t sync directly with your smartphone, the information they provide can be entered into a variety of health-related apps to provide more comprehensive feedback. This enables the user to put the information that oximeter is giving them to better use. Since the food you eat can affect blood oxygen levels (16), this information can be used to adjust your diet in a way that produces better results.
Q: What is a pulse oximeter?
A: A pulse oximeter is a compact medical device designed to quickly and accurately determine and display the level of oxygen in a person’s blood; their SpO2 level. It is a non-invasive device that uses light to make its determinations. The pulse oximeter typically measures heart rate as well. And recent experiments show that it is useful in determining blood pressure too (17).
Q: How does a pulse oximeter work?
A: As we mentioned briefly, the pulse oximeter determines your blood oxygen levels by using light. That might seem a strange thing to say, but this method is actually very accurate. It is well-known that oxygenated and de-oxygenated blood affect light in different ways (18). As such, the oximeter emits light into the finger and measures the amount that passes through. That data is then fed through a complex algorithm that determines the SpO2.
Q: Are pulse oximeters safe to use?
A: The pulse oximeter is among the safest diagnostic devices in existence. Because it is completely non-invasive, there are no side effects to using it. And because it only emits broad-spectrum light into your finger, there is no chance of a person having a bad reaction to it. They’re also lightweight, so even elderly individuals with weaker fingers can use them. And they don’t pinch or damage the skin in any way.
Q: What is considered a normal blood oxygen reading?
A: Of course, a pulse oximeter isn’t much good if you don’t know what you’re looking at when the number comes up on the display screen. For an average, young otherwise healthy individual blood oxygen saturation, or SpO2, should be 97 – 100%. Older individuals will typically have a lower concentration level. But as a general rule, the SpO2 level should never be below 90% (19).
Q: Who should use a pulse oximeter?
A: Because it is used to test the efficiency of the lungs, a pulse oximeter will be useful for anyone with a respiratory condition. That includes people with asthma, COPD, lung cancer, pneumonia, and those with heart conditions. In addition, a pulse oximeter can be useful for anyone with the coronavirus or covid-19. That’s because it can alert them if their condition is morphing into the very dangerous Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS).
Q: Which finger is best to use with a pulse oximeter?
A: Although most people will attach the pulse oximeter to their index finger, the middle finger of the right hand actually provides a more accurate reading (20). The difference is not vast. In fact, the NIH considers it to be ‘clinically unimportant’ in most cases. That means it’s not a big enough discrepancy to make any difference in a person’s treatment. But if you’re a stickler for accuracy, use your middle finger on your right hand.
Q: Why are the readings sometimes erratic?
A: There are a number of possible reasons. Beginning with low-quality equipment. But other things like moving your hand while the device is attached can interfere with the ability of the device to obtain an accurate measurement. Keep in mind that if you are experiencing dizziness, shortness of breath, or general difficulty breathing you should seek medical attention immediately.
Q: Is a low reading cause for concern?
A: It depends on your age, overall physical condition, and just how low the reading is. Anything under 90 should send up a red flag, regardless of your age or condition. Also, if you feel fine, but the device is saying your SpO2 level is hovering near 90, you may want to turn the device off, let it sit for a few minutes, then power it back up and try again. If the 90-ish reading returns, you may want to call your doctor even if you feel alright.
Q: Do you need a prescription for a pulse oximeter?
A: Unlike a CPAP machine or other medical devices, you do not need a prescription to buy a pulse oximeter. As such, you can pick one up from countless brick and mortar or online retailers. Including Amazon. It’s in the same category of devices as wrist or chest heart rate monitors: non-invasive tech that provides simple information by using no-impact methods that have proven themselves effective.
Q: Are pulse oximeters good for athletes?
A: Yes. A pulse oximeter can be a useful tool for an athlete. Muscle performance is dependent on the delivery of oxygen (21). So it follows that if an athlete is better able to track the oxygen levels in their blood that they’d be better able to make adjustments that would result in better performance. Especially when it comes to endurance. An oximeter is a cost-effective way to improve athletic performance.
Q: Are all pulse oximeter FDA approved?
A: As long as the device is designated ‘not for medical use,’ the FDA does not approve or reject such a device. They do, however, provide copious guidelines regarding how they believe pulse oximeters should perform (22). These guidelines are not enforceable, but most manufacturers abide by them anyway.
Q: Should people with respiratory conditions use a pulse oximeter?
A: Those with emphysema (23), asthma, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, and more can all potentially benefit from a pulse oximeter. In many cases, people with such conditions who are able are advised to exercise. Exercise helps open up airways and improve the person’s overall physical state. Having an oximeter on hand can help these folks avoid respiratory trouble as they exercise.
Q: Can ambient light interfere with an oximeter?
A: Yes, ambient light can interfere with the oximeter. But not all ambient light. Only light contain from the red end of the spectrum. Devices that emit red light include heat lamps and certain red light anti-wrinkle therapy (24) devices. The solution is to either switch these devices off while using the pulse oximeter, leave the room where the red light is, or drape a bit of aluminum foil over the oximeter.
Q: Is it safe to use a pulse oximeter on a child?
A: Yes, it is safe to use a pulse oximeter on a child, no matter how young (25). In fact, it’s something all parents should consider. Colds, the flu, asthma, bronchiolitis (26), and more (27) are all common among the very young. A pulse oximeter can enable parents to monitor their child’s respiratory condition at all times. This is particularly important now as the coronavirus works its way through the population.
Q: How much does a pulse oximeter cost?
A: One of the many great things about the pulse oximeter is its affordability. Most of the best commercially available pulse oximeters cost less than $50 and will provide years of reliable service. Keep in mind that most private insurers cover the cost.
Q: Will Medicare pay for my pulse oximeter?
A: Medicare does not cover the cost of a pulse oximeter itself. However, if the oximeter indicates that your blood oxygen level is less than 88% (and you can get your doctor to confirm this), Medicare will cover 80% of the cost of any necessary oxygen equipment (28). If you are getting readings below 90% on your oximeter, you should always consult your doctor immediately.
Q: What do the alarms indicate on a pulse oximeter?
A: An alarm can mean any one of numerous things. The primary alarm alerts the user to the threat of hypoxia (low blood oxygen) and is often triggered by a reading of less than 90%. Another common alarm is for a low pulse rate. (After all, these are ‘pulse’ oximeters.) Additional alarms may indicate an abnormally high pulse rate or that the device is unable to detect any pulse rate.
Q: Can nail polish interfere with a pulse oximeter reading?
A: Yes, nail polish can interfere with a pulse oximeter in some instances. Researchers recently conducted a test of this hypothesis and concluded that black, blue, and green nail polish have a significant effect on the accuracy of pulse oximeter readings. Therefore, remove any black, blue, or green nail polish before using a pulse oximeter on a particular finger.
Q: What does ‘PRbpm’ mean on a oximeter display?
A: ‘PR’ stands for ‘pulse rate’ and ‘bpm’ stands for ‘beats per minute. Monitoring your heart rate is the 2nd major function of a pulse oximeter, so this information is always prominently displayed.
The pulse oximeter is a valuable tool in helping people with respiratory problems monitor their condition. It has also found an important role to play in the battle against the coronavirus, as it can alert virus sufferers if their condition is deteriorating.
But the value of the oximeter doesn’t stop there. Athletes can use it to fine-tune their training regimen. Parents can use it to monitor the health of their children, infants too. And of course, anyone interested in just maintaining a high degree of overall health will find the information it provides useful.
All of the pulse oximeters profiled above are well-made, reliable, easy to use devices. They’re also wholly non-invasive, highly portable, and affordable. Just remember: if you have any questions regarding this type of device or the readings you get from it, discuss the matter with your doctor.
For cpoe.org’s #1 recommended pulse oximeter, click here.