Chances are you are reading this article on your mobile device. Take a second to focus on your screen. Tilt it this way and that. See those oily fingerprints? And how long has that crusty speck in the corner been there? Now, if you are feeling brave, let your eyes wander to the edge near the case where a colony of white dust and lint of unknown origin has taken up residence. Pretty gross, right?
Studies have found that our phones and other smart devices are covered in germs and greasy grime, and without daily cleaning, they can become as dirty as the bottom of our shoes. With the novel coronavirus pandemic spreading quickly, hypersensitivity about contaminated surfaces is a hot topic. As a result, people have religiously started washing their hands, using hand sanitizer and wearing masks. But the germ factories that are our mobile devices have been widely overlooked.
Our new right hand
We take our devices everywhere. We tote them along to public restrooms or hand them to sticky toddlers. We also think nothing about setting them down on sweaty gym equipment, checking Instagram on the bus or passing them around to show off our Thailand vacation pictures. These habits are a germ’s best friend and our immune system’s worst nightmare. To stay healthy, it’s crucial to keep our devices as clean as possible. To start, bad habits have got to go. Restricting our use in places known to be microbial hot spots is a good first step. Leave your phone in a locker while working out at the gym. Limit your use on buses or any public transport. And most importantly, do not use them in toilets, especially public toilets, where they can be contaminated with anything found in such places – including fecal matter.
According to a recent German study conducted in January on COVID-19, viruses, including the novel coronavirus, can remain infectious on surfaces such as glass, metal and plastic for up to nine days.
The good news is that rubbing alcohol with a concentration of 70% of ethanol or more is as effective as bleach in combatting viruses and has been recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a practical disinfectant. Research has found that both solvents can take care of even the most stubborn viruses and bacteria in less than a minute.
The bad news is that most companies discourage or prohibit the use of chemicals, including alcohol and bleach, to clean the surfaces of our smart devices. In its user manuals, Apple strictly forbids the use of "window cleaners, household cleaners, aerosol sprays, solvents, alcohol, ammonia or abrasives,” but offers little advice for alternatives. Even more unhelpful, Blackberry and Google Inc. both offer little to no official guidance for cleaning with solutions. Other major companies turn up the same lack of definite guidelines.
Don’t panic. It’s never too late to get in the habit of cleaning your mobile devices, and there are effective and safe ways to do so. First, it’s important to wipe down screens with a microfiber cloth daily. Studies have shown that getting in the habit of doing this helps eliminate almost all the bacterial presence on your screen. Microfiber cloths are safe to use on all devices and are recommended by every manufacturer across the board.
For those doubting the power of a simple soft cloth, an interesting study published by the American Journal of Infection may also help ease your mind. Following the widespread use of tablets in hospitals for managing patient information, the study sought an effective method for disinfecting devices to prevent the spread of pathogens between staff and patients. After comparing the cleaning results between chemicals like bleach and alcohol and the use of slightly moistened microfiber cloths, they found that: “The significant effectiveness of moistened cloth compared with the alcohol wipes suggests that, possibly, direct contact with friction alone is sufficient to remove a majority of spores.” The study also stressed the positive impact of hygiene, especially hand washing, had on maintaining clean devices. So, even if you are firmly against the use of chemicals, regular use of microfiber clothes along with diligent hand washing is almost as effective as solvents in keeping your device’s screen clean.
Using earbuds with microphones to answer calls keeps your phone away from your face and lessens the chance of any hitchhikers getting into your system between cleanings.
However, for those who want the 99.9%-clean guarantee, installing a glass or plastic screen protector may be the way to go. Screen protectors act as a barrier between your device and solvents. A microfiber cloth dampened with alcohol or a damp disinfectant wipe can be used on the area covered by the protector without direct contact with the device and since the protectors cover almost all the screen’s surface, you will be able to safely eliminate almost every pathogen on the screen without damaging the device.
It’s important to note that whatever method you choose, always be careful while cleaning electronics. Water or moisture that finds its way into openings, like the charge port, mute switch, speakers or microphone, could cause irreversible damage to your device.
Don’t forget the case
The screen is not the only part that needs regular cleaning. Any accessories, like cases and headphones, also need to be disinfected on a regular basis. Generally, wiping accessories down with a microfiber cloth dampened with rubbing alcohol will do the trick. Basic plastic or latex cases can even be washed with warm water and soap – just be sure all accessories are completely dry before putting them back on or plugging them into your device.
According to a survey conducted by the research platform Dscout, we touch our phones on average 2,617 times day – though the top 10% of users averaged 5,400. In other words, no matter how germophobic we become, chances are we won’t forgo our favorite technology. Coupled with hand washing and screen cleanings, using a hand sanitizer with an ethanol content of at least 60% and being mindful about where you use your device are great ways to keep germs at bay.