A young woman using a smartphone while holding cleaning products.
metamorworks/Shutterstock.com

You probably don’t clean your smartphone as much as you should. Whether you’re concerned about coronavirus or just common flu and cold germs, regularly disinfecting your smartphone will help lower your overall risk of getting ill. Here’s how to do it.

Should You Use Cleaning Products or Not?

Smartphone manufacturers from Samsung to Apple have instructions to help you safely clean your smartphone. These generally involve wiping it down with a damp lint-free cloth and avoiding harsh chemicals, abrasive cleaners, and pressurized air.

Harsh cleaning products can accelerate the rate of wear on the oleophobic (oil repelling) coating on your screen. This coating will gradually degrade as you use your device over several years. Using alcohol and household sprays may speed up the process. Using bleach and other harsh chemical cleaners will strip it away completely.

Apple recently updated its official cleaning advice. According to Apple, it’s now safe to clean your iPhone with disinfecting wipes. You still shouldn’t spray your device directly with a cleaning spray. Here’s what Apple says:

“Using a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, you may gently wipe the hard, nonporous surfaces of your Apple product, such as the display, keyboard, or other exterior surfaces. Don’t use bleach. Avoid getting moisture in any opening, and don’t submerge your Apple product in any cleaning agents. Don’t use on fabric or leather surfaces.”

The CDC recommends that everyone “clean all “high-touch” surfaces every day” to protect against the spread of COVID-19. These surfaces include smartphones, tablets, keyboards, and other frequently-used items of technology. We’ll be showing you how to do this safely, using the CDC’s recommendations of using “alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol” to kill microbes without damaging your device.

The other option is to use a smartphone sanitizer device that cleans using UV rays. However, these have not been tested for effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

RELATED: How to Safely Clean Your iPhone With Disinfecting Wipes

First, Clean Your Case

A smartphone case covered in water.
Vladimir Sukhachev/Shutterstock.com

You can effectively clean your smartphone case by taking your smartphone out of it and washing it in warm soapy water.

Since cases are relatively cheap and replaceable, you can also use 70% rubbing alcohol or a wide-spectrum cleaning spray to disinfect it thoroughly. If you’re going this route, try the following:

  • Using 70% rubbing alcohol: Dip a soft lint-free cloth into the alcohol and apply it to your smartphone case. Get into any nooks and crannies and wipe down the case in its entirety. Allow the alcohol to evaporate. It won’t leave smudge marks like water will.
  • Using an alcohol-based cleaning spray: Take a soft lint-free cloth and spray it with your cleaning spray of choice. Work the cleaning spray into any nooks and crannies, then wipe down the smooth surfaces. Allow the spray to evaporate.

With your case clean, you can now move on to cleaning your smartphone itself.

Disinfecting Your Smartphone

Most modern smartphones are water-resistant, but it’s not the best idea to hold them under a running tap. For example, all iPhones since the iPhone 7 have been “water-resistant,” but Apple still only recommends that you clean the iPhone with a damp cloth rather than submerging it completely. Water-resistance is there just in case. Many factors could jeopardize your device’s water-resistance, including damage from dropping it.

The CDC has recommendations for people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 and their household members to prevent the spread of the disease further. While most people reading this don’t fall under this category, the advice provides sound examples that should help stop the spread of disease, including:

 “For disinfection, diluted household bleach solutions, alcohol solutions with at least 70% alcohol, and most common EPA-registered household disinfectants should be effective.”

For your smartphone, you should use 70% rubbing alcohol or alcohol-based disinfectant spray to wipe down the back and sides of your device. Don’t use bleach. Take a soft lint-free cloth and dip it into alcohol or spray it well with cleaning spray, then wipe down your device and let it dry. You can also use a disinfecting wipe that comes presoaked in a cleaning solution—as Apple says, a “70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes.”

When it comes to your screen, Apple’s advice is to use a 70% rubbing alcohol solution to wipe down the screen while taking care to reach the corners. Buffing the display with a dry, lint-free cloth to remove excess cleaning solution may help minimize the adverse effects on the oleophobic coating.

Glass screen protectors also use an oleophobic coating. Since they can be replaced relatively cheaply and easily, you can probably be a little more carefree with your disinfectant.

Once you’ve cleaned your smartphone, wash your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds, as per the CDC recommendations.

Washing hands with soap under a water tap.
Alexander Raths/Shutterstock.com

RELATED: You're Probably Washing Your Hands Wrong (Here's What to Do)

Consider Buying a Sanitizer

Sanitizers that use ultraviolet (UV) rays to kill bacteria and viruses have been around for a while now. Place your phone inside the sanitizer, and UV rays will disinfect it in a matter of minutes. You should expect to pay $60 to $100 for a sanitizer that can kill 99% of bacteria in as little as five minutes.

This technology is already employed in hospitals to help sterilize equipment, but its efficacy hasn’t been tested against nasties like SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19. On the topic of UV sanitizing, the World Health Organization only states: “UV lamps should not be used to sterilize hands, or other areas of skin as UV radiation can cause skin irritation.”

Many UV sanitizing startups have seen an uptick in business in early 2020, despite a lack of evidence that they are effective against the recent coronavirus outbreak. One such company is Utah-based PhoneSoap, which has seen a thousand percent growth year-on-year in the past week, according to the company.

Taylor Mann of CleanSlate UV, a competing UV sanitizer, admitted: “What we can say is UV light has been proven to be effective against previous strains of coronavirus. We just don’t know how effective it is against this specific [SARS-CoV-2] strain.”

Even if UV sanitizers prove ineffective against the current coronavirus outbreak, they are still highly effective tools for killing other bacteria and viruses. They are also capable of disinfecting without damaging the oleophobic coating on your device.

Keep Your Phone Clean

The WHO hasn’t yet announced that sanitizing your smartphone is vital to contain the spread of an outbreak like SARS-CoV-2, but it’s common knowledge that our mobile devices are Petri dishes of bacteria and other invisible threats.

The University of Arizona’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences concluded in 2012 that smartphones carry ten times more bacteria than “most toilet seats.” This is due to how frequently we touch our devices, and how little time we spend actually cleaning them.

Taking basic precautions like washing your hands and avoiding touching your face will help reduce your chance of getting ill from a wide range of diseases. Avoiding touching your smartphone with dirty hands will help too. Let’s not forget that taking a phone call usually requires that you make contact between your touchscreen and your face.

You should avoid texting on the toilet, too. Since the recent coronavirus outbreak (and many other nasties) may be spread by fecal transmission, it’s a good idea to avoid using your phone in public restrooms.

Disinfect Your Smartphone Regularly

If you touch your phone after touching an unclean surface, bacteria and other microbes will be transferred onto it. Even if you go home and wash your hands thoroughly, by the time you’ve touched your phone, those microbes have been transferred again.

This doesn’t mean you should obsessively clean your phone multiple times a day, but it’s a good idea to do so when you get home from being out in public.

You could take all the precautions in the world and still get sick. All you can really do is help limit your exposure by taking a few basic precautions: Wash your hands regularly, don’t touch your face, and disinfect personal effects that may harbor bacteria and other microbes.

While you’re at it, consider cleaning your laptop and your AirPods too.

RELATED: How to Properly Clean Your Gross Laptop

Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
Read Full Bio »