Here’s the Right Way to Disinfect Your Phone to Kill Coronavirus
Health experts share their tips for how to safely clean and disinfect your cell phone, whether it's an iPhone or an Android, during Covid-19.
As you grapple with the rapidly spreading COVID-19, you’ll want to pay special attention to surfaces that could transmit it. Experts worry that the new coronavirus might live on surfaces for up to several days, and a March 2020 article in The New England Journal of Medicine notes that the virus causing COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, can be detected for up to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces (and up to three hours in the air). Unfortunately, many people don’t regularly clean one of the surfaces they touch most: Their cell phone.
“We don’t have much information about how long viruses remain infectious on cell phones. Environmental conditions do affect this a lot, so our limited data on how long SARS-CoV-2 remains on some surfaces (plastic, stainless steel, cardboard, etc) might not apply to various real-life situations,” explains Angela Rasmussen, PhD, virologist at Columbia University’s Center for Infection and Immunity, urging good hygiene and cleanliness.
Inevitably, people touch their cell phones throughout the day to check/send texts, emails, and make/receive calls. People also have a tendency to regularly touch their faces—up to 23 times per hour, according to a 2015 study from the American Journal of Infection Control. This means if you’re not properly cleaning your phone, you’re potentially exposing yourself to a lot of germs.
To help you practice good cell phone hygiene during COVID-19, take a look at what you need to know about disinfecting your phone properly, keep yourself healthy, and do your part in flattening the curve. (And, if you want to be nice to the planet, check out this list of eco-friendly cleaning products that kill coronavirus.)
Feeling sick? Watch out for these 9 coronavirus symptoms.
Your cell phone has plenty of germs
It’s not surprising your phone is practically a petri dish for germs. Everywhere you go, your phone goes with you, and so do the surrounding germs. According to a small 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, out of 25 mobile phones studied, 92 percent were contaminated with bacteria. Meanwhile, a 2017 study published in Germs found that some high school students’ cell phones carried on average more than 17,000 bacterial gene copies.
Elizabeth Garman, a spokesperson of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, says, “There is some evidence to suggest that the virus can survive up to a few days on surfaces. But based on what we know so far, COVID-19 is mainly spread by close person-to-person contact from droplets from a cough or sneeze, which can get into your mouth, nose, or lungs.”
Even with a spotlessly clean phone, social distancing is still necessary. But with COVID-19 cases multiplying exponentially, keeping your phone germ-free is vital.
(Here’s just how gross it is to bring your phone to the bathroom with you.)
Disinfect your cell phone daily
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people should regularly “clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects.” They specifically call out electronics including cell phones, computers, touch screens, and remote controls.
Their advice: put a wipeable cover on electronics, follow your manufacturers’ cleaning and disinfecting recommendations, and in the absence of instructions, use alcohol-based wipes or sprays with at least 70 percent alcohol before drying surfaces thoroughly.
“We have always been too lax about cleaning our phones and now it is more important than ever,” says Georgine Nanos, MD, MPH, is a board-certified family physician specializing in epidemiology and chief executive officer of Kind Health Group, a company that offers aesthetic care. “You should disinfect and clean your cell phone every time you wash or sanitize your hands. And definitely anytime you pick it up and put it to your face if you have set it down on a potentially contaminated surface.”
The CDC advises wearing gloves while cleaning. Remember, if you have access to gloves, make sure you’re not hoarding them, as they’re essential to health care workers. Face masks are another item people are panic-hoarding: Here’s what doctors need you to know.
How to clean your iPhone
Until recently, Apple hadn’t publicly admitted that phones could be safely disinfected. In fact, they had actively warned against using “cleaning products,” which could ruin the coating. However, earlier this month, Apple gave the “OK” for the use of disinfectants to clean your phone.
According to Apple’s updated guidelines, you can use a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes to wipe “the hard, nonporous surfaces of your Apple product, such as the display, keyboard, or other exterior surfaces.” However, the company advises against the use of bleach or getting moisture in openings, such as the charging port. Lastly, Apple warns its consumers to not submerge the phone in cleaning agents.
Stuck without wipes? Apple also recommends soft, damp, lint-free cloths—such as lens cloths—either alone or with warm soapy water.
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How to clean your Android
Unlike iPhones, Androids are comprised of a variety of devices from many companies, including Samsung, Nokia, and Google. This means that when it comes to cleaning and disinfecting your phone, there’s not one catch-all answer. It’s important to check your individual manufacturer’s website for instructions.
For example, for Nokia phones, the company offers two options to clean and disinfect your phone. They recommend cleaning phones with water and light soap, or using 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipes. When using wipes, Nokia advises avoiding open ports or openings, and to finish with a clean microfiber cloth.
Similarly, Samsung recommends disinfectants such as a hypochlorous acid-based solution (containing 50-80 ppm) or an alcohol-based solution (containing more than 70 percent ethanol or isopropyl alcohol) on its phones, according to their website. However, the company cautions against applying them to the phone directly. Instead, they suggest carefully applying them to a microfiber cloth first.
Meanwhile, Google recently updated its cleaning guidelines for their Pixel phones by suggesting the use of regular household disinfecting wipes or 70 percent isopropyl alcohol-based wipes. The company advises against using wipes that have bleach.
If you’re looking for an effective disinfectant, check out these 9 EPA-registered coronavirus cleaning products.
How to clean your cell phone case
Cleaning and disinfecting practices are slightly different when it comes to phone cases. Unlike most phones, which are made up of glass and metal, phone cases can be made of plastic, silicone, or natural leather. For example, if you have a silicone iPhone case, Apple recommends removing the iPhone from its case first and then using a slightly damp lint-free cloth for wiping both the outside and inside of the case. On their website, they list products (window cleaners, household cleaners, etc.) you should avoid using for cleaning your case.
These tips can also be applied to other non-Apple cases too.
Can disinfectants damage your cell phone?
Phones have something called an oleophobic layer, which is a thin, oil-repelling material that helps resist fingerprint smudges and greasiness. It was previously thought that alcohol-based disinfecting agents would damage this smudge-resistant coating. However, as previously mentioned, phone manufacturers have revised their guidelines during COVID-19 to recommend the use of disinfecting wipes. But keep in mind, as per Apple’s advice, chemicals like bleach can be too harsh and lead to screen damage.
If you’re truly averse to chemicals, the all-things-Android site Android Central recommends using Q-Tips or felt-tipped swabs to swab the earpiece, ports, and speaker, then wiping down the screen and body with a mobile screen wipe, followed by a microfiber cloth or clean kitchen towel. Microfiber cloths won’t kill viruses, but it may help remove them.
Overall, all manufacturer websites agree that you should stay away from compressed air devices. This could damage the inside of your phone.
Wear gloves and keep washing your hands
As the CDC recommends, consider wearing gloves when planning to handle chemicals such as Clorox or Lysol wipes to clean your device. Don’t forget to remove the phone from its case. This is especially important if your case is made of leather—and to wipe the case itself down, too, if it’s a material like plastic, steel, or rubber. Let the cleaning solution dry fully before putting your case back on.
Once you’re completely done, throw away the gloves and wash your hands. A clean phone surface doesn’t do much good if your hands are coming into contact with germs shortly after. And, critically, in-between hand washings, make sure to keep your hands away from your face.
“The single best defense for all of us is still frequent handwashing with regular soap and water, and if you don’t have access to soap and water then use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with greater than 60 percent alcohol,” explains Dr. Nanos. She advises people to disinfect their phones at the same time they disinfect hands. “Avoid touching your face or putting your phone to your face if you have not had the opportunity to disinfect your hands or your phone.” Dr. Nanos stresses that you can’t actually catch the virus through your hands. But, “it’s when your hands touch your eyes nose or mouth that you have the potential to become infected,” she says.
And at the end of the day, social distancing (and self-quarantining if you feel sick) is paramount. “The most important thing people can do to protect themselves is stay home and physically distance themselves from others,” says Rasmussen.
Certain you’re washing your hands properly? These are 10 ways you may be washing them wrong.
- The New England Journal of Medicine: “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1”
- Angela Rasmussen, PhD, virologist at Columbia University's Center for Infection and Immunity, New York City
- American Journal of Infection Control: "Face touching: A frequent habit that has implications for hand hygiene"
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "Degree of Bacterial Contamination of Mobile Phone and Computer Keyboard Surfaces and Efficacy of Disinfection with Chlorhexidine Digluconate and Triclosan to Its Reduction"
- Germs: "High-level bacterial contamination of secondary school students' mobile phones"
- Elizabeth Garman, spokesperson of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Cleaning and Disinfection for Households"
- Georgine Nanos, MD, MPH, is a board-certified family physician specializing in epidemiology and chief executive officer of Kind Health Group, a company that offers aesthetic care, Encinitas, California
- Apple: "How to clean your Apple products"
- Nokia: "How can I safely clean and disinfect my Nokia phone? "
- Samsung: "Keep your Galaxy phone clean"
- Google: "Clean your Pixel phone"
- Android Central: "How to properly clean and disinfect your smartphone"
- CDC: "Cleaning and Disinfection for Households"