The media is full of advice about how to avoid spreading COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus. Most of it involves keeping your hands clean and not touching your face. But your hands aren’t the only things that touch your face. What about your phone?
In a recent article about how to mix up your own hand sanitizer, I mentioned that there wasn’t much concern out there about mobile phones. However, since then, I’ve been witness to several worried conversations about the possible of disease transmission via smartphone and have come across a number of sites offering advice on how to keep your phone disinfected.
There is some reason for concern — but only some. According to the Journal of Hospital Infection, an analysis of 22 studies came to the conclusion that coronaviruses “can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to 9 days, but can be efficiently inactivated by surface disinfection procedures with 62–71% ethanol, 0.5% hydrogen peroxide or 0.1% sodium hypochlorite within 1 minute.”
In other words, the surface of your smartphone can be an avenue of infection, but you can take care of the problem by wiping it with an alcohol solution. Unfortunately, while alcohol may be bad news for germs, it’s not exactly great for your display. (And don’t even think about hydrogen peroxide.) Most smartphones have an oil-repellent (oleophobic) coating that acts to keep fingerprints and other smudges off the screen, and that can be damaged by harsh chemicals.
How much damage seems to vary depending on the phone manufacturer. Until recently, both Apple and Google suggested that, for heavy soiling, you can use soapy water on a lint-free cloth, but pretty much anything else was a no-no. However, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Apple changed its instructions to read “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.” The company adds that you shouldn’t use bleach, and should avoid getting moisture in any of the openings.
Meanwhile, in an issue of Health Magazine, microbiologist Charles Gerba suggests lightly dampening a microfiber cloth with a mix of 60 percent water and 40 percent rubbing alcohol to de-germ your display. And if worse comes to worst, iFixit has instructions on how to reapply an oleophobic coating.
Another possibility is to buy a screen protector and place it on top of your phone display. The better ones are glass and usually run from around $7 to $40 for a pack of two or three, depending on your phone model. If you clean a screen protector using a light solution of alcohol and water, it shouldn’t damage your phone’s actual display. Screen protectors have the additional advantage that they prevent your display from being accidentally scratched or cracked, although they can be a real pain to install and may make your display slightly less sensitive to your touch.
There are also phone sanitizers, which claim to sanitize your phone using ultraviolet (UV) rays. However, we have not tested them and therefore can’t vouch for their effectiveness.
Or you can simply stick to using call-capable earbuds or earphones, which will keep your phone — no matter what germs are wandering around on its surface — safely away from your face.
Update March 9th, 2020, 2:50PM ET: This article has been updated to include Apple’s new instructions on cleaning its devices.