The news is bombarding us with calls to wash our hands, but one thing that seems to be left out of the equation is one thing we all touch every day, and all too rarely bother to clean. Our phones! Phones are in and out of our hands constantly, and almost no one bothers to wash their hands before or after using it.
Phones can harbor germs for hours or days. Studies have shown that this recent pandemic is caused by a virus that can stay active for over 24 hours on plastic surfaces. Your phone is a portable incubator for all manner of diseases, so it's a good idea to get into the habit of cleaning it.
What can you use to clean it, and how can you clean it? It's a more complex task than you might think!
How Often Should You Clean Your Phone?
First, let's talk about how often you should clean your phone. Unless you're frequently in contact with sick people, chances are you don't need to clean it more than once a day. If you're frequently in contact with or exposed to illness, you should probably leave your phone in the car or in a pocket and only handle it after you've washed your hands, to minimize contamination.
That said, if your phone is shared by other people – a spouse, a coworker, a child – you should sanitize it more often.
Cleaning Inside a Case
Depending on the kind of phone you have, and whether or not you have a case on it, you may have a more complex task ahead of you when cleaning. If you use a phone case, and it's not a total seal around the phone, you'll want to take the phone out and clean inside the case just as often as you clean the outside.
If you have a screen protector on your phone, you don't need to peel it off to clean the device. Just be aware that some cleaning agents might work their way in and dissolve the adhesive around the edges of the protector, which may eventually lead to bubbles rising from the edges.
What Cleaner Should You Use?
There are a lot of different cleansers you can use to sanitize your phone. The best is your typical glass cleaner or alcohol wipe. These types of wipes use isopropyl alcohol in high concentrations and are great for disinfecting surfaces. Of course, in times like these, they can be in short supply.
Hand sanitizer can potentially be used in a pinch. Most hand sanitizers use ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol, which is edible alcohol and is the alcohol present in vodka and other drinking alcohols.
Keep in mind that if you're using a hand sanitizer, you want to know what's in it. Some hand sanitizers have additional ingredients like perfumes that give it a scent other than alcohol gel. Those will likely leave a residue and can make your screen blurry, and they'll leave a scent on your phone. Any hand sanitizer with glitter in it will, of course, leave glitter everywhere.
In older phones, it's possible that ethyl alcohol could dissolve the anti-glare coating on the phone screen. Modern phones are more resilient, or have built-in coatings in the glass, or have a coating that won't dissolve in alcohol. Also, if you have a screen protector on, the alcohol won't impact much if any of it. If you have an older phone with a more sensitive screen, I'd avoid using hand sanitizer on it.
Other kinds of cleaners, like bleach, are generally too caustic to readily use on your electronics. If you're careful and you absolutely need to clean your device, you can, but we'd recommend avoiding it. Only use it if you're willing to risk damage to your device.
Regardless of what kind of cleaner you want to use, it can be a good idea to test it somewhere in a small spot on your phone before cleaning the whole thing. A spot on the back of the shell can show you if it's going to leave a residue, and how well you can clean off that residue. A small spot on the screen can show you if it's going to damage the screen, though of course, you might not want to risk it.
Additionally, you can just use soap and water for modern devices. Most modern phones are relatively water-resistant, so using a damp and soapy cloth is fine. It's even recommended by Google for its newest Pixel phones.
If you're using an alcohol-based cleaner, make sure it's at least 60% alcohol. Lower levels of alcohol aren't concentrated enough to really sanitize your device. This goes for hand sanitizer as well, by the way.
How Old Is Your Phone?
Depending on the age of your phone, you may want to avoid certain kinds of cleaners, in particular those with ethyl alcohol in them. Isopropyl alcohol is generally safe for cleaning electronics and glass. Ethyl alcohol may dissolve coatings on glass screens or on camera lenses of older phones.
This typically applies to phones made more than 5 or so years ago. Most of us tend to keep up with modern technology more often than that, but it's good to be aware. Use isopropyl alcohol rather than a hand sanitizer, or just use soap to disinfect your phone whenever possible.
Likewise, remember that while modern phones tend to be mostly water-resistant, older devices were very much not, so submerging your device is a bad idea. Even using a cloth that is too moist might cause issues on older devices.
And, of course, if your device is in any way damaged such that it exposes the interior of the phone, you want to avoid getting that interior wet. You may be able to clean some of it with an alcohol wipe, but it might be a lost cause getting the device entirely clean.
What Does the Manufacturer Say?
If you're not sure what kinds of chemicals are okay to use on your phone, it may be worthwhile to check the website or the owner's manual for the device you have.
We already linked Google's page for the Pixel up above. Here are a few others.
- Samsung's page for Flip and Fold phones.
- Samsung's page for Galaxy phones.
- Apple's general care instructions.
Most manufacturers will recommend isopropyl alcohol wipes for most care and disinfection and will note other options like soap and water.
The General Cleaning Process
So if you're using something like hand sanitizer to clean your iPhone, how should you go about it? Here's our process.
Step 1: Wash your hands. Use hand sanitizer if you need to, but washing your hands with soap and water is going to be better and more thorough than just using hand sanitizer. The goal here is to remove contamination from your hands so you're not just adding germs back on your iPhone when you're handling it.
Step 2: Turn off and unplug your phone. If you had it charging, you don't want to keep it plugged in, in case you short something out. Turning it off makes it easier to clean without hitting buttons or interacting with the screen in a way you don't intend. If your iPhone is old enough that you can remove the battery, it might be worthwhile to do so here.
Step 3: Remove any cases or removable protection. Screen protectors can stay on since viruses and other germs aren't going to get under them. Note, however, that some cleaners might damage screen protectors, so you may end up needing to remove and replace it anyway.
Step 4: Clean the case. Using a small amount of hand sanitizer on a fiber cloth, clean your case as thoroughly as you can. Many cases have grooves, nooks, crannies, and other divots that can be hard to penetrate. Just scrub at it until you're reasonably sure it's clean.
Use a fiber cloth whenever possible, and make sure the cloth is clean before you use it. A dirty cloth just spreads contamination. Fiber is ideal because it's soft and not abrasive. Using a paper cloth to clean your iPhone might leave scratches, and can leave particles all over the device, depending on the kind of paper you're using.
Step 5: Clean the iPhone. Front, back, and sides, the groove around the screen and the edges of the shell make sure to get every surface of the device as much as you can. Be thorough and careful with it.
Make sure not to use too much hand sanitizer here. A little goes a long way. Remember that you want to spend a special focus on grooves and divots in the shell of the iPhone, but don't go overboard and pry your iPhone apart trying to get inside it.
Step 6: Let your iPhone dry. Alcohol-based wipes will evaporate quickly, and you will be able to see if there is any residue you need to wipe off before long. If there is, use a clean cloth to clean the screen and any other residue you don't like.
Step 7: Wash your hands again. You were handling a potentially contaminated device, so washing your hands again will help remove any lingering alcohol from the hand sanitizer or other cleaner you're using, and will sanitize your hands again, at least until you touch something else that hasn't been properly cleaned.
That's pretty much it as far as cleaning your iPhone goes. You can repeat this once a day, though picking the right time to do it varies. For example, if you're out and about a lot, like if you're an essential worker and don't get to stay home in quarantine, or you just had shopping to do, cleaning your iPhone upon arriving home can be a good idea. Sanitize your hands, your iPhone, and anything else you touched, and you'll be safe for your evening. That's just an example, however. You can clean it whenever you want, as often as you want.
General Tips for Cleaning iPhones
Some of these tips are reiterated from above, while others are new. They're all worth keeping in mind, though.
First, if possible, use a lint-free cloth that has been washed prior to using it. Non-lint-free cloths leave bits of fiber on your device, which can be annoying if they stick to the screen in a way that bothers you. Paper cloths (like paper towels) and anything more abrasive can leave micro-scratches on your screen, shell, or screen protector. It might not be noticeable right away, but over time it might make your screen cloudy.
Soap and water are fine to use for most modern devices, though you should avoid completely immersing your iPhone in water. If you want, you can set aside some rice that you won't eat, and use that to dry your iPhone when you're done. You will want to change the rice frequently, though, to avoid contamination coming from it.
If you want to sanitize it with hand sanitizer, make sure it's at least 60% alcohol, and try to find isopropyl alcohol instead of ethyl alcohol. Both will work, but isopropyl is safer. In general, finding alcohol wipes will be the best course of action.
If you use something too caustic for your device and you end up removing the oleophobic coating – the oil-resistant coat – on your screen, you can reapply it. You will need to buy a kit to do so, but it's not very hard to do, it just takes time to set and dry before you can use your phone again. This article tells you how to do it.