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Here’s How to Keep Your Phone Clean — But Keep Washing Your Hands, Too

4 minute read

With the spread of the novel coronavirus in the U.S., people are more concerned than ever with staying clean and germ-free. People know, too, that their smartphones and other devices can carry more than a few germs, making it important to clean those gadgets every now and again.

But how should you be cleaning your smartphone or tablet? And how worried should you be about catching or spreading a virus like COVID-19 via your trusty smartphone in the first place? Here’s what the experts say.

Disinfecting wipes are fine, mostly

Studies have shown everything from staph to e. Coli can thrive on your smartphone’s glass screen. COVID-19, meanwhile, can survive on surfaces for anywhere from a few hours to over a week, depending on conditions.

If you’re in the mood to kill those germs, some alcohol can’t hurt. At least, it can’t hurt now, as companies like Apple have recently changed their position on using alcohol-based wipes and similar disinfecting products on their devices.

In Apple’s case, it still recommends using a slightly damp lint-free cloth to wipe your device clean. But it has changed its previous advice to avoid disinfectants — instead of warning against harsh chemicals, claiming the products may strip the oil-repellent “oleophobic” coating on your phone, Apple now says those problematic wipes are in the clear.

“Using a 70% isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, you may gently wipe the exterior surfaces of your iPhone,” Apple says on its updated support page. “Don’t use bleach. Avoid getting moisture in any openings, and don’t submerge your iPhone in any cleaning agents.”

Apple says you can use the same disinfectant products on the “hard, nonporous surfaces” of your Apple device, though you shouldn’t use them on anything made of fabric or leather. Other chemicals, like chlorine and bleach, are too harsh and could damage your screen. The recommendation to avoid other cleaning products, like Purell or compressed air, still applies. (All this advice applies more or less equally to gadgets from other companies, too.)

Could cleaning products still damage your phone, even with approval from the manufacturer? Yes, but only if you’re obsessively scrubbing your screen with them — so remember to chill out with all that wiping.

Wash your hands, not your smartphone

Experts say that keeping your phone clean won’t matter much if you’re not practicing good hygiene in other ways. So remember to wash your hands regularly, don’t touch your face, and so on.

“For sure, if you’re worried about your phone, you can sanitize your phone,” says Dr. Donald Schaffner, professor at Rutgers University’s Department of Food Science and co-host of Risky or Not, a podcast about “everyday risks from germs.” “But more importantly, stay away from sick people, and wash and sanitize your hands. Those are probably going to do a lot more to reduce your risk than sanitizing your phone.”

Schaffner also says the chance of catching a virus like COVID-19 from your phone is minimal compared to the risk of being near someone who is already infected with the disease. But it can’t hurt to keep your phone clean, he says. “If you’ve got a hundred [bacteria] on your finger and you stuck your finger in a moist area like your nose, well now you’ve got a dry surface transferring to a wet surface,” says Schaffner. “And you’re probably going to be pretty efficient at transferring those hundred organisms you’ve got on your finger into your nose.”

You don’t need a UV light

Should you invest in one of those cool UV phone sanitizers you’ve probably in your Instagram ads? Probably not. UV light has been effective against some other viruses, but we don’t yet know how it might affected COVID-19. And these gadgets are pretty expensive considering that cheap alcohol wipes do the job just fine. “If you think it’s cool and want to buy one, go for it,” says Schaffner. “But please don’t buy one because you think it’s better than other technology.”

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Write to Patrick Lucas Austin at patrick.austin@time.com