Worried your phone may be harbouring germs, including Covid-19? We spoke to the experts about how likely this is, plus how to keep it squeaky clean.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, you might not have thought all that much about the cleanliness of your phone. But now, with concerns over the spread of the virus at the forefront of everyone’s mind, you could be wondering just how clean your phone really is.
We spoke with the experts, to find out how likely it is your phone is harbouring harmful bacteria and viruses, plus how to clean it safely without causing damage.
Do mobile phones harbour viruses and bacteria?
Unfortunately, not only can your phone harbour both viruses and bacteria on its surface, it’s actually a top culprit when it comes to germs.
‘Mobile phones are among the worst offenders for harbouring germs, as they are perhaps the most frequently handled item we own,’ reveals James Milnes, germ expert and managing director of surface sanitiser brand, Zoono. ‘We have conducted experiments to show just how much bacteria lives on the average mobile phone, with shocking results. Using an ATP device, we can monitor the cleanliness of the phone surface, and the ATP rating then tells us whether the surface has an abundance of bacteria, viruses or any other microorganisms that may cause illness.
‘A reading below 100 is safe. Anything above 300 is contaminated, while readings above 500 are highly contaminated. Our research reveals that most mobile phones that are not cleaned regularly will show a reading of between 500 and 600.’
What’s more, women’s phones tend to fare worse in the cleanliness stakes.
‘Interestingly, mobile phones belonging to women are often much more contaminated than those belonging to men,’ says Milnes. ‘This is likely due to the fact that women often wear make-up, which is then transferred onto the phone through their hands or face, which in turn harbours pathogens.’
How long can germs live on your phone?
According to Milnes, this depends on the pathogen in question, as well as the environment in which you keep your phone.
‘For example,’ he explains, ‘if you keep your phone in your back pocket, pathogens will live longer than if you were to place it on a windowsill. This is because UV light is extremely effective in killing a broad range of pathogens.’
Covid-19 and your phone
So, can COVID-19 live on – and therefore likely spread via – our phones? More research needs to be done into how long the virus can live outside of the body.
‘COVID-19 is a respiratory disease that spreads primarily from droplets created when an infected person coughs or sneezes, or through saliva droplets or discharge from the nose,’ explains Shahrum Gilani, computer scientist and founder of HandsetExpert. ‘These particles can land on other people, clothing and surfaces around them.
While airborne spread has not been reported for Covid-19, studies of other previously known coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS, have shown that these viruses can be detected on inanimate surfaces such as metal, glass or plastic – as found in phones – for up to nine days without intervention. However, it’s worth mentioning that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US state that coronaviruses have poor survivability on surfaces, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control notes that as the amount of viable virus declines over time, it may not always be present in sufficient numbers to cause infection.’
How often should you clean your phone?
When it comes to your mobile phone, it’s important to remember that every time you handle it, you will be transferring germs from your skin onto its surface.
‘We frequently touch both our phones and our faces regularly, often without noticing or thinking about it,’ says Gilani. ‘We also often hold our phones close to our eyes, nose and lips – areas where the virus can infect the human body. This all makes our phones a potential route of transmission of any number of illnesses.
‘While the CDC notes that touching a surface or object with the virus and then touching one’s own face is not thought to be the main way Covid-19 spreads, it still makes sense to reduce this risk by periodically cleaning your phone.’
How to clean your phone
So, how can you best clean your phone?
‘Research from MIT published in 2018 looked at various methods to eliminate bacteria from phones, and found that 70 per cent ethanol spray, quaternary ammonium disinfectant spray, sodium hypochlorite-impregnated wipes, delicate-task wipes and phone sanitiser boxes that use ultraviolet rays were all effective at decreasing bacterial counts,’ says Gilani. ‘However, you really don’t need to use anything elaborate – testing by Dr Lena Cilic of UCL found that good old soap and water is enough to bring microbial activity down to levels suitable for surgical surfaces.’
This means, the simplest effective way to clean your phone is to use water, household soap and a couple of microfibre cloths.
‘Handset manufacturers have traditionally advised against using any cleaning products apart from soap and water, but more recently Apple, Google, Huawei, and Samsung have all updated their cleaning advice to say that you can use a 70 per cent isopropyl solution applied to a clean microfibre cloth to wipe the screen and exterior surfaces. Alternatively, you can use 70 per cent alcohol wipes.’
Gilani says this simple step-by-step method is best:
- Unplug your phone and turn it off completely.
- Remove the case if you have one. These should also be cleaned separately.
- Dampen a microfibre cloth with soapy water.
- Gently rub the surfaces of the phone with the damp cloth, taking care to avoid openings such as charging ports.
- Dry the phone with a clean, dry microfibre cloth.
Cleaning your phone: what NOT to do
While you may be tempted to use harsher chemicals in a bid to rid your phone from germs, don’t do it! Household soap really is super effective, and by using other harsh chemicals, you will likely do more harm than good.
‘Using bleach or other common household cleaners might kill viruses and bacteria, but they could also damage your phone,’ warns Gilani. ‘Most smartphones have an oleophobic (oil-repellent) coating to keep smudges and fingerprints off the screen, and using harsh chemicals can destroy the coating, ruin the screen and result in permanent scratching.
‘You should avoid getting moisture in any openings, such as charging ports or headphone sockets – even water-resistant devices can be ruined. You should also avoid using compressed air, as it’s very easy to accidentally cause damage to the microphones and other components.’