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Hygiene tips: What’s the best way to disinfect your phone without damaging it?

You want to keep your phone germ-free, but is alcohol really necessary? If so, just how much?

Other than frequent hand washing, cleaning your phone often is another way to minimise your brush with germs. Think about it: Your phone is the first and last thing you touch daily, which means you’re putting an inordinate amount of microbes on it – and these thrive there. 

"The grease and other organic material on our phones as well as the heat from our devices further allow bacteria and viruses to survive," said Dr Jyoti Somani, a senior consultant with the Division of Infectious Diseases at National University Hospital.

The constant touching also explains why the average phone carries 10 times more bacteria than most toilets, according to Dr Charles Gerba, a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona.

With the current COVID-19 situation, now’s the time to pay even closer attention to your phone. Citing a study, Dr Somani pointed out that the virus can survive on common phone materials such as glass, metal and ceramic "on average about three days in our local climate", and "a shorter period of time on aluminum".


So what’s your best bet for keeping your phone clean? Sterilising agents such as alcohol are the best ways to kill germs. While an alcohol percentage of at least 60 is crucial for hand sanitisers to be effective, Dr Somani recommended a higher alcohol percentage of 70 for disinfecting your phone (that’s the highest safe concentration that has the least drying effect on our skin, which of course, comes into contact with your device).

But why a higher percentage of alcohol? It evaporates faster – and you’ll want the alcohol to stay on your phone's surface long enough to kill germs but not too long that it affects the device's material, she explained.

That said, some experts say that alcohol may not even be necessary when it comes to disinfecting phones. 

A 2013 study in the American Journal Of Infection Control showed that a damp microfibre cloth fared better than an alcoholic swab at removing clostridium difficile – a diarrhoea-causing bacteria – from a contaminated iPad. When it comes to eliminating the antibiotic-resistant bacteria, meticillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus or MRSA, both the cloth and swab did equally well.

READ: Do homemade hand sanitisers actually work? We ask the doctors

Dr Dubert Guerrero, an infectious disease specialist at Sanford Health in the US, and one of the study’s authors said that regularly wiping down your device with a moist microfibre cloth is sufficient to eliminate common bacteria.


So we’ve established why alcohol is good for hygienic purposes. But when it comes to your device, alcohol may not be good news.

In an article on CNET, James LeBeau, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said alcohol can strip your phone screen of its oleophobic (oil-repellant) and hydrophobic (water-repellent) coatings.

He suggested eschewing the use of cleaning products such as Windex, rubbing alcohol and disposable wipes as they contain alcohol. If you must, you’re better off using them on your phone cover – which is actually what most of us come into contact with. But do read the instructions carefully as some cleaning products may corrode your phone cover.

While there are water-resistant phones (up to 1.5m deep in water for 30 minutes) such as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10 series, Huawei’s P30 Pro, and Google’s Pixel 4 and 4 XL, their respective support pages say nothing about washing them under running water or using cleaning agents. 

Phone makers such as Apple have also advised using no more than a “soft, lint-free cloth with warm soapy water”. Samsung, too, advises users to use a "clean and soft cloth" without mentioning the need for cleaning products. Google indicated to avoid using harsh cleaners, avoid getting moisture or soap in openings, and avoid spraying cleaners or compressed air at your phone.


If you’re not confident that a damp cloth alone is sufficient in wiping microbes off your phone’s screen, Dr Gerber suggested using a solution of one part rubbing alcohol (with an alcohol percentage of 70) and one part water. It’s still alcohol but it’s diluted to minimise the damage on the screen’s coatings. 

Apply this DIY mixture to a cloth and wipe; don’t pour or spray directly onto the screen, he said. Alternatively, use products that have words such as “safe to use on electronics including smartphones, tablets and remote controls” on their labels.

However, the caveat with using any cleaning agent on your phone is that you may void its warranty.One way to get around the dilemma, at least where the screen is concerned, is to stick on a cheap screen protector (not the fancy ones with oil-repelling properties). If it gets corroded by alcohol or cleaning products, it can be replaced and is far cheaper than getting a new phone.

Alternatively, there is a sanitising device called the PhoneSoap that was featured on the  business reality TV show Shark Tank. It supposedly kills up to 99.99 per cent of the microbes living on your phone and phone cover with UVC in 10 minutes. Since it uses light, it promises to reach every nook and cranny that alcohol wipes can't. While we haven't tested it, several websites such as CNN recommend it. 

Source: CNA/bk