How to Sanitize Your Smartphone

Concerned about the coronavirus? Here's how to keep electronic devices such as phones, tablets, and laptops clean.

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cleaning smartphone iStock-991892036

There’s more to keeping your smartphone clean than just a microfiber cloth.

Amid growing concerns about the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus, Apple has updated its guidance on how to keep iPhones and other electronic devices clean and free of germs, telling users that it is indeed safe to use alcohol to wipe the product’s screen and body.

This coronavirus has quickly spread around the globe and is now advancing across the U.S. Symptoms are usually mild but can be severe, especially in older adults and in people with underlying health conditions.

Studies have shown that smartphones are a breeding ground for germs and other pathogens, making it important to keep them clean. That’s certainly true for the novel coronavirus, which research suggests may survive on surfaces for hours or even days.

Prior to Apple’s updated guidance, published Monday, there was palpable confusion about whether using alcohol might damage a smartphone, particularly the special “oleophobic” coating that helps prevent fingerprints from building up on the touch-screen display.

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“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,” Apple said.

The company recommends that you power the device down first and avoid using bleach, submerging the unit in cleaning agents, or allowing moisture to enter any opening in the shell.

“Don’t use [the wipes] on fabric or leather surfaces,” Apple adds.

In an email to Consumer Reports, a Google representative confirmed that it’s okay to use isopropyl alcohol wipes on the company’s devices (including the Pixel smartphone), without fear of causing damage. Consumer Reports has asked Samsung for similar confirmation on the use of wipes on its devices but has not yet received a response. We’ll update this article if that changes.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that hand sanitizers containing at least 60 percent alcohol have been shown to be effective at eliminating germs.

Consumers who shield their phones from harm with a screen protector and/or a protective case may have an even easier way to keep the device clean: plain old soap and water.

James Dickerson, Ph.D., Consumer Reports’ chief scientific officer, says he regularly washes his smartphone case and screen cover in his sink with soap and water. And according to the CDC, soap and water are more effective at eliminating germs than alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

“So if people have those types of covers, that’s probably the best thing they can do,” he says. “They don’t have to go out and buy special sanitizers or anything like that. Just scrub it down.”

Do not, however, do that with a case that features a built-in battery for recharging on the go, he adds.

As for how often you should clean your smartphone, Dickerson says that varies based on your situation. A physician who sees patients regularly, he explains, will want to wipe down the phone several times a day. But the average consumer can do so less frequently. It all depends on how often you interact with other people.

More broadly, Dickerson says, consumers should look to official, reputable sources for information as the situation unfolds.

“You have to be vigilant,” he says. “Take in information from trusted healthcare professionals and not just social media influencers.”

Headshot image of Electronics editor Nicholas Deleon

Nicholas De Leon

I've been covering consumer electronics for more than 10 years for publications like TechCrunch, The Daily (R.I.P.), and Motherboard. When I'm not researching or writing about laptops or headphones I can likely be found obsessively consuming news about FC Barcelona, replaying old Super Nintendo games for the hundredth time, or chasing my pet corgi Winston to put his harness on so we can go for a walk. Follow me on Twitter (@nicholasadeleon).