Health and Wellness

You can clean your phone with disinfectant wipes (Apple says it's OK)

@zuzerphotoart | Twenty20

The average person touches their smartphone more than 2,000 times a day, surveys have shown. So it's not surprising that phones can harbor lots of bacteria and germs. Some experts estimate that phones contain 10 times the number of germs found on a toilet seat.

But using disinfectant to give your phone a scrub-down can damage screens. So can plain soap and water cut it when respiratory viruses from the flu to coronavirus are going around? Here are the best ways to keep your phone and hands clean.

Killing the germs

Currently, there are 761 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States and 23 deaths. To put that in perspective, the common flu infected an estimated 35.5 million people here last year.

According to the CDC, cleaning products such as soap can kill flu viruses on surfaces.

But standard soap may not be enough to clean your devices when it comes to coronavirus, now called COVID-19. It is currently unclear how long coronavirus lasts on surfaces, so the CDC suggests cleaning and disinfecting "frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe" for preventing the spread.

The Environmental Protection Agency released a list of antimicrobial products that can be used to disinfect surfaces infected by COVID-19, including common household cleaning products like Clorox Disinfecting Wipes and Lysol Brand Clean and Fresh Multi-surface Cleaner. 

Save your screen

The problem? Chemicals found in household cleaners and even soap can damage the screen on your device.

Disinfectants wear down screens' "oleophobic coating," which is designed to keep them fingerprint- and moisture-free, according to Apple's website. For that reason, Apple used to say that you should avoid cleaning products and abrasive materials that could affect the coating and make your iPhone more vulnerable to scratches. Samsung suggests that Galaxy users avoid using Windex or window cleaners with "strong chemicals" on screens.

But on Monday, Apple updated its cleaning suggestions, stating that you can use 70% isopropyl alcohol wipes or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes, to "gently wipe the hard, nonporous surfaces of your Apple product, such as the display, keyboard, or other exterior surfaces." However, you shouldn't use bleach or submerge your devices in cleaning products, according to Apple's website. 

And while UV-C light cleaners won't harm your phone and research shows UV-C light can kill airborne flu germs, "UV-C penetrates superficially, and the light can't get into nooks and crannies," Philip Tierno, a clinical professor in the department of pathology at New York University Langone Medical Center, told NBC News.

So what do you do?

Wiping your phone or cleaning it with soap and a little water, or preventing your phone from getting dirty is generally a good idea, Emily Martin, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, tells CNBC Make It.

But phones are always going to be hotspots for germs because you hold them right up to the areas where infectious diseases can enter, like the eyes, nose and mouth, Martin says. Also, people tend to carry their phones everywhere with them, including the bathroom where most contamination happens.

Avoiding bringing your phone into the bathroom 'would be a boon for public health.'
Emily Martin
associate professor of epidemiology at University of Michigan School of Public Health

So more than cleaning your phone, avoiding bringing your phone into the bathroom "would be a boon for public health," Martin says. You should also wash your hands after using the bathroom, whether you have your phone or not. (Studies suggest 30% of people don't wash their hands after using the toilet.)

In fact, when illnesses like the flu or coronavirus are going around, frequent and proper hand-washing is some of the best advice you can follow, Martin says.

The CDC has urged people to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, and avoid close contact with people who are sick. You should also wash your hands before, during and after food prep or eating, changing a diaper, blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.

"As with all respiratory viruses, it's important to stay home when you're sick if you can," Martin says. "It's important for employers to be encouraging that and supportive of people who want to do that."

This story has been updated to include the most recent information on coronavirus as of March 10. 

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