As a freelance medical interpreter, I can cycle between up to four facilities a day. I take all sorts of protective measures to prevent the spread of viruses and bacteria. It’s only natural that my repertoire of methods includes cleaning and disinfecting my phone.
My Phone is Central to My JobFreelance medical interpreters rely heavily on their phones for their work. Not only do we have to respond to assignment offers quickly via text, phone calls, or e-mail, we also use our phones to get a refresher on terminology. I also work in a teaching clinic and providers love to show patients photos of medications, but rarely have their phones at hand, so I’m often the default Googler. We also sometimes let other people use our phones. Some agencies use an app that requires a signature from a provider, whereas other agencies must confirm over the phone with a staff member if a patient is a no-show or rescheduled.
With how much I touch my phone, it is impossible to prevent it from collecting all sorts of nasties. Despite how hard I try, I sometimes end up touching it in between washing my hands and using hand sanitizer. I posit that our hand hygiene is only as good as our phone hygiene if we’re constantly touching our phones. Needless to say, our phones need to be cleaned on a regular basis too, just like our hands!
Important Notes Before Beginning
Do not, under any circumstances use the following cleansers on your bare phone:
- Windex or other household cleaners that contain ammonia
- Abrasive cleaners like Bar Keeper’s Friend
- Makeup remover
- Compressed Air
- Dish or hand soap
CNET has a comprehensive article on the types of cleaners to avoid, including isopropyl alcohol for some phones, which I will talk about in the next few paragraphs. These cleansers are far too harsh and can actually permanently damage your phone.
Invest in a Microfiber Cleansing Cloth
Do not use paper towels to clean your phone. Not only are they rough, but they can actually leave behind dust and bits of material on your phone. A microfiber cleansing cloth is a much gentler option that won’t damage your phone or leave behind any debris. Such cloths are widely available in many inexpensive eyeglass repair or cleaning kits.
Does Your Phone Have a Case?
The method by which you clean your phone is highly dependent upon whether it has a case or not, as well as what type of case you have. Broadly, we can narrow these down to three different categories: no case, exposed case, and enclosed case.
- A phone with no case is self-explanatory, and from now on I may refer to it as a “naked phone” or “bare phone.”
- An exposed case or partial case only covers part of your phone. These are usually inexpensive cases that only cover the back of your phone and have nothing over the screen. People who use cases like these may also purchase a screen protector to offer some level of protection for their phone’s screen.
- An enclosed case is a case that completely covers your phone. These are usually the most expensive cases and often have extra features such as being waterproof or water-resistant. These cases usually come in multiple pieces and snap together over your phone.
But Wait: My Phone Has a Screen Protector!
If you have a phone with no case or a phone with a case that only covers the back of your phone, you may have a screen protector. Nowadays, there are broadly two different types of screen protectors:
- Liquid screen protectors are basically undetectable once they’re applied and can decrease in effectiveness through wear and tear or removal with some sort of chemical (i.e. rubbing alcohol). They often leave your phone’s screen feeling smooth and thick.
- Solid Screen Protectors are usually a thin film (plastic or glass) that may be comprised of multiple layers. They are either affixed by adhesive, static cling, or wet mounted with some sort of solution and left to dry.
Do not use any sort of liquid or cleaning material on your screen or screen protector without first consulting your user manual or the manufacturer’s website to see if it is safe. There are so many different varieties of screen protectors for sale these days, it would be nearly impossible to detail them all in this article.
Step 1: Turn Off Your Phone!
This had to be step one! You’re likely going to be exposing your phone to some level of dampness, so it would be wise to turn it off before getting started!
Step 2: Cleaning
As stated above, the key to reducing the presence of germs and dirt on surfaces to clean, THEN disinfect. The presence of dirt, makeup, oily residue, and any other sort of gunk on surfaces such as your phone or case can serve as a lovely place for germs to hang onto and multiply. It would be wise to wear gloves during this step!
Cleaning Your Phone
The beautiful part of having an enclosed case is you shouldn’t have to take out your phone and clean it often. In fact, the few times I’ve actually taken my phone (Samsung Galaxy S9) out of its Lifeproof FRĒ Series case, I was surprised to find my phone was in pristine, untouched condition. Therefore if you have an enclosed case, cleaning your phone is an entirely optional step as far as I’m concerned.
If you have an exposed case, you will need to separate your case from your phone and clean them both separately. All those exposed grooves are perfect places to accumulate dust, dirt, and all sorts of germs! Honestly, it is my personal and professional opinion that enclosed cases are worth the extra penny for protection and for cleaning purposes.
You may have limited options to clean, let alone disinfect, your phone with no case or your phone with the case removed. Simply put, many cleaners are too harsh and can actually damage your phone. If you have the money to invest in a case, I highly recommend purchasing an enclosed one to make cleaning and disinfecting much easier in the future.
In the past, isopropyl alcohol was an excellent option for cleaning bare cell phones, but…
Cleaning with Isopropyl Alcohol
If it looks like isopropyl alcohol is a go, alcohol wipes are excellent for scrubbing the gunk off a dirty phone and/or case (so long as it does not have a screen protector that can be damaged by it). Instead of swabs, you can also use your handy-dandy microfiber cleansing cloth, cotton swabs, or q-tips dipped in alcohol.
Cleaning without Alcohol
Fortunately, isopropyl alcohol isn’t 100% necessary for the cleaning step, but it certainly makes short work of it. If you cannot use rubbing alcohol on your phone, consider using your microfiber cloth instead. You can use it dry to get off basic residue and debris, or you can dampen it to get off more considerable “gunk.” If your phone has a screen protector, exercise caution when rubbing down your phone to clean it.
Cleaning Your Case
Much like screen protectors, phone cases come in many different varieties, so before cleaning your case, be sure to consult the user manual, manufacturer, or even your case’s Amazon listing. I specifically mention Amazon listings for phone cases because this is where you can find a lot of actual consumers’ questions and answers about everyday usage of the product.
The most important part of cleaning your case is again, getting off as much dirt, debris, and residue as possible. Depending on the recommendations from your case’s manufacturer, cleaning may be as simple as using a microfiber cleansing cloth to get off the majority of buildup. See if isopropyl alcohol is an option. If your case is a simple piece of formed acrylic, you may even be able to wash it under warm soapy water.
Nooks and Crannies
If your case has a lot of hard corners and ridges, you may be unpleasantly surprised to find that those areas have accumulated dirt and dust. If this is the case, you may be able to use a dry toothbrush or a folded sheet of paper towel to run through the grooves to clean out any debris. If the buildup is difficult to get out, you may be able to gently use a toothpick to work on it.
Step 2: Disinfection
Now that we’ve cleaned our phone and/or case and given germs fewer places to hide, we can move on to disinfection, or the use of chemicals to kill off germs. If you’re not gloved up yet, you’ll want to put some on for this step.
An important note about disinfection, especially disinfecting wipes: the surface to be disinfected must remain visibly wet for a certain period of time to be effective. Don’t be stingy and try and squeeze every last bit of life out of a disinfecting wipe or it won’t be as effective in killing off germs! Consult product packaging for directions regarding how long a surface needs to remain wet.
Disinfecting Your Phone
If we’ve learned anything from the cleaning process, it’s that a bare phone isn’t able to tolerate a lot of chemicals. This effectively limits our ability to disinfect. Furthermore, phones are sensitive to moisture. You want to make sure that if you’re using a spray cleanser, that you spray it on your cleansing cloth of choice instead of directly onto your phone. Your wipes should not be dripping, and disinfecting solution should not be pooling up on or around your phone.
Back to the Iso!
If you have a phone that you were safely able to use isopropyl alcohol on, this will likely be your best solution for disinfection. Unfortunately, according to the CDC, alcohols are not as effective as other disinfectants. In addition, alcohol air dries quickly, making it a difficult to keep the surface wet to disinfect.
Clorox or Lysol Wipes
This is not an option for the faint of heart, as it can very well damage your phone. If you decide to do this, please be aware there is always a possibility that these disinfecting wipes can permanently damage your phone. The only reason why I am mentioning them as an option is because Apple now lists on their website that gently using bleach-free versions of these products is acceptable for cleaning their products. Please exercise your best judgment in deciding whether or not to use these products on your phone.
NOTE: do not under any circumstances use the Lysol “Dual Action” disinfecting wipes (pictured above), as they have a rough texture designed for scrubbing!
Disinfecting Your Case
As with cleaning your phone’s case, disinfecting your phone’s case is highly dependent upon recommendations from the manufacturer, user manual, or Amazon listings with user questions about long-term use of disinfectants. Some manufacturers do not give detailed information about the types of cleansers that are appropriate to use on their cases, so I highly recommend browsing the “Questions and Answers” section of the Amazon listing for your case. One of the biggest advantages of Amazon being such a popular platform is that a lot of people post questions for all sorts of things. Questions and answers are searchable, and if you can’t find the answer to your question, you can ask it!
Worst case scenario if you’re unsure of what you can use on your case to disinfect it, you can choose to start off with the lightest disinfection method and go from there, seeing how your case responds. If your case gets ruined, you can always buy a new (better!) case that is approved for more disinfecting products, which is easily much less expensive than buying a whole new phone!
Isopropyl alcohol again?!
Once again, isopropyl or “rubbing” alcohol is a somewhat effective disinfectant, and if your case can handle it, it’s your first option. A word of caution, though: according to guidelines on disinfectants by the World Health Organization, “prolonged and repeated use of alcohol as a disinfectant can also cause discoloration, swelling, hardening and cracking of rubber and certain plastics.”
Clorox or Lysol Wipes
Again, this is highly dependent upon the recommendations for the case, but chances are if isopropyl alcohol is not safe for your case, neither are disinfecting wipes. Keep in mind that disinfecting cleansers like these must keep the surface wet for a certain period of time. Follow the instructions on the product packaging to optimize disinfection.
Hospital-Grade Disinfecting or Anti-Microbial Wipes
Believe it or not, some hospital-grade disinfecting wipes can be safe to use on certain phone cases. This was a huge benefit to purchasing my Lifeproof FRĒ Series case for my Samsung Galaxy S9. I spotted in the Amazon listing’s Q&A section that a nurse had been using anti-microbial wipes on her Lifeproof FRĒ case for almost a year and had no issues, and upon Googling it further, I discovered many others had the same experience!
Chances are, if you’re interpreting on-site in clinical settings, you will see these wipes. I have occasionally asked staff, especially when exposed to a sick and likely contagious patient, if I can snag a wipe or two and a pair of gloves. Fortunately staff has always been more than happy to allow me to use their wipes because they know it’s not only for my safety, but for theirs and the safety of our patients.
As I’ve said no less than a dozen times in this article, use this method with caution. Ultimately, it is your decision to use these products on your phone’s case. Hopefully that decision is informed with as much research as possible.
Another Option: PhoneSoap
I know, all of this sounds super complicated. There are so many different kinds of phones, screen protectors, and cases, and this series of combinations ultimately results in a very specific method for using cleaning and disinfection products. I’ve recently been seeing a lot of sponsored advertisements for a product called PhoneSoap, which is a sanitization option using UV Light.
I honestly thought this product looked and sounded like bunk science, but fortunately I was able to consult with Carolyn Hutchinson, Ph.D, a good friend of mine. Dr. Hutchinson is an analytical-environmental chemist working with contaminants of emerging concern in wastewater. According to them, PhoneSoap is very similar to the technology used in water and wastewater treatment plants, so it’s not baseless. But how does PhoneSoap stand up to COVID-19 or Coronavirus?
According to PhoneSoap’s website, its UV-C light kills 99.99% of household germs. But which household germs? Testing effectively killed off 99.99% of the following:
- Escherichia coli (E. Coli)
- Salmonella typhimurium (Salmonella)
- Staphylococcus aureus (Staph)
- Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
- Influenza A H1N1 (Flu)
- Rhinovirus (common cold)
What we refer to colloquially as Coronavirus is actually COVID-19 (previously referred to as 2019-nCoV), a type of coronavirus. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrom (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) were also types of coronaviruses. Needless to say, PhoneSoap does not claim to kill off this family of viruses, and I could not find any information on whether or not they have tested for effectiveness on coronaviruses. That being said, it certainly couldn’t hurt, especially if you have a phone or case that is difficult to disinfect or sanitize.
I’ve made this post as detailed as possible to try and preemptively answer any questions you may have, but I’ve probably missed something. If I’m sharing any incorrect information, please feel free to comment or send me a message.
Being on the front line during a pandemic is undoubtedly a scary thing, but one of the things we can do to take care of our mental health in these uncertain times is to focus on things that we can do. Also, doing whatever makes you feel safe is a wonderful way to cut down on your anxiety level. In my case, I find information and education fulfills both of these needs. This post is especially for those of you who share my sentiments. Be safe and take care of yourself, and remember: clean your phone!
Further Reading and Sources
Links are listed in order of appearance in the above article. Product links for reference are not included, so please refer to the article.
- Preventing COVID-19 Spread in Communities: Environmental Cleaning and Disinfection Recommendations (CDC)
- Coronavirus and your phone: How to effectively clean and disinfect your device (CNET)
- Better living through chemistry: Screen coatings and cover glass explained(Android Authority)
- In coronavirus’ wake, Apple says iPhone users can use disinfecting wipes and isopropyl alcohol on their devices (Fox News)
- There’s a right and wrong way to use cleaning wipes, apparently (Today)
- Chemical Disinfectants: Guideline for Disinfection and Sterilization in Healthcare Facilities (CDC)
- How to clean your Apple products (Apple)
- Infection Prevention and Control of Epidemic- and Pandemic-Prone Acute Respiratory Infections in Health Care: Annex G – Use of disinfectants: alcohol and bleach (National Center for Biotechnology Information)
- What’s the Difference Between Sanitizers and Disinfectants? (Nyco Products)
- Coronaviruses (National Foundation for Infectious Diseases)
- Taking Care of Your Mental Health in the Face of Uncertainty: Protecting Your Mental Health During the Coronavirus Outbreak (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)