Preventing COVID-19: Should you clean your smartphone?

TORONTO — The rapid spread of COVID-19 coronavirus has many thinking about how easily bacteria and viruses can be spread in everyday environments.

In the midst of an outbreak, elevator buttons, grocery cart handles, and point-of-sale terminals can all seem like potential threats. But most of us fail to consider one of the dirtiest, most bacteria and germ-laden surfaces in our lives: our smartphones.

According to a study published in early February, viruses like COVID-19 could live for up to nine days on smooth glass and plastic surfaces, like a smartphone screen.

Although the study did not explore how easily coronaviruses could be transferred from contaminated surfaces to a person’s hands, or the frequency of which this happened, the study authors make a promising case for including your phone in the list of surfaces that should be disinfected.

“Although the viral load of coronaviruses on inanimate surfaces is not known during an outbreak situation it seem plausible to reduce the viral load on surfaces by disinfection, especially of frequently touched surfaces,” the study, published in the Journal of Hospital infection, noted.

Smartphone users touch their phones an average of 2,617 per day, by some estimates, and studies have already shown just how many germs live on the surface of our beloved mobile devices.

But as the World Health Organization (WHO) and Public Health Canada urge people to wash their hands frequently and use alcohol-based hand rubs to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, it’s worth pointing out that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people clean “high-touch” surfaces — including smartphones and tables — every day.

“High touch surfaces include counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets, and bedside tables,” reads the CDC’s coronavirus briefing.

HOW TO PROPERLY DISINFECT YOUR SMARTPHONE

This is where it gets tricky.

Your smartphone’s screen has an “oleophobic coating” that is designed to cut down on fingerprints and prevent moisture from affecting it.

For this reason, smartphone makers like Apple and Samsung recommend against using harsh products such as window and household cleaners, solvents, ammonia, abrasives, or cleaners containing hydrogen peroxide to clean your device.

While Apple notes this coating will wear away over time “with normal use,” the tech company adds that abrasive materials will “further diminish its effect and might scratch the glass.”

The safest way to clean your phone is to use a soft, lint-free cloth with warm soapy water.

If you’re not worried about the coronavirus, cleaning your phone can still get rid of other germs.

Peter Hall, professor at the University of Waterloo’s School of Public Health, suggests that users disinfect their mobile devices twice per day with an antibacterial wipe.

“Clean your device at least twice daily, once at lunch and once at dinner time (or linked to another daily routine),” Hall said in a recent article, calling the smartphone a “portable petri dish.”

UV-C light cleaners claim to sanitize smartphones using short-wavelength ultraviolet light to break apart germ DNA. Companies that develop these devices claim they are capable of killing 99.99 per cent of household germs; however, it’s unclear how effective this would be on coronaviruses.

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