It’s a germy world out there, and we humans are only living in it. Bacteria, viruses, fungi and other microscopic germs – both harmless and harmful – live among us. And when cold and flu season rolls in during the winter months, many of the germs around us can make us sick.

There are the usual steps you probably take to stay well like washing your hands, covering your sneezes and keeping your home clean. But even with all that you do to stay illness-free, you might be overlooking a big safe haven for germs that’s hiding in plain sight. In fact, you might be reading this blog on one right now.

They’re smartphones and even if they look clean, they might be layered with microorganisms that can make you sick. We’ll go over why a clean phone is good for your health and how you can de-germ your device without damaging the sensitive technology within. We’ll also share some small steps you can take to keep your phone fresh.

Why is cleaning your phone important?

From the time we check our first emails in the morning to the final videos that lull us to sleep, our smartphones are constantly with us, day in and day out. That also means that they’re exposed to a lot of the environments and conditions that we experience every day. And for every table it sits on, hand that carries it or finger that runs across its screen, your phone picks up germs like a snowball.

It’s true that a good portion of those germs are pretty harmless, or they’re ones that you already have an immunity against. But there’s the potential that you can pick up cold, flu and RSV germs that can make you sick. Plus, if you use your phone while preparing food, you can deposit germs that cause food poisoning or norovirus, which is easily spread through food and drink. Even particularly nasty germs and pathogens like Shigella, Giardia, Streptococcus, MRSA and E. coli are known to be found on smartphones.

Will having these germs on your phone automatically make you sick? Of course not. But if you touch your phone and then touch your face, nose or mouth, you’ve made it very possible for those germs to find their way into your body. That’s why it’s important to clean your phone regularly.

Cleaning vs. sanitizing vs. disinfecting your phone

While those three terms seem interchangeable, each has its own particular degree of clean. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines cleaning as removing germs with soap and water, sanitizing as reducing germs with sanitizing sprays, and disinfecting as killing germs with strong chemicals.

Your phone has special coatings and technology that require a balanced approach to getting rid of germs, and full-on sanitizing or disinfecting your phone would both be overkill when it comes to germs and would literally kill your phone due to the chemicals involved. Our cleaning tips below will get rid of the vast majority of germs that can make you sick while keeping your phone in working condition.

How to quickly and safely clean your phone

It doesn’t take much to give your phone a good and thorough cleaning – one that eliminates most germs without putting any special coatings or inside circuitry at risk. And it’s a good habit to get into, either in the morning or late at night.

Unplug and turn off your phone

Cleaning can kick up dust, static and even a little bit of liquid, none of which is good for a phone that’s connected to a power source. Go one step further and turn your phone off to prevent any accidental swipes that can mess up your phone’s settings.

Daily cleaning with a microfiber or lens cleaning cloth

Microfiber or lens cleaning cloths are easy to come by and do a great job without leaving streaks or scratches. A quick wipe across all of the surfaces of your phone and screen will get rid of most of the daily yuck while leaving a nice polish. After a few uses, throw the cloth in the laundry without any scented detergents or fabric softeners.

Weekly cleaning with a wet microfiber cloth or disposable wipe

Once a week, give your phone a deeper clean with a little bit of moisture. Before you start cleaning, remove your phone’s case (if you use one). Then take a clean, dry microfiber cloth and either spray or lightly dampen the cloth with some distilled water (not tap water, which can have trace minerals that can scratch).

For extra germ-fighting power, mix 99% isopropyl alcohol and distilled water in a spray bottle to a ratio of 70% alcohol and 30% water. Spray your microfiber cloth lightly with the solution and clean away. You can also use disposable 70% isopropyl alcohol wipes or disinfecting wipes like those made by Clorox or Lysol – just wring out any extra moisture before wiping down your phone. (Don’t worry about disinfecting wipes destroying your phone’s surfaces – Apple has given the go-ahead to use them. Plus, weekly wipes are infrequent enough to clean your phone without inflicting damage above and beyond daily use. For other brands of phones, be sure to check the manufacturer’s instructions to check what you can safely use on your phone’s screen.)

After cleaning your phone, let it dry for a few minutes while giving your phone’s case a quick wipe. It’s important to note that some fabric and leather cases don’t react well to alcohol or disinfectant, so a distilled water wipe with a tiny bit of gentle dishwashing soap will do for those. Once the case has had a minute or two to dry fully, reassemble and you’re set to go.

How not to clean your phone

Today’s smartphones are pretty resilient when it comes to scratches and splashes. But it’s best not to put your expensive technology to the test when it comes to regular cleaning. Here are some things to avoid:

  • Don’t spray liquids directly on your phone – Splash-proof, waterproof or neither, smartphones still have seams, ports and speakers where forceful sprays of moisture can wreak expensive havoc. When cleaning with liquids, spray onto a cloth first.
  • Don’t use compressed air – Compressed air dusters work great for keyboards but using them on a phone can send dust and particles shooting into nooks and crannies where they don’t belong.
  • Never use household glass and surface cleaners – These aren’t made for electronic screens and devices, and have chemicals and abrasives that play poorly with smartphones. Stick with solutions that include distilled water.
  • Never use bleach or vinegar – Either straight or in a solution, bleach will wreck your tech. Vinegar isn’t as destructive, but it can still strip screen coatings. There are better, more effective and safer ways to clean your phone, so it’s best to avoid both entirely.
  • Don’t use hand sanitizer on your phone – This may seem to make sense in a pinch, but it’s a bad idea on multiple levels. It may have alcohol, but it also has moisturizers and fragrances that can leave nasty remnants on your phone’s surface.
  • Avoid using paper towels or the bottom of your shirt – Don’t clean your phone with anything that has lint or coarse fibers that can instantly scuff your screen. Always use a microfiber or lens cloth.

What about using UV light?

When it comes to keeping phones clean, you might have seen ads for boxes or wands that use UV light as a way to kill germs. While UV light has proven to be very effective in disinfecting surfaces in industrial and commercial settings, these products can come with a big question mark. Some UV products on the market may not have the energy or technology to be effective, and all still require a clean phone to be effective. The best, easiest and least expensive way to keep your phone clean – at least for now – is to give your phone a weekly wipe.

Now that you have a phone that’s clean, how do you keep it that way between wipes? Here are some simple ways to reduce the flow of germs:

  • Wash your hands – Your hands are constantly all over your phone. Keep your hands washed, and your phone will stay cleaner as well.
  • Keep your home clean – Setting your phone down on sanitized surfaces like counters and tabletops will also help prevent picking up anything nasty.
  • Stop bringing your phone into the bathroom – This goes without saying. However, if you must carry your smartphone with you to the toilet, avoid putting it on a surface or having it out in the open when you flush. And if possible, keep the toilet lid down when you flush to avoid spraying germs everywhere.
  • Avoid handing off your phone to others – If you do, no worries, just give it a good wipe down later in the day.

Smartphones are something we use every day. It’s easy to not pay attention to where we set it or if we touch it with dirty hands. But by taking just a minute out of your day for a quick clean, you can feel better that you’ll pick up fewer germs and decrease your chances of picking up the latest virus.

But even if you have the cleanest phone in the world, you might still find yourself sick with some form of crud. Don't worry – if that happens, our primary care doctors are ready to help you get back to health.