Your phone probably won’t make you sick even with coronavirus, but clean it anyway

Helen Carefoot

THE WASHINGTON POST – As the coronavirus spreads, with more than 1.5 million cases reported globally, people are seeking information about how to protect themselves.

Although contact with personal devices such as phones and laptops doesn’t appear to be a primary mode of transmission – the virus is mostly spread through respiratory droplets – experts say it’s a good idea to clean them regularly.

In shared spaces, the United States (US)Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises cleaning all high-touch surfaces daily; its definition includes phones, keyboards and tablets.

“The risk is unquestionably highest by droplets from an infected person,” said Jonathan Eisen, a microbiologist and professor at the University of California at Davis. “So far there’s no evidence that cellphones are [objects] to worry about unless you’re sharing, but it’s not unreasonable to clean them. I think anything that might be exposed to droplets is a concern.”

Generally, if you’re the only person using your laptop and phone, and you use them in a normal, everyday environment such as your home or workplace, and you wash your hands and clean your devices regularly, you’re basically sharing microbes with yourself and aren’t likely to get sick, Eisen said. However, your risk increases when you’re in environments with other people who might be sick and if you’re touching objects they are touching, because not everyone is diligent about washing their hands and covering their coughs and sneezes.

As the coronavirus spreads, with more than 1.5 million cases reported globally, people are seeking information about how to protect themselves. Although contact with personal devices such as phones and laptops doesn’t appear to be a primary mode of transmission – the virus is mostly spread through respiratory droplets – experts say it’s a good idea to clean them regularly
The paper from the Journal of Hospital Infection, which analysed the results of 22 studies, found some coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, could be inactivated by disinfecting hard surfaces with between 62 per cent and 71 per cent ethanol, 0.5 per cent hydrogen peroxide or 0.1 per cent sodium hypochlorite.

An object such as a subway handrail or computer keyboard can harbour microbes including pathogens – infectious organisms that cause disease, such as covid-19 – but those pathogens can make you sick only in the right environment and with the right transmission method. For example, if someone sneezes into their hand and touches a subway pole, and then you touch the pole and use that hand to scratch your eye, you could become infected.

If you have to touch something you can’t clean first, Eisen said, wash your hands afterward and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

Ebenezer Tumban, a molecular virologist and associate professor of biological sciences at Michigan Technological University, recommends daily cleaning for public or shared phones and computers, and cleaning your personal device if someone sneezes or coughs nearby without covering their mouth, plus staying home if you are ill. “If someone is infected, they should stay in their home or wherever they are because it prevents them from coming in contact with other people and contaminating surfaces others can come in contact with,” he said.

Little is known about covid-19, but studies of other coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome) found they can remain on surfaces such as metal, glass or plastic for up to nine days, according to a recent paper in the Journal of Hospital Infection. Another study, which looked at the role surfaces played in a SARS outbreak at a hospital in Hong Kong, found that although the primary route of transmission was airborne, the surfaces route “played a non-negligible role.”

The paper from the Journal of Hospital Infection, which analysed the results of 22 studies, found some coronaviruses, such as SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, could be inactivated by disinfecting hard surfaces with between 62 per cent and 71 per cent ethanol, 0.5 per cent hydrogen peroxide or 0.1 per cent sodium hypochlorite. Many anti-microbial cleaning agents contain these proportions; check the ingredients and follow package instructions.

Wiping won’t be as effective for non-smooth surfaces, Eisen said. Both experts said ultraviolet light can inactivate viruses in lab settings, but it’s unclear how effective it would be on smooth surfaces such as phones.

There’s conflicting advice about whether you should use cleaning wipes directly on your phone because cleaners could damage the touchscreen coating; you could use a protective screen cover and case and wipe that down. (Apple and Samsung didn’t respond to requests for comment before publication, but Apple recently updated its device cleaning page to say that you could wipe the “hard, nonporous parts” of your device with a Clorox wipe or 70 per cent isopropyl alcohol.)

Under normal circumstances, Brian Sansoni of the American Cleaning Institute suggests using a microfiber cloth to give your phone a gentle wipe-down when you notice smears and smudges. He wipes his screen and phone case daily and uses premoistened, device-cleaning cloths that he buys at electronics stores. Clean cases with a disinfecting wipe and wait for them to dry completely before putting them back on your device.

Melissa Maker, founder of boutique cleaning firm Clean My Space in Toronto, dispenses cleaning tips and advice on her YouTube channel, which includes a video on how to clean your laptop.

Maker, who wipes her tablet with a microfibre cloth about three times a week, said the cleaning is more for device maintenance than killing bacteria.

Apple and Microsoft suggest powering off and unplugging devices before cleaning them, especially when using liquids. Liquid damage could void your device’s warranty, Maker said, so never spray anything directly onto the device, and keep cleaning agents away from openings where liquid could seep in, such as charger or USB ports. Never use harsh cleaning agents such as bleach or ammonia – and definitely don’t use a window-cleaning product such as Windex, Maker says.

To clean screens, touchpads and exteriors, move a flat-weave microfibre cloth in an S pattern, starting from the top corner and zigzagging down to the bottom of the screen to avoid streaks and to cover larger areas, Maker said. A dry cloth should be enough to get rid of most fingerprints and smudges. You can moisten the cloth with a little water or a mix of water and mild soap. Put your index finger in the cloth and buff spots away using a circular motion. A little isopropyl alcohol (Maker uses 70 per cent), which dries on contact, lifts away stubborn stains, such as adhesive residue or coffee spots.

To clean keyboards, gently wipe the keyboard with the cloth. Use compressed air and a soft-bristle toothbrush or cotton swab to free large particles such as dust or crumbs from between the keys. “Use short blasts and use the straw nozzle to direct the air,” Maker says, and hold the can about three inches away from the keyboard. You can also go over each key with isopropyl alcohol on a swab.