As hygiene concerns skyrocket in light of the novel coronavirus, many people are asking an important question: Are smartphones a coronavirus risk? This question is especially relevant for healthcare workers who use their smartphone or tablet at work. Let’s look at the potential for smartphones to transmit coronavirus and how you can keep your devices clean.

How to avoid coronavirus in hospitals and clinics

Anyone working in a hospital or clinic is familiar with how viruses spread. While there is much to learn about the newly emerged novel coronavirus (COVID-19), we do have lots of data from previous coronaviruses.

COVID-19 spreads mostly from person-to-person via respiratory droplets, according to the CDC. That means it is best to avoid being within 6 feet of a patient with COVID-19 for any longer than needed. Avoid contact with infectious secretions including sputum, serum, blood and respiratory droplets.

In addition, CDC recommends that you:

  • Assess and triage patients with acute respiratory symptoms, including placing a facemask on the patient or isolating them in an Airborne Infection Isolation Room.
  • Use standard contact and airborne precautions, including eye protection.
  • Properly don, use and doff Protective Personal Equipment.
  • Perform aerosol-generating procedures while following appropriate IPC practices.
  • Practice hand hygiene with alcohol-based hand rub before and after all contact with patients or potentially infections material.

The last recommendation raises the question: What is potentially infectious material? Does this include the smartphones and tablets you use at work?

Is your smartphone a coronavirus risk?

Many viruses can survive for days on hard surfaces. While there’s not yet definitive research on COVID-19, past studies raise concerns. A recent analysis of 22 studies revealed that coronaviruses “can persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic up to 9 days.”

In short, the current coronavirus probably can survive on your smartphone for a while. This matters because Americans touch their phones roughly every 12 minutes throughout the day. That frequency is equivalent to 80 uses a day, or over 2,000 swipes, taps, or clicks.

As one study concluded, “mobile phones are not only capable of transferring messages, but also are disease-producing microbes.” The study found that 93% of phones owned by healthcare workers were crawling with germs, compared to 58% among non-healthcare workers.

Germs are a concern on smartphones because most people do a lot face touching. While hand-washing is the best way to protect yourself against a virus, it’s less effective if those hands go directly back to a smartphone or tablet you were touching before you washed. Pay attention to how often your hands go from your phone directly to your face.

Logically, we can understand how important it is to clean our smartphones in addition to washing our hands. This is especially important for healthcare workers who use their phone frequently on the job.

How to clean your smartphone

To prevent COVID-19 from spreading, the CDC recommends “cleaning all high-touch surfaces everyday.” High touch surfaces include “counters, tabletops, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, toilets, phones, keyboards, tablets, and beside tables.”

If you work in a hospital or clinic, you’re probably accustomed to disinfecting surfaces. But most smartphones and tablets don’t hold up well to commercial-grade cleaning products. They might be fine once, but over time, those products can damage the oil-resistant coating on most devices.

Instead of using those cleaning products, use the following guidelines for disinfecting your smartphone.

Guidelines for cleaning your device

Clean the case. Take your phone out of its case. If the case is made of safe-to-wash materials like TPU/silicone and hard plastic, wash the case in warm water and let it air dry. You can use regular alcohol wipes on the phone’s case.

Option 1: Mobile screen wipes or bleach wipes. The safest way to clean your phone (for the phone) is to wipe it down with a mobile screen wipe design specifically for smartphones. This will remove most of the grime and germs on the device. Apple recently updated its website to state that using bleach-based or 70% isopropyl alcohol disinfecting wipes is another safe, effective way to clean devices.

Option 2: Wash it in the sink. If your phone is water-resistant you can simply wash it with soap and warm water. Do make sure to know the specs of your phone and your warranty details before routinely running it under the faucet. The newest popular phones like iPhone 11, Google Pixel 4 and Samsung Galaxy S10 can all be safely submerged in water. The iPhone 7 and 8 are also technically water-resistant, although they’re probably out of warranty and resistance might have decreased over time.

Option 3: Screen protector & alcohol. Another option is to install a smartphone screen protector. If your phone has a screen protector and case, you can wipe down the outside with a regular alcohol wipe without damaging the device.

Option 4 Damp cloth: If none of the above options work, you are probably fine using a damp soapy cloth. Just be gentle with the phone and avoid getting it too wet.

Bonus cleaning To be extra thorough, use a Q-Tip to gently swab around the earpiece, speaker grills and various ports on your device.

Dry it. Ideally let your phone air dry. Paper towels can be abrasive, but lightly patting your device dry with a disposable towel shouldn’t damage it. You can also dry the phone with a clean, soft cloth.

Cleaning your device several times a day may seem like a hassle. But even a quick cleaning with a screen wipe can help remove germs. Or, if your phone is water-resistant, just wash it when you wash your hands.

It may also make sense to institute mobile device cleaning regimens at medical offices where tablets and phones are handled frequently around patients. Scheduled pre-clinic, lunchtime, and post-clinic cleaning routines would be a great way to reduce potential transmission and simultaneously help staff remember to regularly sanitize their devices.

One final disinfecting option is a smartphone UV sanitizer. UV phone baths are roughly the size of a hardback book, and they can disinfect your phone in just a few moments. If you’re serious about not making your smartphone a coronavirus risk, this could be the time to purchase one for your clinic.

Maintaining perspective

You should avoid making your smartphone a coronavirus risk, but this obviously shouldn’t be your primary concern. Any surface touched directly by patients is much more likely to be infected. You’ll also want to worry more about doorknobs and PIN pads at the grocery store than you will about your smartphone.  The hard, flat surface of your smartphone is also much easier to clean than the many hard-to-reach gaps on a computer keyboard.

But for healthcare workers who have embraced mobile health, smartphones are a huge asset. Make sure to keep yourself and your patients safe by regularly cleaning your devices.