If you nervously squat over a public toilet but think nothing of rubbing your iPhone all over your face, you’re doing it wrong: your phone is dirty. Very, very dirty. According to a 2010 study by UK’s Which Magazine, the average smartphone has 18 times more potentially harmful bacteria on it than the flusher on the toilet in the average public men’s restroom. So, basically, you’re clutching the germ equivalent of a Starbucks urinal in your hand all the live long day. Oops.
Why? Why would your iPhone — your truest friend, constant companion, and trusted source of all human knowledge — do this to you? Well, to summarize years of nuanced scientific research: it’s your own damn fault. Our phones are hot spots for germs not only because we constantly paw at them with our filthy hands, but because we pass them around like a newborn baby to all our friends who also touch it with dirty hands. We never clean them, we store them in warm places, and we cannot. Stop. Using. Our. Phones. While. Pooping.
So yes, your phone is basically as germy as Gwyneth Paltrow in Contagion. But can those germs actually make you sick? And is there anything you can actually do about it? Or should we all just take a deep breath and accept that we’re doomed to check Instagram on a giant, $700 Petri dish?
Exactly How Dirty Is Your Phone?
According to a number of shocking-sounding studies, your phone is 10 times dirtier than your average toilet seat. However, the sound of that is a little misleading — as University of Arizona microbiologist Chuck Gerba told BBC.com, the toilet seat is one of the cleanest spaces in the home, with only 50 bacteria per square inch on its surface. I mean, your cutting board has 200 times more fecal bacteria on it than your toilet seat (sorry to have to tell you that! Maybe order takeout tonight).
But even though the “dirtier than a toilet seat” thing is kind of a fake-out, your phone is still pretty frickin’ dirty. The average smartphone carries 11,020 germs per square inch — and in some tests, one in six randomly selected phones had fecal matter on it. Some microbiologists have warned that between 20 and 30 percent of infectious diseases can be transferred from fingertip to phone glass, where the microbes can survive on your phone for several days at a time.
Why Is Your Phone So Dirty?
So why is your phone so riddled with germs? Hmmm, let’s try “you touch it with your gross unwashed hands all day and rest it on every germ-laden surface physically available to you?”
For starters, your phone picks up germs from your mouth, nose, and ears when you use it. You also probably place it on dirty surfaces, like your desk at work (which contains 79,000 germs per square inch on your computer alone), your germ-ridden kitchen counter, your purse (a third of purses have been found to carry E. coli bacteria) and yeah, occasionally somewhere in your bathroom (75 percent of people have admitted to using the phones on the john — we’re past the point of lying about this, right?). Even if toilet seats are prettyclean, other parts of the bathroom — including the toilet paper roll — are some of the germiest surfaces you’ll come into contact with during the course of your day, and your toilet water has a splash radius of up to six feet every time that you flush.
But the biggest problems arise when we hand our phones off to others. While our bodies are generally used to whatever set of germs we are carrying, when a friend touches our phone, a whole new ecosystem of germs are introduced to our phones — and thus into our ears, mouths, nose, and lives.
Add in how hot phones get on their own — and how we usually keep them someplace warm, like our pants pocket, our hands, or next to our face — and you’ve got ripe conditions for crazy germ growth.
But Can Those Germs Actually Make You Sick?
You may have noticed that despite all of this disturbing information, you probably don’t currently have a staph infection in your texting thumb. That’s because, while our phones are covered in germs, most of them aren’t actually all that dangerous to adults with fully functioning immune systems. A University of Surrey study had undergrad students immerse their personal phones in Petri dishes to cultivate the germs found on them, and found that most of the germs on the phones were harmless. Some disease-carrying bacteria, like Staphylococcus aureus or E.Coli, did make an appearance, but not frequently.
However, that doesn’t mean that you can just blow off all of this phone germ talk. Some biologists do believe that dirty phones can be dangerous to handle; and if a baby, small child, older person, or person with a compromised immune system goes anywhere near your phone on the regular, know that germs that don’t impact you could impact them, so you’ll want to keep that thing clean for their sake.
It’s also good to get into the habit of cleaning your phone on the regular so that in times of germy outbreaks — like when a nasty cold is going around your office or your house — you’ll have one less disease vector to worry about.
How Can You Really Clean Your Phone?
So even if your phone has yet to give you the actual literal Black Plague, why not get in the habit of effectively cleaning it? Let’s start by dispelling some phone cleaning myths: window cleaners won’t disinfect your phone unless they are a special disinfecting formulation of the product (it’ll say if it has disinfectant properties on the label), and spritzing the screen with water won’t kill any germs. And since phones are full of sensitive electronic circuitry, you probably want to keep water or window cleaner as far away from them as you can, anyway.
What you really want to use (short of a UV phone cleaner) is antibacterial wipes made specifically to clean electronics. There are a lot of wipes out there created specifically to not damage your phone, so don’t mess with normal antibacterial wipes or hand sanitizer created to clean your body — they could potentially damage your phone.
To keep things squeaky clean, power your phone down every other day, take it out of its case, and then wipe down the phone and the case with the wipes. Researchers have found that the most germ-laden, dirtiest part of the phone is the “home” button, so don’t forget to give that one a good rub. Give everything a chance to dry before you put the case back on.
Of course, cleaning is only half the battle — the other is keeping things from getting so germy in the first place. Try to hold your phone when showing photos to others, rather than passing the phone to them directly; wash your own hands frequently; and valiantly try to fight the temptation to use your phone while pooping. Seriously. I mean, how long are you in there? Maybe you should pick up some fiber tablets when you run out to get those antibacterial wipes.