The onslaught of coronavirus news has a lot of people on edge—especially about the things we touch.
For most of us, it’s easy enough to heed advice not to grip stairwell railings. But what about the phones we handle all day? Yes, your phone is covered in everyday germs (a “portable petri dish,” as one professor recently put it). This sort of concern has caused some media outlets to advise people to clean their phones to slow coronavirus’s spread.
But unless your stuff has come in contact with a droplet of mucus or saliva from a potentially infected person, we don’t think you need to worry about constantly cleaning your personal gear. “Unless you hand your phone to someone else, that’s probably the least likely thing to get contaminated by someone else,” said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the Infectious Diseases Division at the University of Utah School of Medicine. “The surfaces you need to be concerned about are surfaces that are touched by other people.”
Experts don’t yet know how long the virus that causes Covid-19 can survive on surfaces. While an analysis of 22 studies found that other coronaviruses are able to live on metal, glass, or plastic for anywhere from a few hours to an outside estimate of nine days, there’s no reason to believe that you’ll contract the virus by transferring it to your own headphones. “Remember, there is no real evidence that transmission is occurring outside of the realm of person [to] person,” said Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director of the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.
More important than sanitizing your own possessions is being careful when interacting with objects touched regularly by other humans in quick succession. “An ATM machine has almost certainly been touched continuously by hundreds of people. The PIN pad at your grocery store is being touched by hundreds of people,” said Swaminathan. If you touch one of those things, use hand sanitizer, or wash your hands as soon as you can. (If you are still using cash, it might be a good time to get used to contactless payment methods.)
Because the virus enters the body through the eyes, nose, and mouth, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends frequent and thorough handwashing as the best protection against infection. Murphy said to focus on that rather than scrutinizing your personal effects. “The virus is unstable outside of the human or animal body,” he added.
Still, there are situations where other people do touch our personal gadgets. So if you share a conference-room keyboard or if you’ve been passing your phone around to play Ellen’s Heads Up! game, you might want to disinfect your stuff.
You probably shouldn’t use a dripping antibacterial sheet to wipe everything down. Not all of your gadgets can handle moisture, abrasives, or solvents, and your warranty may be voided if you use a prohibited cleaner on a device.
Here are some basic instructions for disinfecting your gear without damaging it.
How to disinfect a phone or a tablet
- Always unplug your phone or tablet before attempting to clean it.
- Don’t spray your device directly, and avoid getting drips of moisture into any openings.
- Prep with a dry, soft cloth to remove debris and fingerprints. Never use paper fiber materials like a tissue or a paper towel, as they’re more abrasive and can leave scratches.
- Different phones can handle different cleaners, so consult the manufacturer’s website. For the Pixel 3a, Google recommends using “ordinary household soap or cleaning wipes” as needed, and it doesn’t specify restrictions on alcohol-based wipes. (We haven’t tested this ourselves yet.) Apple doesn’t recommend using alcohol (often the active ingredient in disinfectant wipes) or other cleaners and solvents, which could potentially damage the oil-resistant coating on the iPhone and iPad. You are probably fine using a soapy cloth and letting it dry.
- If you’re concerned about removing the oil-resistant coating, or if you want to go to town with some disinfectant, use a phone case or a screen protector and wipe it down with a soft cloth dampened with a little rubbing alcohol or a disinfecting wipe. (You can throw them out if they start to deteriorate.)
How to clean shared computers, keyboards, remote controls, and mouses
- Your personal laptop is probably fine, as it will have the germs that are usually on your body. However, if you share a computer with others at work, you should gently wipe it down.
- Always unplug your devices and remove batteries where possible before attempting to clean.
- Never spray your laptop directly.
- Never use paper fiber materials like a tissue or a paper towel, as they’re more abrasive and can leave scratches.
- Again, different computer manufacturers have different rules about what cleaners are allowed. You should be able to wipe down the outside case and keyboard with an alcohol-based disinfectant wipe or a soft cloth dampened with a bit of rubbing alcohol. Let it dry completely. Lenovo suggests using a soft cloth dampened with isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol to clean the keyboard, making sure not to drip liquid into any openings. Once again, Apple doesn’t recommend using alcohol in order to protect the oil-resistant coating on its laptops, keyboards, and trackpads. You may consider getting a wipeable cover for the laptop so it can be disinfected without damaging the machine.
How to disinfect frequently touched surfaces like shared tables and doorknobs
- The CDC recently published the Center for Biocides Chemistries’ list of EPA-approved disinfectants with its guidelines for polling stations. The list includes a lot of non-commercial, widely available options: Clorox Clean-Up with Bleach, Lysol Disinfectant Spray, Zep Antibacterial Disinfectant and Cleaner, and Simple Green Clean Finish, among others. Follow the instructions on how long you should let the disinfectant sit on the surface before you wipe it down.