How to clean and sanitize your electronics

Last Updated July 2020
By Allen Foster

Not long ago, cleaning and disinfecting your electronics might have been something you did occasionally if you happened to find yourself with a spare wipe. Nowadays, it's a task that you perform regularly with diligence. And if you don't, you're about to find out why you should.

Cleaning is not disinfecting

Before we get started, it’s important to understand the difference between cleaning and disinfecting, because they aren’t the same thing. Most people are far better at cleaning than they are at disinfecting. Cleaning, for the most part, is done with soap and water. It is a process that involves physically removing dirt from a surface. It is possible to simply move germs from one surface to another when cleaning. 

Disinfecting, however, involves killing germs — or, at the very least, making them incapable of reproducing. Disinfecting does not involve removing dirt. This is why you must both clean and disinfect your devices.

What about sanitizing?

Sanitizing is similar to disinfecting, but it only concerns bacteria, not viruses. Sanitizing is typically more closely associated with the foodservice industry. It’s used to make a surface safe for contact with food.

Does cleaning or disinfecting kill the coronavirus?

The reason we have repeatedly been told to wash our hands from the start of this pandemic is because the coronavirus can actually be killed by simply using soap and water. In other words, you can clean and disinfect in one step. This is possible because the coronavirus is an enveloped virus, meaning it has a fatty sphere surrounding the virus. That fatty sphere contains the RNA that is so damaging to human cells, but it is also the virus's weak point. 

If that fatty cell is torn open, the virus dies. Soap and water alone won't do that, but physical agitation, i.e., washing your hands for 20 seconds or more, will. If there is no soap or running water, the alcohol found in a product like hand sanitizer can also kill the virus (if it contains at least 70% alcohol).

What does this have to do with my phone or tablet?

The current understanding is that the coronavirus is spread through respiratory droplets. Respiratory droplets are mostly water, so they drop to the ground after being expelled from the body. It’s important to understand that respiratory droplets are produced not only by coughing and sneezing, but simply by talking and breathing, so they are constantly being released.

Surfaces where these droplets land are called fomites. Current evidence suggests that the coronavirus may survive anywhere from mere hours to several days depending on the type of surface the respiratory droplets land on. Luckily, this virus needs to attach itself to a very specific receptor cell in order to start an infection. The coronavirus cannot infect you if it only remains on your hands; it must come in contact with your eyes, nose, or mouth.

If you touch a contaminated surface, the coronavirus may be transmitted to your hand. If you check a text message, the virus is now on your phone. If you wash your hands, the virus is gone. However, if you pick up your phone and scroll through your social media feeds, your hands may become contaminated again. When your eyes get bleary and you rub them, the virus can find a way in.

How often should I clean my electronic devices?

According to a study conducted by the University of Arizona, there are ten times more germs on your phone than there are on a toilet seat. Any part of any device that you regularly touch needs to be cleaned and disinfected. This would include the keys of your laptop or computer and the screen of your tablet or phone. Ideally, you want to be cleaning and disinfecting all of your devices on a daily basis. Twice a day is even better. However, if you leave the house with your phone, be sure to clean it as soon as you come home. If you leave the house without your phone, make sure your hands are clean before you touch it.

What's the best way to clean my devices?

Since the coronavirus can be killed by soap and water, you could stick your phone in the sink and scrub it down. While that would get rid of the virus, it would also most likely ruin your phone. Do not wash your electronics! Do not expose them to running water of any kind. The best way to clean and disinfect your electronics is by following the directions in your owner's manual.

According to the CDC, "If no manufacturer guidance is available, consider the use of alcohol-based wipes or sprays containing at least 70% alcohol to disinfect touch screens."

It is important to point out that not just any wipes will do. If they are cleaning wipes for your baby, they aren’t going to be alcohol-based, so they will not work.

What about UV rays?

Currently, the only type of UV (ultraviolet) rays that seem to have any appreciable effect on the coronavirus are UVC rays (the most damaging type of UV radiation because it is capable of destroying genetic material). While UVC rays have been used to kill viruses on hospital surfaces, there are two problems with using UVC light to disinfect the electronic devices in your home. 

First and foremost, UVC rays damage all genetic material, including your skin and eyes, so using a UVC sanitizer in a home environment can be extremely dangerous. Second, though there have been some promising results, the effectiveness of UVC sterilizers varies from situation to situation. Without an in-depth understanding of the process, there is no assurance it would work as you are expecting.

Conclusion

The best method for keeping your electronics clean and virus-free involves a two-step process. Step 1: Regularly wash your hands throughout the day. Step 2: Clean and disinfect your electronics daily using one of the methods outlined above.