The Proper Way to Clean and Disinfect Your Smartphone

I spoke with the Wall Street Journal recently about the difficulty in cleaning smartphone screens. A post I wrote in September last year about cleaning phones is republished below. 

My wife is a bit of a germaphobe, so she frequently asks that I disinfect her iPhone. When I indulge her concerns, I use an isopropyl alcohol-soaked swab.

It turns out this is a very bad thing to do.

Here are Apple’s instructions for cleaning its phones:

Use a soft, slightly damp, lint-free cloth. Avoid getting moisture in openings. Don’t use window cleaners, household cleaners, aerosol sprays, solvents, alcohol, ammonia, or abrasives to clean iPhone. The front and back glass surfaces have an oleophobic coating. To remove fingerprints, simply wipe these surfaces with a soft, lint-free cloth. The ability of this coating to repel oil will diminish over time with normal usage, and rubbing the screen with an abrasive material will further diminish its effect and may scratch the glass.

Note that the page is titled, “How to Clean Apple Products” (emphasis mine). There is a separate page about disinfecting Apple products, but that is only recommended for keyboards, trackpads and mice; i.e., non-glass products.

Apple got attention for the oleophobic iPhone screen back when it launched the iPhone 3GS. This Gizmodo piece does a good job of explaining how the screen works. (In short, the coating makes the screen less greasy.) Today, many smartphones, not just iPhones, have oleophobic coatings, and Apple is continuing to make improvements in the coating it uses.

So, the proper way to clean your smartphone: A very slightly damp (from water!) lint-free cloth.

There really is no proper way to disinfect your smartphone screen. But let’s say a child with virulent strep throat has just sneezed all over your phone. Then what? What is the best way to disinfect the screen when necessary?

Apple recommends using Lysol or Clorox disinfecting wipes on keyboards and other non-glass products. These wipes are bleach and alcohol free, and use ammonium chloride as the disinfecting agent. I spoke with a chemist reader of mine who strongly advised against using isopropyl alcohol (my previous cleaner of choice).

“I don’t think I’d want to get isopropyl alcohol on my phone,” he said. “It’s a pretty darn good solvent.”

Fortunately, I didn’t use alcohol on my wife’s screen too many times. She keeps her phone in a plastic case, which can very easily be safely disinfected. I’ll stay away from the screen from now on.

  • happytogarden

    Would a vinegar solution clean a phone (smart one or old one) without hurting it?

    • Olivia Lane

      Vinegar is an acid and it doesn’t dry as quickly as alcohol so it’s probably not the best choice given other available options.

    • Vicky Tiffany

      I didn’t test it but I guess the easiest way would be to loose the connection to iCloud and then just reset it completely.

      But I don’t know if this is enough to clean it completely or if it would still be possible to regain the information through any kind of tools.

  • Olivia Lane

    Good to know! Thanks. I had no idea about this. I use a minimal amount of diluted alcohol (1 part distilled water and 1 part rubbing alcohol) on my iPhone screen BUT it has a plastic screen scratch shield on it, so that’s not actually touching the Apple screen which may be more sensitive. Still, I use the same solution to clean my laptop screen and HDTV screen. No issues yet.

    PS I am enjoying your blog. I discovered it because of the Vienna sausages and olives sandwich fail post. (Hilarious!) I hope you’ll come nerd out about cleaning at my blog.

    -Olivia from Olivia Cleans Green

  • Dj

    Sorry I don’t mean to be rude but given the title of this post, its completely useless. So the proper way to disinfect your phone is, well you can’t… Surely there must be a way of removing germs from the phone, water will not suffice.

    • Simple

      UV light.

    • Alexishere

      I really like this blog, but I have to agree the title of this piece should be: “No Proper Way To Disinfect Your Smartphone.” I clicked on it specifically to read about how to disinfect my iPhone, and I was a bit annoyed that by the end I was left with a big, “….uh….?” Still, I like this site :-)

  • Jennifer Nolen

    I had an iPhone 4S (before an operating system upgrade bricked it) and I cleaned it frequently with alcohol pads. My bad…I killed the special coating very quickly. But at least I knew that phone was clean. I work in a hospital lab around some pretty nasty germs, so I clean all hard surfaces with bleach or alcohol frequently.


    A UV light wand from verilux works.

  • Shari

    how about chloride wipes?

    • Steve-o

      I use a “wrung out” corner of a Clorox Wipe and have not had any problems, but I would probably advise against doing that too often.

  • Tj

    Your Chemist-reader is correct with “It’s a pretty darn good solvent.”’ – against your children’s toy-mobile-phones.

    But not Adult-Mobile-Phones. An R&D Chemist-Reader here, says, no “. . . manufacturer wants millions of Product-Recalls.” [due to wiped-off alphanumeric characters disinfecting with isopropyl alcohol also called Rubbing Alcohol] ! OR worse yet, the Carrier’s colorful Logo being wiped off using this very-common-solvent.

    Now, all chemist might agree, not to use “Acetone” [Nail Polish Remover]. YIKES !

    Go back to ISOPropyl alcohol as a another good choice. Then Class-Gleaner with NH3 [Ammonia] to remove streaks.

  • iceman

    This post is titled “How to Clean and *Disinfect* [emphasis mine] Your Smartphone”, but you never actually instruct how to disinfect a smartphone.

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