Did you know your iPhone may actually be up to 18 times dirtier than a public toilet? This is the specific claim made by PhoneSoap, and while it may be shocking — and likely at least a little bit self-serving, considering that the company sells a UV sanitizer aimed at smartphone users — if you actually sit down and take some time to think about how you use your iPhone, it’s probably not all that surprising.
Apple does such a great job of making the iPhone look shiny and clean that it’s easy to forget what might be lurking on the surface. After all, we handle our iPhones many, many times each day. Probably more than any other single object that we touch. Maybe even more often than we touch any part of our own bodies.
We also use our iPhones in a wide variety of different places and circumstances, and unless you have the hygienic diligence of a germaphobe, you’ve almost certainly transferred germs and bacteria to your iPhone from all sorts of everyday objects, ranging from toilet handles to gas station pumps and subway turnstiles — and that doesn’t even include the places where you set your iPhone down.
Further, when was the last time you wiped your iPhone or its case down with even a damp cloth, much less actually applied soap or any kind of cleaning agent to it? For most people, the answer may very well be “never” — at least not unless you’ve got a specific reason to clean visible smudges or dirt from the surface.
In fact, it’s probably safe to say that even the most diligent of us wash our hands significantly more often than we clean our iPhones, yet then turn around and pull our iPhones out of our pockets when we’re barely ten feet away from the sink.
The reality is that your iPhone is picking up germs and bacteria from just about everything it comes into contact with, and studies have shown that because we tend to store our iPhones in warm places (like a pocket or a purse) the bacteria crawling around on your iPhone is likely to breed and multiply even further.
How Bad Is It?
In fact, iPhones are such repositories of bacteria, viruses, and fungi that a 2014 research study found that mobile phones can provide scientists with the best indications of just how many microbes the average person has been recently exposed to, since these will linger on a user’s mobile phone longer after they’ve cleaned their body and their clothing. In fact, one of the study’s conclusions was that “mobile phones hold untapped potential as personal microbiome sensors.”
The University of Oregon study identified more than 7,000 different types of bacteria on the mobile phones of participants. While most of the bacteria found on a given phone was in common with what was found on the hands of its owner, about a fifth of it wasn’t. Interestingly, the study also found that men had far more foreign bacteria on their phones than women did.
That said, at least some microbiologists suggest that the amount of germs on your own iPhone isn’t the biggest problem (you’re likely already immune to most of those), but you can be at a higher risk from sharing someone else’s iPhone, since of course you’ll be picking up whatever that has come into contact with.
What Can I Do About It?
While the most obvious answer is to clean your iPhone once in a while, especially since most of us never do this at all, there are several preventative steps that can be even better.
Right off the bat, being more aware of the places where you use your iPhone can be a great start. Firstly, stop taking your iPhone out and using it in the bathroom and especially in public restrooms.
A recent article in Reader’s Digest cited researchers who concluded that you’ll easily be exposing yourself to germs like salmonella, E. coli, and C. difficile, not only from cleaning up after yourself, but simply touching other surfaces like the flush handle or door lock, which then gets passed onto your iPhone before you wash your hands, and transferred back to your hands as soon as you pull out your iPhone again. You might as well not even bother washing your hands in this case.
Of course, if you insist on taking your iPhone along with you to the bathroom, then you should at least ensure that you keep it in a hand that you don’t use for anything else. For example, keep your iPhone in your left hand and do your business with your right hand, including flushing the toilet and touching any other surfaces you need to — and don’t set the phone down on anything at all. This same logic can be used when dealing with other bacteria-laden surfaces, such as subway turnstiles, gas station pumps, and support handles on public transit.
The type of case you use on your iPhone can also help. While nothing other than an actual antimicrobial case will prevent bacteria from getting onto your iPhone, less porous materials are better to prevent bacteria from sticking around and breeding. Cloth and rubber cases are the worst for this, while hard plastic, glass, and metal cases would be the best. Still, if you’re really concerned, an antimicrobial case is even better.
Lastly, while it doesn’t come cheap, there are devices like the PhoneSoap that we mentioned at the beginning of this article, which uses Ultraviolet Germical Irradiation — basically UV-C light — to disinfect your iPhone, or anything else that will fit inside the phone-sized box.
It sounds like a gimmick, but UVGI has been in use for over 100 years, and you’ve probably already seen it used in products like electric toothbrushes. It’s a better cleaning method than just wiping down your iPhone, since the UV-C light gets into every nook and cranny of your iPhone, and kills 99.99% of germs, but at $60+ it’s the sort of device you’ll probably only be able to justify buying (and using) if you’re really concerned about the germs and bacteria living on your family’s iPhones.
For most folks, just being a lot more conscientious about how and where you’re using your iPhone will probably help to significantly cut down on the amount of bacteria that it’s harbouring.