Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Do you clean your phone now? How coronavirus has changed us (or not)

You wash your hands but do you wash your phone?

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A new ZDNet poll reveals that the coronavirus pandemic does appear to be changing our personal hygiene habits -- at least when it comes to our mobile devices.

On January 17, ZDNet took to Twitter to ask a simple question: How often do you disinfect your phone? The results surprised us and certainly revealed a disturbing truth: the majority of us didn't.  

In total, 18.5% of you said your smartphone was subject to a weekly clean, whereas 14% said their mobile device was subject to a monthly spruce-up. 

A whopping 60% of you admitted you never cleaned your mobile device. 7.4% inferred you would clean it after you've been sick. 

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It seems like January was a lifetime ago, and now, the world looks very different. 

In many countries, government advice emphasizes that you should wash your hands at every opportunity, face coverings have been made compulsory in public areas, on public transport, and in retail stores, and as registered COVID-19 cases worldwide now exceed 24.2 million, the focus on enhanced hygiene and social distancing is unlikely to ease anytime soon. 

We wanted to know if the shift in hygiene behavior also extended to our smartphones -- devices that rarely leave our side.

On August 25, ZDNet wrapped up a new poll asking the same question: How often do you disinfect your phone now?

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The past eight months have changed us. While only 18.5% of readers said they cleaned their devices every week back in January, now 40.1% of you say that you do. 

In addition, 10.9% of those polled say they give their devices a scrub on a monthly basis, while 3% said that smartphones are cleaned after an illness. While this is a drop from 7.4% of you in January who disinfect their devices after a bout of sickness, in general, it does seem that hygiene standards have improved. 

In total, 45.9% of readers said they never clean their devices, while at the time of our last poll, this figure came in at 59.9%. 

There is still a lot of room for improvement. 

Your smartphone goes everywhere with you. The store, the bathroom, the kitchen, the bedroom, your dog walks, etc. 

2019 report (.PDF) of 1,200 US residents and their hygiene practices found that 88% of adults use their phones in the bathroom, and if you're a parent, you are even more likely to do so with the figure climbing to 93%; perhaps in a bid to snatch a few moments of peace to check social media feeds and emails.

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It's no wonder that smartphones are now comparable to toilet seats when it comes to the germs and viruses that claim them as home. 

Initial suggests that the average smartphone has close to 10 times more bacteria per square inch than a toilet seat. In 2011, academics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that roughly one in six devices harbor E. Coli, bacteria associated with fecal matter. 

Another interesting piece of research, conducted by Insurance2Go, swabbed devices to show how much bacteria and yeast shows up after being incubated at 30C for 48 hours.

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Insurance2Go

Other recent studies confirm high colony-forming units (CFU) per square inch levels on our mobile devices. (1, 2, 3)

We can't get rid of our smartphones, despite the breeding grounds of germs they have become. But it might be about time we think about cleaning our devices a little more often, especially in the winter season when cold and flu bugs are rampant and when touch can be enough to transfer contagious illnesses to our nearest and dearest. The global challenge posed by the coronavirus is a further wake-up call, as medical professionals prepare themselves for anticipated second waves. 

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So what's the best way to clean your smartphone? Below are some tips and for an in-depth review, you can also check out sister site CNET's guide to keeping your mobile devices squeaky clean. 

How to clean your smartphone

  • Microfiber cloth: To reduce the risk of scratching your screen, use a damp microfiber cloth rather than paper towels. The cloth won't kill bacteria though.
  • Technology cleaners: There are specific cleaning products available for electronics and screens which will kill bugs and shouldn't leave any streaks. 
  • Nooks and crannies: Use damp cotton swabs to clear up any awkward spots, such as headphone jacks or memory card slots. 
  • UV lights: For a serious clean, products including PhoneSoap will use UV to flash and kill microscopic bacteria. 
  • Antibacterial wipes: There's no harm in using a wipe every so often, especially if you've recently suffered from illness, but this should be an occasional clean as they may damage components. 

What to avoid

  • Window cleaning spray: You would be forgiven to think glass and window cleaners would be fine on a smartphone screen, but you would be wrong. Some displays have anti-oil and water protections, and using these chemicals can be too harsh, leading to gradual screen erosion.
  • Paper: Paper towels can be abrasive enough to leave scratches on fragile smartphone screens. 
  • Rubbing alcohol/sprays: Alcohol is a go-to for cleaning but you may run the risk of damaging your device if you do so. Most vendors recommend that you stay away from this cleaning method. 
  • General household cleaning products: A spray that promises to kill 99 percent of bacteria is appealing, but the chemicals contained in household products can be far too harsh. 
  • Vinegar: Even when diluted with water, you are running the risk of stripping protective coatings from device screens. 

It won't kill you to miss a day or two of cleaning, but come on, everyone, never?