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How to clean your phone screen the right way

Here are the best tips for disinfecting your smartphone and nine things to never use.

© Derek Poore/CNET Keep your smartphone clean with these tips.

By Katie Conner, CNET

There's no avoiding it. Smartphones and smudges go hand in hand. Grease from your fingers, your lunch and your face find their way onto the screen, and onto the backing if you don't have a case. It's gross, but more than that, it's annoying.

While you may be tempted to constantly wipe your screen with your brand-new shirt, resist. Use these specific cleaning tools and techniques to keep your phone (and clothing) clean. And make sure to avoid these cleaning agents you should never use, or else they could damage your phone.


9 things you should never use to clean your phone

Paper towels: They may be the go-to for cleaning your desk, but keep them away from your phone. The paper can shred, making the debris on your phone much worse. Paper towels can even end up leaving scratches on your screen.

Window cleaner: You clean your mirrors and windows with window cleaner, and they're squeaky clean, so it must be OK to use on your phone? Wrong! Some newer phones, like the iPhone XR , now have a protective coating that can wear over time.

Using harsh cleaners can strip the coating and could leave your phone more vulnerable to scratches. James LeBeau, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, added that any cleanser with an abrasive agent will likely scratch the surface, so those should be avoided entirely.

Other cleaning agents: LeBeau noted that the scratch resistance of the glass (screen) wouldn't be modified by any cleaning agents. It would only strip the coating that protects the screen. For example, Bar Keepers Friend states that its abrasive formula may harm the protective layer. Bon Ami states not to use on glass with coatings. Apple also suggests not using cleaning products to clean your phone.

Makeup remover: Some makeup removers may have chemicals that can be harsh to an electronic screen. LeBeau suggests avoiding makeup remover and instead use a soft cloth with a little bit of water.

Rubbing alcohol: Since many newer phones have a protective coating, rubbing alcohol can wear it away quicker over time, causing your phone to be more prone to scratches. Make sure to check for alcohol in product ingredients on any "safe to use" phone screen cleaners. Apple says to avoid alcohol when cleaning its devices.

Compressed air: Your phone is delicate, so blowing an intense amount of air into its portals can cause some damage, specifically to your mic. Tech companies, like Apple, specifically warn not to use compressed air.

Dish soap and hand soap: While your dish and hand soaps may be gentle, the only way to use them is to combine them with water. Most phone companies suggest to keep water away from your phone, so again, stick to a damp cloth.

Vinegar: Lifehacker suggests using diluted vinegar to cleanse your phone. However, Android Central says to never put vinegar (or alcohol) on the glass parts of your phone due to the oleophobic coating. 

LeBeau has also confirmed that vinegar will strip the coating. Android Central says you can, however, use it on the other parts of your phone, like the backing - Just mix it 50/50 with distilled water.

Disinfectant wipes: The warning label on these reminds you to wash your hands after each use, so using them to clean something that touches your face often isn't a great idea. According to LeBeau, these wipes typically contain alcohol that will strip off the oleophobic (oil-repellent) and hydrophobic (water-repellent) coatings.

He said the scratch resistance is primarily due to the ion exchange process applied to the glass, where phosphorous replaces sodium in the surface.


Cleaning up fingerprint smudges

Fingerprint smudges are hard to prevent because your skin constantly produces oils. That means that every time you pick up your phone, it's bound to get fingerprints all over it.

The safest and most effective way to clear your screen is with a microfiber cloth. If the screen is in desperate need of cleaning, use distilled water to dampen the microfiber cloth and then wipe down your screen - avoid squirting the water directly on the screen. This method can be used on the back and sides of your phone, too.

You can also try Swipe Wipes, which you stick to the back of your phone and can pop off when you need to give it a wipe-down.

Check out Samsung's tips on cleaning your smartphone.


Removing sand and lint

Lint and sand can get stuck in the small ports of your phone and in the crevices where the screen meets the body. 

The best solution for removing sand and lint is Scotch tape. You can lay it along the creases and speaker, and roll it up and gently place it in the ports. The tape's stickiness will pull out any lint or sand that may be stuck in your phone.

For the smaller speaker holes that tape can't reach, use a toothpick or try to vacuum the debris out with a small crevice tool. These tools can also be used for other small appliances or hard-to-reach areas in your car.


Disinfecting from contact with raw meat

If raw meat touches your phone - say if you're reading a recipe on your device - you may immediately think to clean it with alcohol, but as mentioned above, don't - it can strip the oleophobic and hydrophobic coatings. Other sites suggest using a mix of alcohol and water, but they have warning notes, so we suggest staying away from that to be on the safe side.

Alcohol and detergent can damage your screen because they're so caustic. Instead, use the (say it with me now) damp microfiber cloth, or invest in a UV light, like PhoneSoap. This UV light company claims to kill 99.99% of germs and banishes bacteria.


Removing makeup

When you have a full face of makeup and need to make a call, guess what that foundation is about to stick to? That's right, your phone screen. And while you may use makeup remover to take off your makeup every night, you shouldn't use it as a screen cleaner due to some chemicals that could be lurking in the ingredients. Organics.org explains the chemicals that could be in your makeup remover.

Instead, you could get your phone its own makeup remover, like Whoosh. The company claims it's safe for all screens and contains no alcohol, chlorine, ammonia or phosphates that could damage the various screen coatings.

You can also use a damp microfiber cloth to clean it - and then throw that cloth in the wash. Make sure you use a spray bottle to spritz the cloth, rather than running it under water. The less water, the better.


What about waterproof phones?

If you have a water-resistant phone, rated for IP67 and above, you can rinse it with water. Although these phones, like the iPhone 7 and newer and the Galaxy S phones, can withstand submersion for up to 30 minutes in up to 3 feet of water, it's a much better idea to use a damp or wet cloth to clean your phone. Then dry your phone with a dry, soft cloth to remove the water. Make sure to pat dry all speakers and ports.

Dunking the phone in water or running it under a faucet will get water into the ports, which means you won't be able to charge it until they're dry, and that can take time. Remember that having a water-resistant phone is more about peace of mind than it is about purposely taking your phone for a swim.

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Tech Magazine: How to clean your phone screen the right way
How to clean your phone screen the right way
Here are the best tips for disinfecting your smartphone and nine things to never use.
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