As people take refuge from the coronavirus in their homes, people are washing their hands more than ever. But what about your smartphone, which you likely touch more than any other object in your house?
A smartphone is the most personal object we own carrying it everywhere from the supermarket to bathrooms. More importantly, smartphones are known to carry more germs than one would imagine. Studies have found it to be dirtier than toilet bowls.
The coronavirus itself, per an analysis by the Journal of Hospital Infection, can “persist on inanimate surfaces like metal, glass or plastic for up to nine days,” meaning your smartphone could be at risk. Cleaning them with a piece of cloth and disinfectant can feel like a chore. Plus, alcoholic solutions can potentially be detrimental to your phone’s screen.
A more effective and hassle-free alternative are sanitizing accessories that use ultraviolet (UV) light. These box-shaped devices, that faintly look like miniature hibernation booths from sci-fi flicks, come equipped with a cradle where you place your phone (or anything else that fits, like AirPods), close it up, turn it on, and in about 10 minutes you should get a germ-free phone.
Most of the available options from startups like PhoneSoap also have an opening for a charging cable. So alongside topping up your phone’s battery, you can sanitize it as well. Accessory maker, Totallle’s UV phone sanitizer’s top even functions as a wireless charging mat.
The idea has resonated well with smartphone owners who are scrambling to keep themselves safe from the pandemic. Searches for UV phone sanitizers have hit breakout thresholds on Google, growing by more than 5,000% in the last couple of months, according to Google Trends.
PhoneSoap that offers UV-based phone sanitation devices in a range of sizes and varieties told Digital Trends its revenue was 20 times higher last month than the same period in 2019. Traffic to its website has surged 3,000% as well and most of its UV products have gone out of stock. The company says it’s now taking pre-orders and has already begun shipping in batches.
The pressing question at hand, however, is whether these accessories can kill the coronavirus. Before that, you’ll need a primer on how UV light sanitation works.
There are three kinds of UV radiation, all of which are present in sunlight and are harmful to our skin and cells. We’re interested in the third spectrum: UVC, which scientists discovered ages ago can be produced artificially for sterilization. It’s already used to disinfect hospitals, factories, and more. It does so by crippling the DNA structures of microorganisms so that they can’t reproduce and are practically dead.
Inside the aforementioned sanitation devices, you’ll find a set of bulbs that, together with a reflective coating, are positioned such that they cover your phone entirely.
There are no conclusive studies on UV’s impact on the coronavirus yet. But it has proven effective against other bacterias and COVID-19’s genetic cousin, SARS. Theoretically, then, these devices should be able to rid your phone’s surface of coronavirus.
“The radiation (light is a form of radiation), kills viruses much the same way that other harmful radiation kills things by causing lots of chemical mutations in the RNA or DNA genome of the virus. There’s no question that enough UV-C absorption will kill coronaviruses,” said Dr. John Taylor, deputy head (academic) and senior lecturer in Virology School of Biological Sciences at the University of Auckland.
“With a device like this it should be relatively simple to test whether 10 minutes is enough to inactivate coronavirus or any other virus,” Taylor told Digital Trends.
But as we discovered with UV wands, this approach doesn’t yield results unless the object is directly in the light of sight.
“UV isn’t very good at fabrics and places that might be shadowed and so protective cases don’t get done very well. This would be a major limitation for those of us who use cases that protect the screen,” Dr. Simon Swift, an associate professor for Molecular Medicine and Pathology at the University of Auckland told Digital Trends.
A PhoneSoap spokesperson claimed the sanitizing chamber’s “reflective coating allows the UV-C light to reach all parts of the phone, so you don’t have to worry about taking your case off to get inside all the crevices of your phone for cleaning.”
To be on the safer side, Swift recommends wiping the phone clean yourself every once in a while.
UV light might help kill bacteria, but does it also hurt your beloved (and often expensive) smartphone?
Prolonged exposure to UVC can cause degradation of some plastic materials. Since UV-based sanitation devices only run for 10 minutes at a time, your phone likely won’t suffer any damage.
“When you close the lid of your unit, the UV lights will turn on for pre-programmed amount of time and automatically shut off when done. This is more than enough time to completely sanitize your devices and kill all the germ, but it is never enough time to damage your gadgets,” says PhoneSoap on its FAQ page.
Samsung, before the pandemic forced to shutter all its support centers, was even offering complimentary UV-based sanitizing service.
It’s still unclear, though, whether your warranty will remain valid if anything goes awry. Apple, in a support page, advises against the use of “cleaning products” and an iPhone owner was reportedly told by a service rep to avoid UV cleaning “because it can cause the screen to deteriorate, device overheating, etc.”
We’ve reached out to Apple for clarification and we’ll update the story once we hear back.
In spite of these concerns, UV-based phone sanitation devices seem like a handy and convenient accessory to own — given you can afford them or find them readily available on sale. Based on what we gathered, however, we won’t recommend throwing your phone in there every few hours like you would wash your hands. Perhaps, once at the end of a day should suffice. The jury’s still out on how well they function with cases and screen protectors, therefore you should continue to sterilize them manually every so often too. You can never be too cautious during a pandemic.
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