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    Mar 29, 2020

    This Is What A Microbiologist Told Us About Cleaning Our Gadgets

    We're talking about a completely different type of swiping here.

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    Well, it took a pandemic to get us to finally realize that we need to clean our things (including our hands) more thoroughly and more often. But even before COVID-19 became our top concern, germs were lurking everywhere, from the refrigerator to the bathroom and, given the fact that 97% of people don’t clean them, probably in our reusable grocery bags too.

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    But what about our favorite gadgets and tech that we use on the reg? Unlike a kitchen counter or cutting board, a laptop, as you probably know, can’t be sprayed will harsh chemical cleaners or soaked in the sink. According to the experts, a little extra cleaning of your tech is probably a good idea during the Coronavirus pandemic.

    20th Television / Via giphy.com

    Now, our smartphones are practically glued to our hands and our fingertips are constantly tapping keyboards and swiping touchscreens. So our favorite gadgets must be teaming with all sorts of viruses and bacteria, right?

    “What we see on those screens, overwhelmingly, look like the microbes that we find on human skin, says microbiologist Erica Marie Hartmann, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University. “That's actually true of almost all of these tech objects because they're things that we're likely to hold, and so the microbes that we find there look like the microbes on your hands.”

    Personal Tech: Surprisingly not that gross, as long as you steer clear of the water closet.

    Universal Television / Via giphy.com

    So the more personal your personal tech is, the more likely you’re only going to find your own microbes on it. “The funny thing about smartphones is, like your toothbrush, you're fairly unlikely to share your phone with anybody else,” Hartmann says. “Your phone is something very personal, and in fact, the microbes on your phone look very much like the microbes on your finger.”

    While your smartphone probably stays primarily in your hand, on your desk, in your bag, or otherwise close to your person, it does make a difference about where you decide to bring it. And we’re talking about the bathroom here folks. “A lot of people do take their phone in the bathroom with them. In studies that have looked at microbes on phones, to my knowledge, none have actually found pathogens (the germs that will make you sick),” Hartmann says. “But the ones where we find the most potentially pathogenic microbes (that might not make you sick, but we're a little leery of) were found on phones that had more of what we call ‘fecal indicator bacteria.’

    So, if you're using your phone right after you go to the bathroom and you don't wash your hands, you should probably clean your phone. But the moral of the story, as always and forever is: wash your dang hands.

    Shared Tech: Worth keeping an eye on who you're sharing it with, especially if you have roommates or kids.

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    As we get into gadgets that might be a little less personal and little more public, it’s a good idea to be a little more mindful of who is around them and how often you clean them. One study looking at computers and influenza in a student dorm found that regular cleaning of highly touched surfaces, including computers, reduced the risk of infection by 2%.

    Oddly enough, television screens have a higher richness of bacteria than cutting boards or toilet seats, likely from airborne particles and perhaps due to their central, high traffic location. But once again, let common sense prevail. “If I had a list of ‘Erica's General Recommendations,’ don't lick your TV screen would be on it, only because then you'd have to clean it,” Harmann says.

    If you're not sharing a workstation with someone, if it's just your keyboard or your computer mouse, and if you're not sick, you're going to be fine, according to Hartmann. “But when we're in the height of flu season, I would say you probably want to clean your laptop or your phone a little more frequently. But more importantly, get a flu shot.”

    20th Television / Via giphy.com

    Now, the more people around your stuff, the more diligent you’re going to need to be about giving it a wipedown. If you live by yourself, you’re going to be in pretty good shape when it comes to that remote control for the TV. But the more roommates you add — potentially using that remote — the more you’re going to want to give it a quick cleaning.

    But what if you have kids, especially those who might not remember to wash their hands unless you remind them a thousand more times? According to Hartmann, there's a lot of evidence showing that, actually, we are over-cleaning in terms of getting rid of microbes, and that actually, children need to be exposed to them. “But we're not entirely sure what and when, but that more exposure, especially for younger children, can have a really protective effect against things like allergies and asthma.” So, if you do have kids, you might want to use the disinfectants a little less.

    Public Tech: Even though we're staying indoors these days, there's still a good chance of finding some poo on that touchscreen (so keep washing those hands, please).

    Disney / Via giphy.com

    Even before COVID-19, the idea of touching a kiosk screen in the Port Authority seems rather unappealing, doesn’t it? Here's something to remember for when we all return to life in polite society and especially if you're an essential worker taking public transportation right now: “Public touchscreens are filthy in as much as they've got microbes on them that look like they come from human skin,” Hartmann says, “But unless you're in a hospital, somewhere with a really high density of people who are carrying infections, it's probably fine.”

    However, after reading this fast-food restaurant study, you should probably follow your order with a supersized handwashing before putting anything near your mouth, especially that hand you made that order with.

    How To Most Easily Clean Your Tech: No need for any fancy chemicals or canned air.

    Viacom Media Networks / Via giphy.com

    So while our personal gadgets may not be teeming with bacteria and viruses, germs are, indeed, getting smarter. “Basically, microbes are incredible. There's such a vast amount of microbial diversity, and that translates to a whole bunch of versatility,” Hartmann says. “So, the more we use disinfectant chemicals to try to get rid of microbes, the more creatively the microbes will find ways to get around the disinfectant.”

    OK, so how then should we clean all of the technology that’s a part of our everyday lives? Stay away from “specialty cleaners” especially when a much more cost-effective isopropyl alcohol mixture will get the job done. You don’t need any canned air either for dirty keyboards, a blow dryer on a cool setting will get that job done just the same. And then stock up on some microfiber cloths ($8.99 for a 5 pack) which can be reused (when washed properly).

    “If you are really concerned about your tech and you are looking for some way to clean it, I would recommend using an alcohol-based wipe ($5.99 for 20)," Hartmann says. “There are other antibacterials out there but I think those have a stronger potential to lead to antibiotic resistance.”

    But if you can't get your hands on any of those products at the moment, some water-resistant cellphones can be washed with soap and water. "I haven’t personally tested this. If you have an extra phone on hand, this might be a good time to do the experiment and see if it still works afterward."

    One Final Note From a Microbiologist: You know a highly-educated professional who we should all listen to.

    Sony Pictures / Via giphy.com

    "Since the pandemic has put cleaning in the spotlight, I hope we’ll use this opportunity to reflect on how and why we clean so that we can make sustainable choices going forward," Hartmann says. "That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll always disinfect with the fervor we’re demonstrating now. But maybe we’ll keep asking good questions like, what’s in this cleaning product? How often should I really be using it? Where should I use it vs. where should I not?