Few would want to rub their faces inside a toilet bowl or kiss the kitchen floor — aside from the yuck factor, it would just look odd — but according to a growing number of studies, simply using much of the technology we’ve grown to rely on means we may as well be doing just that.
Modern life — from the pocket to the office — is an assault course of germs and viruses thanks to greasy touch screens and dirty keyboards. The average smartphone has around 25,000 bacteria per square inch and, while not all bacteria are harmful, the way many use their mobiles means they often end up covered in the bad kind.
“People, particularly children, can’t go anywhere without having the smartphone in their hand. I’ve actually seen people using them as they’re walking into the toilet cubicle and still using them on the way out,” says Dr Lisa Ackerley, managing director of Hygiene Audit Systems. “Anything that the hand gets contaminated with will get transferred onto the phone.”
Studies have shown that the average smartphone is covered with more bacteria than toilet seats, kitchen counters, the bottom of shoes and pet’s food dishes, among other things. Their warm batteries make the perfect breeding ground for pathogens and viruses and the American Academy of Family Physicians says people are just as likely to get sick from mobiles as from doorknobs in public bathrooms.
“Flus, coughs and colds — those can be carried on phones then transferred back to hands. Rub your eyes and you’ve got a cold,” says Dr Ackerley.
During a flu epidemic in the US at the beginning of the year, the chief medical officer at US telecoms giant AT&T issued a statement urging people to disinfect their cell phones regularly, use hands-free headsets where possible and not to use their phones in toilets.
Because of the proximity of phones to your ears, nose and mouth, germs are easily transferred from phone to body — just a short hop away from battering your immune system.
The next generation of smartphones may have an in-built protection against germs, with American firm Corning recently revealing it’s working on a glass with built-in anti-microbial qualities. But for now, Dr Ackerley has some simple advice on how to minimise the risk: “It all boils down to personal hygiene — if your hands are clean then your phone will be clean.”
While there are products for cleaning grease and smudges on touch screens, few disinfect them at the same time. What’s more, most phones have a protective coating to guard against oils and other contaminants, and manufacturers warn against using traditional cleaning products on your mobiles in case they damage this coating.
But when it comes to getting sick a bigger risk is the office. We’re likely to share things like keyboards, phones and doorknobs, making the transfer of viruses and bacteria a greater danger.
“We carry germs with us,” explains Professor Sally Bloomfield of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “Whatever we do, we are spreading them.
“The one that spreads most easily is the winter vomiting virus. It survives on surfaces well and takes very few virus particles to make us sick. If someone has got it, it can go around an office in hours.”
The average desk is around 400 times dirtier than a toilet seat, according to London company Master Cleaners, and the area where you rest your hands contains around 10,000 bacteria.
“Make sure these surfaces are regularly cleaned,” advises Professor Bloomfield. “It’s not always under your control, but certainly your own mobile phone and keyboard are.”
Bloomfield recommends alcohol wipes, which tackle both bacteria and viruses. While winter vomiting bugs may seem worlds away as the summer continues to linger, a simple pot of wipes may well save you from being doubled over the toilet when the cold finally sets in.
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