UV Phone Sanitizers Are Everywhere, But Do They Work? Should You Buy One?

A photo of the PhoneSoap phone sanitizer.
PhoneSoap

People who are desperate to shake the germs off their outrageously dirty phones might be tempted to buy an $80 UV sanitizing booth. And while certain wavelengths of UV light are great at killing microorganisms, including COVID-19, you might be better off cleaning your phone the old-fashioned way.

Do UV Sanitizers Actually Work?

Scientists discovered that sunlight could limit the growth of microorganisms in 1877, nearly 150 years ago. It turns out that UV radiation does a decent job of destroying and damaging DNA. And while we aren’t about to solve a pandemic by opening our windows, we can sterilize some objects using specially designed UV bulbs.

The UV bulbs in question aren’t like the blacklights that you buy at party stores. They utilize a particularly vicious form of UV light called UVC, which does an outstanding job of destroying genetic material. Our eyes and skin are defended from the sun’s UVC rays due to the Earth’s atmosphere. But within the confines of a UVC phone sanitizer, bacteria and viruses aren’t so lucky.

So, the answer is yes, UV phone sanitizers can kill germs. New experiments suggest that UVC can kill COVID-19, and long-term studies prove that the technology can reliably destroy SARS, a strain of coronavirus. Does that mean that a UV  phone sanitizer is worth buying? Eeeehhhhhhhhh…

Is UV Light More Convenient or Effective Than Chemicals?

A photo of some UVC lamps.
Nor Gal/Shutterstock

There’s no question that UVC light can kill germs. But high-quality UV phone sanitizers sell for around $80, while fast-acting multi-purpose chemicals like rubbing alcohol are completely free. (Don’t clean your phone with bleach!) Proponents of the technology will say that you’re paying extra for convenience, but is that really the case?

It all depends on your cleaning habits. Are you the kind of person who returns home, washes your hands, wipes down everything, and rewashes your hands for good measure? If that’s the case, then wiping down your phone along with your other belongings would take less time than using a UVC sanitizer.

But even if a UV sanitizer fits into your routine perfectly, the technology isn’t as effective as an alcohol cleaner. Maybe “effective” is the wrong word—the problem is that cracks, ports, and specs of dirt on your phone can shield germs from a bath of UV light. If you’re afraid of microorganisms brewing in these spaces, then you should clean your phone with alcohol, or supplement your UV cleaning with an occasional wipe down.

I’m not saying that UV sanitizers are totally useless or inconvenient, it’s just hard to justify the price, especially if you’re buying for a family. Maybe you want to use a phone sanitizer as a nightly cleaning tool for your phone, but if you’re seriously concerned about bacteria and viruses, then it might be easier to just leave a bottle of rubbing alcohol and a clean rag in on your kitchen counter. It’s certainly cheaper. And while mobile phone sanitizers can help you disinfect your phone on the go, 70% alcohol pads are cheaper, smaller, and don’t need to be recharged.

And yes, I know that Amazon sells cheap phone sanitizers for as low as $40, but I suggest that you avoid the bargain-bin brands completely. Most of the cheap phone sanitizers on Amazon were listed within the months of March or April and have not been tested in a lab (premium brands like PhoneSoap have undergone testing). Do you trust a no-name company that’s trying to cash in on a pandemic with unregulated and untested sanitation tools? Probably not, but you can trust good old-fashioned rubbing alcohol.

The Best Alternative: Rubbing Alcohol

A photo of someone cleaning the phone with a cloth and alcohol.
Nitiphonphat/Shutterstock

UV sanitizers are fine. They do their job, and they’re worth the money if you’re willing to spend the money. But for most people, it’s best to just stick with conventional cleaning products. Bleach is a little too abrasive and doesn’t vaporize very quickly, so I suggest using rubbing alcohol instead.

According to the CDC, solutions containing at least 70% alcohol will kill properly disinfect your electronics and kill the coronavirus. You can use rubbing alcohol, a disinfectant spray, or alcohol-based wipes, but not hand sanitizer. I suggest using straight alcohol, as it doesn’t contain any extra chemicals or fragrances that might hurt your phone. (Amazon doesn’t have bottles of rubbing alcohol right now, but these cheap 70% alcohol pads will work fine. They’re just alcohol and water.)

You don’t need to soak your phone to clean it with alcohol. Just apply some alcohol to a microfiber cloth (or paper towel, clean rag, or tissue paper) and gently wipe your phone. Be sure to clean your phone’s case and any area that’s usually covered by the case. You can use an alcohol-moistened toothbrush to clean the insides of ports, but be gentle and don’t scrub.

Now’s the part where I tell you some bad news. See, the glass on your phone has something called an “oleophobic coating,” which is a slippery glaze that’s resistant to grease and grime. This coating doesn’t protect your phone from cracks or scratches, but it does keep your phone looking shiny and smudge-free. Excessive cleaning with rubbing alcohol and other abrasives can accelerate the wear of your phone’s oleophobic coating, leaving you with a fingerprint-magnet of a screen.

Still, losing the oleophobic coating isn’t a big deal. These coatings, which don’t protect your phone from cracks or scratches, wear down naturally and are easy to replace. And hey, if you use a screen protector, then you don’t have to worry about the coating at all. But if you’re a daredevil who hates screen protectors and doesn’t want to reapply an oleophobic coating, then a UV sanitizer might be worth the $80.

Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew is a writer for Review Geek and its sister site, How-To Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers. Read Full Bio »

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