Cleaning and Disinfecting Electronic Devices

Cell phones, computers, remote controls, touchpads…electronics are at our fingertips at every turn, and our fingertips are both boarding and landing sites for a wide variety of microbes. Is this a problem? There are lots of microbes–microscopic life forms–in and on us, and on surfaces all around us. Many are harmless and even helpful, but there are also those that spread sickness—germs—like colds, flu, MRSA and norovirus.

Shared Electronics May Present the Biggest Problem

Commonly touched and shared electronics, such as touch screens, remote controls and the keyboards of shared computers, need frequent cleaning and disinfection. This is particularly important in schools (where students regularly attend “computer lab”) and healthcare settings (where electronic medical records are becoming the norm), but also in the home, especially during cold and flu season.

Hand-washing is Part of the Solution

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says frequent hand-washing is one of the most important things we can do to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. The hand-washing message is an important one in an age when our hands are so frequently occupied with electronic devices. It is never too late to learn how to wash hands properly (Put Your Hands Together video).


Professor Kelly Reynolds of the University of Arizona includes electronics as one of The Eight Germiest Items in Your Home, and notes some of the bacteria found on household electronics match bacteria found in the typical kitchen sponge. Now, I do not recommend using the kitchen sponge—which if not disinfected itself contains millions of bacteria—to clean keyboards and remotes, but that may not actually account for the similarity in bacterial populations between electronics and sponges.

Dr. Reynolds says that when we snack while using our electronics, food oils and crumbs transferred to keyboards and electronic surfaces set up a hospitable environment for germs. (The same thing happens in the moist environment of a damp sponge studded with food particles.) Some germs can thrive on the crumbs that rain down from your peanut butter sandwich to your computer keyboard as you check your email. Similarly, channel surfing with the remote control while snacking in front of the family TV is an ideal way to transfer bacteria to the remote control, potentially spreading germs to other family members. And what about TV remote controls in hotel rooms?

So what can we do to reduce bacteria and potential germs on electronic devices?  The table below gives basic directions for cleaning and disinfecting, based on Dr. Reynolds’ interview with Fox News.  A good rule of thumb is to clean and disinfect your electronics once per week, or more frequently especially if you or others are sick with an infectious illness.

Cleaning and Disinfecting Electronic Devices

Device Suggestion
Remote controls, computer keyboards, video game controllers, the computer mouse, and plastic and fabric smartphone and tablet covers Once a week, or more frequently if users are sick with colds, flu or other viruses…

  1. Disconnect devices and remove smartphone and tablet covers. 
  2. Remove all visible particles—food or otherwise–using a dry cloth or vacuum cleaner with appropriate attachment.
  3. Swab with a well-wrung-out, commercial, pre-moistened disinfecting wipei.
Touch screens
  1. Disconnect devices.
  2. Remove all visible particles—food or otherwise–using a dry cloth or vacuum cleaner with appropriate attachment.
  3. Clean with a scratch-free product designed for electronicsii.

Joan B. Rose, PhD, is the Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University and a member of the Water Quality and Health Council.

iWringing out your disinfecting wipe is important to avoid moisture seeping into the interiors of electronic devices. If a disinfecting wipe is unavailable, use pre-moistened alcohol-based eyeglass lens cleaner or mild soap and water on a cloth or paper towel.

iiThese products may or may not contain disinfectant.