Phone screens smudge and get grimy. It’s what they do best. It’s gross, but most of us have learned to live with the grease because keeping phone screens clean is hard. Maybe you’ll give it a cursory wipe on your jeans or the hem of your shift, but that won’t really get the screen clean. The best approach isn’t hard, and will only cost you a few bucks.
On the flipside, there are the cleaning agents and techniques that you never want to use, because — although you might initially see good results — they can be too harsh and damage the screen you’re working so hard to protect.
We’re going to tell you which products to avoid, and the best ways to clean off fingerprint smudges, sand and lint from the ports, tenacious makeup off the screen (hint: never with makeup remover) and even disinfect your phone from contact with raw meat while you’re cooking. We also tell you how to care for phones rated for water-resistance.
9 things you should never use to clean your phone
We’re not here to shame you, but drop that bottle of Windex, stat. This is how not to clean your screen.
You clean your mirrors and windows with window cleaner, and they’re squeaky clean, so it must be OK to use on your phone? Wrong! Some newer phones, like the iPhone XR ($750 at Amazon), have a protective coating that resists water and oil, which can wear out over time.
Using harsh cleaners can strip the coating and could leave your phone more vulnerable to scratches. James LeBeau, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, told us that any cleanser with an abrasive agent will likely scratch the surface, so those should be avoided entirely.
A screen’s scratch-resistant properties won’t get ground down by cleaning agents, but stripping that protective coating is still a problem. That’s why Apple also suggests not using household cleaning products to clean your iPhone. Bar Keepers Friend, for example, states that its abrasive formula may harm the protective layer. Bon Ami states not to use on glass with coatings.
They may be the go-to for cleaning your desk, but keep them away from your phone. The paper can shred, making the debris on your phone much worse. Paper towels can even end up leaving scratches on your screen.
Since many newer phones have a protective coating, rubbing alcohol can wear it away quicker over time, causing your phone to be more prone to scratches. Make sure to check for alcohol in product ingredients on any “safe to use” phone screen cleaners. Apple says to avoid alcohol when cleaning its devices.
Some makeup removers may have chemicals that can be harsh to an electronic screen. LeBeau suggests avoiding makeup remover and instead use a soft cloth with a little bit of water.
Your phone is delicate, so blowing an intense amount of air into its portals can cause some damage, specifically to your mic. Tech companies, like Apple, specifically warn not to use compressed air.
Dish soap and hand soap
While your dish and hand soaps may be gentle, the only way to use them is to combine them with water. Most phone companies suggest to keep water away from your phone, so again, stick to a damp cloth.
This is a no-no. Vinegar will strip the screen’s coating. You could, as Lifehacker suggests, use a very diluted vinegar to cleanse other parts of your phone. Android Central suggests a 50/50 mix with distilled water for cleaning the sides and back.
The warning label on these reminds you to wash your hands after each use, so using them to clean something that touches your face often isn’t a great idea. According to MIT’s LeBeau, these wipes typically contain alcohol that will strip off the oleophobic (oil-repellant) and hydrophobic (water-repellent) coatings.
How to clean fingerprint smudges from your screen
Fingerprint smudges are hard to prevent because your skin constantly produces oils. That means that every time you pick up your phone, it’s bound to get fingerprints all over it.
The safest and most effective way to clear your screen is with a microfiber cloth. If the screen is in desperate need of cleaning, use distilled water to dampen the microfiber cloth and then wipe down your screen — avoid squirting the water directly on the screen. This method can be used on the back and sides of your phone, too.
You can also try Swipe Wipes, which you stick to the back of your phone and can pop off when you need to give it a wipe-down.
Check out Samsung’s tips on cleaning your smartphone, too.
Remove sand and lint with this trick
Lint and sand can get stuck in the small ports of your phone and in the crevices where the screen meets the body.
The best solution for removing sand and lint is Scotch tape. You can lay it along the creases and speaker, and roll it up and gently place it in the ports. The tape’s stickiness will pull out any lint or sand that may be stuck in your phone.
For the smaller speaker holes that tape can’t reach, use a toothpick or try to vacuum the debris out with a small crevice tool. These tools can also be used for other small appliances or hard-to-reach areas in your car.
Disinfect your phone from contact with raw meat
If raw meat touches your phone — say if you’re reading a recipe on your device — you may immediately think to clean it with alcohol, but as mentioned above, don’t. It can strip the oleophobic and hydrophobic coatings. Other sites suggest using a mix of alcohol and water, but they have warning notes, so we suggest staying away from that to be on the safe side.
Alcohol and detergent can damage your screen because they’re so caustic. Instead, use the (say it with me now) damp microfiber cloth, or invest in a UV light, like PhoneSoap. This UV light company claims to kill 99.99% of germs and banishes bacteria.
Remove makeup safely
When you have a full face of makeup and need to make a call, guess what that foundation is about to stick to? That’s right, your phone screen. And while you may use makeup remover to take off your makeup every night, you shouldn’t use it as a screen cleaner due to some chemicals that could be lurking in the ingredients. Organics.org explains the chemicals that could be in your makeup remover.
Instead, you could get your phone its own makeup remover, like Whoosh. The company claims it’s safe for all screens and contains no alcohol, chlorine, ammonia or phosphates that could damage the various screen coatings.
You can also use a damp microfiber cloth to clean it — and then throw that cloth in the wash. Make sure you use a spray bottle to spritz the cloth, rather than running it under water. The less water, the better.
Can you wash waterproof phones?
If you have a water-resistant phone, rated for ($739 at Walmart) and newer and the Galaxy S phones, can withstand submersion for up to 30 minutes in up to 3 feet of water, it’s a much better idea to use a damp or wet cloth to clean your phone. Then dry your phone with a dry, soft cloth to remove the water. Make sure to pat dry all speakers and ports., you can rinse it with water. Although these phones, like the iPhone 7
Dunking the phone in water or running it under a faucet will get water into the ports, which means you won’t be able to charge it until they’re dry, and that can take time. Remember that having a water-resistant phone is more about peace of mind than it is about purposely taking your phone for a swim.
Published April 22 and updated June 21, 2019.