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Cleaning, Sanitizing or Sterilizing: Key Difference for Device Hygiene

We know it’s important to remove the germs from your smartphone regularly to prevent the spread of harmful disease and sickness. Cell phones are the ‘third hand’ we never wash and can harbour a variety of dangerous bacteria and viruses.

But while all hygiene products may sound similar there are three broad but distinct categories of chemical and non-chemical solutions: cleaners, sanitizers, and sterilizers. 

Below, we outline the differences so you can properly protect yourself and select the right products for your application.

Cleaning

Cleaning means simply wiping down a surface to remove dirt, oils and smudges. This can be done with a cloth, soap and water or even the sleeve of your shirt. 

Cleaning is focused on removing germs, but does not necessarily kill or eliminate germs. But by removing them and reducing the number of germs, it can help reduce the spread of infections. 1

The most effective type of cleaning is washing your hands with soap and water. However, for obvious reasons, this is often not a desirable treatment for cell phones and other hand held devices.

Sanitizing

Sanitizing or disinfecting your smartphone involves lowering the number of germs found to a safe level as deemed by public health standards.2 This can be achieved in several ways:

  • Germicidal ultraviolet light (UV)
  • Isopropyl alcohol 
  • Hydrogen peroxide 
  • Bleach

To ‘sanitize’ a surface, you need to deactivate at least 99.9% of pathogens.3

It’s important to note that the debris or “soiling” on a surface can potentially impact the effectiveness of sanitization products. The debris can shield the sanitization product from reaching the surface. This is why it’s crucial for any sanitizer to include soiling in their efficacy testing.

Sanitizing or disinfecting commonly touched surfaces – including your cell phone – is important in reducing environmental contamination. However, harsh chemicals and bleach can corrode or damage sensitive touchscreens, which is why we use UV-C light to sanitize devices. 

Sterilizing

Sterilizing should not be confused with sanitizing but it is similar. While sanitizing reduces the number of pathogens found on phones, sterilization will fully remove all of the pathogens and biomatter.4 Basically, everything should be dead and gone!

Sterilization is commonly done through steam sterilization,5 a combination of heat and pressure (also known as flash sterilization) or gas sterilization.6

Which method should I use?

In the vast majority of cases, sanitizing or disinfecting items will give you the protection you need. Sterilizing is only required in situations where any level of contamination is unacceptable (think, surgical instruments or medical devices).

Washing and sanitizing your hands is one of the best things you can do to prevent the transmission of germs. But don’t forget your ‘third hand’ AKA your cell phone, which many people forget to sanitize, but touch immediately after washing their hands.

Where does UV-C light fit in?

UV-C light is easily capable of sanitizing or disinfecting surfaces. You need to ensure the product you’re using has been properly tested and validated via third party labs.

Chemical products (wipes, gels, etc.) are among the most accessible disinfectants but they can damage the oleophobic coating on your screen.7 Many experts recommend using a UV light sanitizer as it is the most effective, fastest and safest way to sanitize your phone. 

If you’re evaluating UV light sanitizers, we encourage you to review our guide to evaluating UV sanitizers


  1. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/school/cleaning.htm#:~:text=1.,impurities%20from%20surfaces%20or%20objects.&text=Sanitizing%20lowers%20the%20number%20of,public%20health%20standards%20or%20requirements.
  2. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/school/cleaning.htm#:~:text=Cleaning%20removes%20germs%2C%20dirt%2C%20and%20impurities%20from%20surfaces%20or%20objects.&text=Sanitizing%20lowers%20the%20number%20of,the%20risk%20of%20spreading%20infection.
  3. https://blog.cleanslateuv.com/2018/11/sanitizing-vs-cleaning-your-phone-heres-the-difference/
  4. https://www.foodsafety.ca/blog/understanding-difference-between-cleaning-sanitizing-sterilizing
  5. https://www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/disinfection/sterilization/index.html
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/infectioncontrol/guidelines/disinfection/sterilization/flash.html
  7. https://cleanslateuv.com/post/uv-c-light-safe-iphones-cell-phone-screen-study

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