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Cell phone sterilizer? Really?

So earlier this week I wrote an article at Slate called “I would rather lick a toilet seat than cell phone”.  Which was a really unfortunate title since I was trying to emphasize that toilet seats are surprisingly clean and the general point of the article was about microbial scare stories.  I did not mean to imply that cell phones were horrible seething pits of disease.

Anyway, as a result, more than one person sent me some version of this story describing a new “cell phone sterilizer” which for a mere $50 will zap your phone with UV light while it charges.

Here are my issues with this:

-Yes there are bacteria on cell phones.  Does that mean there’s a health problem?  Not at all.   There are far more bacteria on your face and most people don’t stick their heads in a UV box to sleep.

-If there’s really funky stuff on your phone… it most likely came from you!  The phone isn’t a surface where things are going to be growing much so presumably the vast majority of things on there came from your face or your hands.

-The very existence of products like this feeds a culture of fear and paranoia about microbes.  The more people are scared of microbes they more they are likely to make choices that negatively impact human health (e.g. overuse of antibiotics leading to antibiotic resistance, tricoslan in everything leading to who knows what, and the lack of exposure to microbes as kids that help us having a functioning immune system later in life)



David Coil

David Coil is a Project Scientist in the lab of Jonathan Eisen at UC Davis. David works at the intersection between research, education, and outreach in the areas of the microbiology of the built environment, microbial ecology, and bacterial genomics. Twitter

2 thoughts on “Cell phone sterilizer? Really?

  1. My physician colleague, now that we are in COVID times, showed me her cell phone sanitizer. “It even sanitizes your keys and your credit cards” she advised me. These all seem like things that other people don’t touch, so not something I worry about, but the other thing is that these little “sterilizers” have little tiny UV-emitting LEDs on the sides or up at the top edge. It would seem that, especially if you stack credit cards or throw your keys in, that there would be a lot of surfaces that are not exposed to the ultraviolet light. It seems like a scam. Any updates on your thoughts on these?

  2. I agree that in general “shadow” is a big problem with UV sterilization. My main argument in this post however was that most of what you find on your phone isn’t of concern. That potentially changes in the COVID19 world. Using those objects around other people raises the possibility of them acquiring the virus (as deposited aerosols) even if they don’t touch it. For someone working in healthcare I could see taking an abundance of caution.

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