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How Dirty Is Your Phone, Really?

And does a dirty phone give you bad skin?
Mobile phones carry ten times more bacteria than your average toilet seat.
Ezra Bailey
Mobile phones carry ten times more bacteria than your average toilet seat.

Hands up if you've ever taken your phone with you into the bathroom.

Uh-huh.... We're betting you've either got your hand in the air right now or you're lying.

Look, it's easy to do. The whole thing about pocket technology is you can take it everywhere with you, including some less-than-sanitary environments. But what does this mean in terms of germs? Is your phone harbouring a city of bacteria?

Well, the short answer is yes. In fact, scientists have found mobile phones can carry 10 times more bacteria than most toilet seats (gross).

Furthermore, a recent study revealed more than 17,000 bacterial gene copies on the phones of Estonian high school students.

So yeah. Your phone has germs. But are they as bad as they're made out to be?

"Mostly the phone isn't used by anybody else but the user, and the user is exposed to the bacteria on their hands all the time," renowned infection control expert Professor Mary-Louise McLaws told HuffPost Australia.

"Yes, the phone may be a collector of viruses, but in terms of survival on a phone without a cover... lots of bacteria and viruses like very particular environments, and you're likely to be putting your phone on a desk and out in the sun. I'm just saying they're not necessarily going to survive."


However McLaws did go on to say there were special exceptions, particularly in terms of an indivdual's line of work.

"Unless we're talking about someone like a health care worker using their phone then yes you're right, phones can harbour potential pathogens," she said.

"Health care workers can pick things up from a patient on their gloved or ungloved hands, and should not be using their phone if they haven't cleaned their hands.

"For the general community, however, it really is about their own bacteria or transient bacteria and transient pathogens. And we come across transient pathogens all the time on things like watches, handbags and clothes."

When was the last time you cleaned your phone?
Getty Images
When was the last time you cleaned your phone?

While this is a good point, it's also worth pointing out we don't typically put our watches, handbags or clothes next to our face several times per day.

So what do all these germs mean for our skin?

"Various forms of bacteria have been found upon mobile phone surfaces, and as one would expect, these are often subtypes encountered as normal commensals upon the skin, within the mouth and respiratory tract," Dr Adam Sheridan from the Australasian College of Dermatologists told HuffPost Australia.

"It is conceivable that these could cause skin, ear and respiratory tract infections in susceptible individuals. They might also act to exacerbate pre-existing skin conditions such as acne, rosacea and dermatitis in certain situations."

Wait -- did we read that right? Your phone can give you acne?

"Yes, in certain situations the combination of heat, friction, transferred grime and bacteria from frequent mobile phone contact might conspire to exacerbate acne of the face through friction, blockage of pores, inflammation and altered bacterial milieu," Sheridan said.

The link between smartphone use and acne is bad news for teenagers everywhere.
ljubaphoto via Getty Images
The link between smartphone use and acne is bad news for teenagers everywhere.

If you're not keen on the sound of that, Sheridan advises to clean your phone regularly.

"Regular cleaning of surfaces with which people come in frequent contact and may share is sensible," he said. "This includes mobile phones, but also things like the the office keyboard (notorious!)"

But before you develop OCD and start wiping your phone down every four seconds, McLaws says it helps to keep things in perspective.

"I really don't appreciate the message that ads can often give you, that alcohol-based hand gel will get rid of 99.9 percent of germs, and they are talking to people going to use for home use," she told HuffPost Australia.

"It's lovely to promote hand hygiene, but the idea that we have to get rid of every transient bacteria and virus is nonsense.

"It's good for our immune system to be challenged. I'm a great advocate for immunisation but there are many viruses and bacteria we can't vaccinate against, and to be honest, anything that can live on our phone is highly unlikely to cause us a great deal of harm.

"Just be sensible and don't take your phone into a public toilet, for instance. Keep it in your pocket or your handbag. If you [handle it sensibly] it poses no more risk than every time you get in your car and put your hand on the steering wheel."

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