Like our hands, smartphones are good surfaces for germs to rest on. Photo: Bloomberg
Your smartphone may be your best friend, but it is also probably teeming with germs. According to recent research conducted in Britain, there's a one-in-six chance it has faecal matter on it, most likely put on it after you've visited the toilet (one-third of respondents to an Australian survey admit to using a phone there).
After all, our smartphones, like our hands, can be good surfaces for common bugs - such as golden staph, influenza and the cold virus - to rest on. And if those bugs come into contact with our eyes or mouth, they can potentially lead to sickness.
We wash our hands when we've been to the toilet and before we cook, but we never ever wash our phone.Tim Bettles, business development and marketing manager at SETi
With this in mind, should we bother decontaminating our digital devices as we do our hands when we clean them with soap and water?
The PhoneSoap, whch doubles as a charger and UV disinfection device.
That was a question being posed as innovators descended last week on the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where companies offering better sanitising were also promoting the cause of cleanliness.
The technology show has long had a focus on health, but makers of sanitising devices and special germ-resistant glass said people needed to start looking in their pockets and purses to get rid of the microbes on their personal gadgets.
Corning, maker of the strengthened glass used on many smartphones, unveiled what it called the world's first antimicrobial cover glass, which is formulated with an antibacterial agent, ionic silver, to pulverise germs.
The prototype SETi mobile phone sanitiser. Photo: Ben Grubb
Corning says it can rebuff up to 99.9 per cent of certain bacteria on our smartphone screens.
The glass is available for manufacturers to use today, but is unlikely to see the light of day unless companies such as Apple and Samsung use it on their devices.
In lieu of gadget makers using the glass, there were also a number of devices consumers can buy now, or very soon, in which they can place their smartphones in to kill germs.
An ad Corning is using to tout its new germ-resistant glass.
One such device on show and expected to hit the market later this year for $US79.99 ($89.60) is the SETi iPhone sanitiser, which uses ultraviolet LEDs in a portable, protective case to kill germs.
Tim Bettles, in charge of business development and marketing at SETi, said it was aimed at doctors, nurses and parents with small children, who often share their smartphones with their kids.
"We wash our hands when we've been to the toilet and before we cook, but we never ever wash our phone," Bettles said. "And, of course, it's a high contact area and we pass it around and we share it with other people.
The vio light.
"So the device that we have developed is a protective case for your phone that protects the phone from knocks, scratches and splashes and protects you from viruses and germs."
While a smartphone is in the SETi case, it takes three minutes for the UV light to kill 99.9 per cent of germs on it. Depending on usage patterns, Bettles said it could last for up to three days.
Another device available now, called the PhoneSoap charger, was also on display at CES. It sanitises a phone and recharges it.
The Cell Blaster.
The smartphone "is always warm, stored in dark places, so bacteria are growing on your phone", PhoneSoap co-founder, Dan Barnes, said.
Barnes said he created PhoneSoap's $US50 device after reading a study indicating "that mobile phones are 18 times dirtier than public bathrooms".
More such devices were seen at the huge electronics fair, including one called CleanBeats, which sanitises, plays music and recharges two phones through a USB connection.
The CleanBeats device is based on NASA technology, and will soon hit the market with a $US499 price tag, spokesman Dennis Rocha said.
The company website says its device produces "hydroperoxide catalytic molecules" to sanitise the surfaces of touchscreens.
There are also questionable apps, such as "Dysinfectr", which claim to clean your phone using "ultrasound and infrared light".
Such apps probably don't work, said Peter Collignon, an Australian expert in infectious diseases at the Australian National University.
"That is a claim that needs to be verified by an independent testing lab that it works as claimed before I would give it a lot of credibility," he said.
He did agree that the UV light devices killed germs, but said some devices might lull people into a false sense of security.
"If you think it's an answer to 'I will never get sick' you're doing [away with] your money because your hands touch so many other things in the environment, so you will still have to wash your own hands," he said.
He added that decontamination devices might be more suited for use on tablets and phones on display in retail stores, such as Apple's, where thousands of people might end up touching a device every day.
"The more you share a device the more it becomes important to decontaminate it because the more you are likely to pick up bugs that aren't your bugs," Professor Collignon said.
"You want to - as much as possible - decrease picking up bugs from other people, particularly children, who have higher numbers."
Although Professor Collignon said he would not recommend that people shell out hundreds of dollars on the devices, he said he "wouldn't recommend that people don't buy them if they feel it sits in with what they want".
"You've got to weigh up the risk of how much is your phone shared with other people, because if it's only in your hands it really reflects only what you've touched," he said.
"It's not worth spending huge amounts of money on it for an individual ... because the real thing you need to do is protect yourself. You can do that by having good hand hygiene before you touch your mouth, nose or eyes."
The writer travelled to CES as a guest of Lenovo.
This reporter is on Facebook: /bengrubb