/ Health, Technology

Could your tech be dirtier than a toilet seat?

Tablet PC being swabbed

We run our fingers over them all through the day, even while we’re having a snack or eating lunch. But tablets, smartphones and office keyboards may have more bacteria lurking on them than a toilet seat.

Our latest investigation has found that touchscreen tablets and phones can harbour the kind of bugs that would make you think twice about touching them.

It’s easy to imagine that your shiny Apple iPad or Android tablet is as clean as its smoothly designed lines, but look a little closer and you’ll discover a myriad of potentially dangerous bugs lurking on that touchscreen. Grubby fingers, snacking while typing and rushed toilet breaks mean that your tech could be a health risk.

What really lives on a touchscreen?

We swabbed 30 tablets, 30 phones and 30 office keyboards and sent the specimens off for analysis. The results showed that shockingly, many keyboards and tablets were dirtier than an office toilet seat. And in some cases we had to immediately inform the owners that their tech needed serious cleaning.

Enterobacteria, which can include strains of infections such as e.coli and other bugs that cause illness, was present in high-risk levels in 8 of the 30 tablets we tested. High-risk represents more than 1,000 units of enterobacteria per swab, which compares to 10 units per swab on the toilet seat we tested.

Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause severe food poisoning, was found at high levels in three of the tablets and smartphones we tested. In one case we found a tablet with a count of 600 units of staphylococcus aureus per swab. By comparison, the toilet seat we tested had a count of less than 20.

How clean is your tablet?

Our expert microbiologist noted that if these levels of bacteria were found on the hands of anyone working in the food industry, then they would have to be immediately re-trained in basic hygiene.

We confronted our volunteers with our findings, and the reactions were often uncomfortable:

‘Learning that my keyboard was full of bacteria made me feel so queasy that I rushed out immediately to get some anti-bac spray to give it a thorough clean,’ one owner said.

The toilet seats, flushes and toilet door handles we swabbed all had lower bacteria counts than the tech items we tested because they are routinely cleaned. There’s something smartphone and tablet owners could learn from that approach. Even wiping a phone on your shirt is better than nothing.

We recommend cleaning your smartphone and tablet screens regularly using safe, hygienic products that won’t damage your touchscreen and can help keep the tummy bugs at bay. Although we wouldn’t suggest you do what we’ve done in this picture…

Tablets cleaned

A question – when I grew up we did not have anti-bacterial sprays, only soap and water and Dettol or Izal disinfectant. I doubt lots of things we touched (worktops, public phones, typewriters) ever got disinfected routinely. We played in areas that were dirty and used handkerchieves, not tissues.
Did we develop any better immunity or tolerance to some of the bugs that seem to afflict us today, or is that a myth?

Yes I think we did develop a greater resilience to infections, but I think we were brought up more hygienically too, with underwear, handkerchieves and bedding routinely boiled, mealtimes and behaviour more regulated and virtually no snacking, and “did you wash your hands?” recited many times a day. People, especially women and children, wore gloves a lot more outdoors, children’s bathtime was a serious affair with copious applications of Lifebuoy Soap and some pretty uncomfortable personal attention to the crevices, and being told to always wash our hands before opening a book [and afterwards as well if it was from the public library!] – habits that never die. Against that, there were hardly any glasss screens between customers and staff in banks, post offices and ticket offices, dry cleaning of outer clothing was a rare event, a lot of food was on open display in shops and cafés, and sanitation arrangements were frequently inadequate, and a lot of children and older people were permanently ailing; those who did not succumb must have built up a powerful immune system.

One lesson from this exposure is : Never use the computers in bank and building society branches, travel agents, public libraries, etc; we can probably withstand a degree of assault from our own germs on our own instruments but can we trust other organisations to cleanse their hardware effectively enough to prevent the spread of harmful bacteria?

I should have liked a bit more information on the most effective products and treatment techniques; I doubt whether spraying things is always a good idea – atomisers can presumably spread micro-organisms. I am hoping Wavechange and other experts will join this Conversation with some good scientific advice.

Yet another shock horror “your ” is dirtier than a toilet seat” story. If I don’t someone else will inevitably point out that the draining board in the illustration doubtless houses more staph that the bogseat.

Now we are all shocked and horrified please can someone give us some evidence of the infection rate per thousand infections where the route of infection involves such contaminated objects. It shouldn’t be too difficult. If the risk is significant a particularly dirty cash dispenser screen should infect a fair proportion of the people who use it and it wouldn’t be difficult to make the connection. Or maybe the truth is that it’s very unlikely to happen and that the amount of any bug we might take on board by such a route is far too small to cause infection in all but those with compromised immune systems.

Most of the bugs on our screens and phones will have come from our fingers. Touching these surfaces just transfers the bugs back to our fingers, since they cannot multiply on these dry surfaces.

Like John, hygiene featured greatly in my early life. I learned the importance of washing my hands after using the toilet and before handling and food, and it remains sound advice to wash hands regularly. Our recent Conversation about new banknotes remind me that my mother wanted me to wash my hands after handling money on the basis that it was handled by many people and not all of them were careful about hygiene.

Unless you are prone to licking your phone or tablet, I don’t think there is much to worry about. A very slightly damp cloth will help remove bugs and grease from our tablets and phones, or you could use special products if you want to spend money on keeping them clean. If someone is sick then it could be worth taking special care.

I don’t like these scare stories because there so many different strains of Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus and the hazard varies greatly between them.

Proper washing of hands with soap and water is perfectly adequate for removing bugs, and we do not need to use anti-bacterial handwashes. There are not good for the environment and any that still contain Triclosan are hazardous to humans too.

So is this another example of Which? sensationalising an issue? What is the purpose of this sort of approach – normally used by the tabloids to increase sales.
If I made a plea for Which? to avoid overhyping issues and being more objective and balanced in its approach, would I be a lone voice?

Maybe, Malcolm, but perhaps there is no harm in encouraging people to be a bit more hygienic. Look around and you will see people who don’t wash their hands before handling food or using the toilet.

A separate issue, wavechange. I am totally in favour of hygiene and personal cleanliness; it bothers me to see people leave a toilet without washing, for example. I don’t imagine we are any worse now than our predecessors – it’s largely in our upbringing.
What I am uncomfortable with is overdramatising some topics – becoming a bit prevalent.

I would be much more comfortable if topics were not over-dramatised, but I assume that the aim is to broaden the appeal of Which? Conversation, so that more will join in and become interested in consumer issues. If it is any consolation, I doubt that this topic will feature in the magazine.

I reckon that overstatement and oversimplification can help people develop skills in critical evaluation.

Unfortunately, people with little knowledge sometimes post potentially dangerous messages. In this context, remember the people who commented on eating food well beyond its ‘use by’ date, or eating food that has been on the floor.

Hi Malcolm, thanks for your comments. This research just shows the facts of our swab tests, with advice on staying hygienic – especially when many people use these gadgets on the loo!

On Which? Conversation we’re also publishing the view of one individual, with the goal often to argue one side and play devil’s advocate in order to launch a debate.

For our fully objective reports and research which features both sides of the argument, visit Which.co.uk or read the mag. If we gave all sides of the argument in our Conversation introduction, there wouldn’t be much for you to talk about in the comments!

Perhaps this research just indicates that we are good at keeping our toilet seats clean. 🙂

Another bash at the poor well used ‘toilet seat’ as a comparator, when as is pointed out the dear lovable ‘draining board’ is a real danger. Anyway could ‘Which?’ suggest a simple method of cleaning tablet screens and a minimum frequency, then your results would have a positive conclusion. I mostly use a stylus on my tablet, and only use fingers when stretching or reducing images.

The delightful coliform says:
22 September 2013

[1] It is impossible to assess whether the research on which your report is based was competently carried out.
[2] The facts reported are almost certainly meaningless. Any object handled by one or more people will give the same results as those reported. The reference object – a toilet seat – only amplifies the deception
[3] What is the evidence that any of this matters? How many people lick their own or other peoples I-pads? How many people place food on their own or other people’s I-pads and then eat it?
[4] Recently you reported similar nonsense in relation to mobile phones.
[5] How much other research published in Which is similarly unreliable and/or meaningless?

Were any of the badly contaminated tablets used on an iPotty?

Dr R Cutler says:
23 September 2013

This report is a tad sensationalist. Of course there are more staph aureus on tablets than on toilet seats: the bug’s favourite habitat is on hands and in noses. Whilst it can cause health problems it is only a relatively small subcategory that causes food poisoning (diarrhoea and Vomiting) by growing on food cooling too slowly from hot to cool, and producing a toxin in the food. Toilet seats carry plenty of bacteria, mainly from the bowel, and it is well worth washing ones hands after toilet visits and before eating. This is all a bit theoretical anyway unless it has been shown that people using phones and tablets whilst eating are more likely to be ill afterwards.

Patricia Donnelly says:
23 September 2013

having worked in a hospital setting which regularly uses tablets in our day to day operations we have been advised that routine use of antibacterial swabs and glass cleaners is likely to damage the screen of any device. does anyone know of a safe alternative?

First let me say I am in no way qualified to advise you on asepsis, so you might want to discuss this with your hospital’s infection control team.

I have used Windolene trigger spray (NOT the pink cream!) for many, many years to keep my LCD clean and free from finger marks without any apparent ill effects (no pun intended). It is important to spray it onto a soft microfibre cloth, not the screen.

I use Boots Moist Lens wipes to clean grubby screens in offices I’m visiting. These contain alcohol and say not to be used on Plasma and LCDs, but I haven’t managed to destroyed one yet. I refuse to work through a film of dust, oily marks, sneeze droplets and food deposits left behind by others.

You could look at applying a screen protection film, although solvent-based cleaners (like alcohol) might still permeate the film and damage the tablet screen. At least you could risk use a slightly more agressive cleaner and replace the film regularly.

Use a displosable stylus and don’t touch the screen.

What about white vinegar? I have not tried this myself, but I can’t imagine it would do much harm to plastic.

I’m sure a lot of these warnings are manufacturers covering themselves – like dry clean only labels on clothes – so a bit of common sense is needed.

I agree with all the above re personal hygiene. I am nearly 80, and cleanliness and personal hygiene was taught from a very early age.
At my first day at college I sat in front of a typewriter for the first time, and the first lesson we were taught was NEVER, EVER eat or drink at the work-station.
Always wash hands before using our machines.
Always wash hands after blowing your nose. Now, I keep anti-bacterial wet-wipes handy.