You were on the toilet, coincidentally reading about how disgusting our phones are, when you got to the part where a guy contracted ebola from a stolen cell phone. You were so shocked that you dropped the phone and heard that dreaded “plunk” sound: Before you’ve even considered your actions, you’ve reached in and retrieved the phone.
Now, obviously this is bad, but… how bad is it really? With 25,000 germs already covering each square inch of your phone (about 23,000 times more germs than the toilet seat, in fact), does a quick dive in toilet water make it that much worse? According to Jason “The Germ Guy” Tetro, microbiologist and author of the bestselling book The Germ Files, it all depends on three major factors: “When was the last time it was used, and how many flushes have occurred since? What’s going to be sticking onto there? And how often do you touch your face after you touch your phone?”
Tetro explains that if you drop your phone in the toilet while it’s in use, it’s falling into hundreds of thousands of microbes, about 10 percent of which is going to cling onto your phone — that’s tens of thousands of fecal bacteria on there. The good news is that flushing a toilet is a pretty effective means of cleaning it: Tetro explains that flushing removes 99 percent of the microbes in there. So, if you drop your phone in pre-business, you’re only dropping it into tens of thousands of microbes, of which only 10 percent (several thousand) will be sticking to your phone. So how much you’re dealing with all depends on which point in the proceedings you’ve dropped your phone.
Surprisingly, where you drop your phone makes little difference at all. While you might think it’d be extra gross to drop it in a public toilet versus your own, Tetro explains that, while obviously some aren’t, most public restrooms are cleaned regularly — much more often, in fact, than you clean your own. Additionally, with all those extra people using it, those people are probably flushing, which is going to make it pretty clean. The big difference is that, obviously, it’s your stuff versus the germs of a stranger, which is where the “what’s going to be sticking to your phone” part comes into play.
Either way, in the best-case scenario, “only” a few thousand microbes will be sticking to your phone, so what does that consist of? Mostly, it’s bacteria that live in your gut and are primarily harmless, says Tetro. But while there are hundreds of species that are mostly benign, there are a few that might be pathogenic. “The worst of which,” Tetro warns, “is norovirus, which is also known as the perfect pathogen.”
Unlike other viruses that require much more exposure to your system, as little as 10 microbes of norovirus can make you sick — very sick. “You’ll have diarrhea and vomiting, and you’ll probably feel like you want to die for 72 hours,” Tetro warns. Obviously you won’t know if the person before you had norovirus, but Tetro says if you get even a whiff of diarrhea before you sit down, keep the phone in your pocket. Honestly, Tetro recommends that people refrain from using their phones on the toilet at all. “But I know no one’s ever going to follow that advice,” he says.
The final factor that determines how bad it is to drop your phone in the potty has to do with how often you touch your face. “Most people do this about 10 to 15 times an hour,” says Tetro, so that plays the biggest part in whether or not you’ll get sick.
(By the way, if you’re wondering how urine factors into the equation here, while it’s not quite as “sterile” as you may have heard (as it may contain bacteria), Tetro says that, “It’s nothing like the other stuff.” He jokes that, “If it’s yellow, you can stay mellow.”)
Anyway, now you have this phone with either thousands, or tens of thousands, of fecal bacteria on it, assuming it still works at all, what do you do? From a degerming standpoint, you’ll want to, “Clean every surface with disinfectant or alcohol wipes, let it stay wet for about 30 seconds,” advises Tetro. That should remove the vast majority of the microbes, as well as most of the potential yeast or fungi that may already have been on there.
You shouldn’t stop there, though: While that may take care of the germs, Matt McCormick from Jet City Device Repair says you need to turn it off and get it to a phone repair place as soon as possible, even if it seems to be working just fine. He explains, “What happens with water damage is that over a week or two weeks, your motherboard starts to corrode, so it seems fine at first, but then after a while it gets glitchy or your wifi won’t connect, and by then, it’s probably too late.”
If you can’t get to a repair shop right away — perhaps because you were doing some midnight spying on your spouse — the way you want to handle things is to turn it off and, if your model lets you, take the battery out. Essentially, take it apart as much as possible without unscrewing anything. While you may have heard that the thing to do is to put it in a bag of rice, McCormick says that he doesn’t believe that’s terribly effective. Instead, put the phone (either the whole phone or all the components) into your oven on a very low setting, like 100 degrees, and leave the oven cracked open, allowing the water to evaporate out. If you do this for a few hours, it’s your most effective first line of defense.
Even if it works after that, though, you still want to find a repair shop, says McCormick, but you should shop around first. “Ask them if they have a sonic bath,” he recommends. “If they reply, ‘What’s a sonic bath?’ keep looking.” It’s also worth finding out what their guarantee is, and if they don’t offer any, again, keep looking. Once you find the right place, they’re going to put it into a sonic bath, which is a little tub filled with 99 percent alcohol. When activated, the tub vibrates at a very high frequency and shakes off the corrosion. They’ll then vacuum out the moisture, and it should be okay.
Even this isn’t a guarantee, though, as water damage can be tricky. Regardless of what you do after you drop your phone in the toilet, McCormick says if you listen to no other piece of advice, at the very least, you should start backing up your data right away, because you may not see the results of the water damage until later, and retrieving that data later can cost hundreds of dollars. In fact, McCormick says you’re probably not completely in the clear until a month after you dropped the phone.
So, with all of that headache and potential for costly repairs and dangerous, diarrhea-inducing pathogens, perhaps you’ll follow The Germ Guy’s advice about not looking at your phone on the toilet?
Okay, we know: You’re still not going to stop. How do we know? Because neither are we.