According to one survey that cleaning firm Vital Vio conducted, 88% of respondents admitted to using their phones while they were in the bathroom [1]. It is something that just about everyone does. More disconcertingly, 23% of respondents to Vital Vio's survey said that they had never cleaned their phones before. This flies in the face of what we know we need to do to protect ourselves from bacteria, virus, and other pathogens. Not only failing to sanitize their phones regularly, almost a quarter of people are failing to sanitize their phones even once.

How can this be happening? Mention the statistics to anyone, and it is not as if they are counterintuitive. We hear that our phones are contaminated, and it adds up to us how and why that would be. We think about where our hands have been and how often we touch our phones, and there is no mystery about what is going on here.

Breaking Bad Habits

By and large, though, people act out of habit. We do the things that we have always done, and unfortunately, sanitizing our phones is not one of them. For most people, the smartphone is still a relatively new piece of technology, something that we picked up in our adult lives, and we would hardly think of the need to sanitize them – not on our own, anyway. We are much more likely to think "Which app should I download next?" than "Which strains of bacteria and virus are on this screen that I just touched?"

The History of Handwashing

There is hope, however. Surprising as this may be for some people today, it was only 170 years ago that hand washing became a common point of discussion at all. Before that, infections during surgery and within hospitals ran rampant. Bacterial and viral infections occurred as a matter of course, and in the absence of antibiotics, they led to tragically-high mortality rates. The world was a different place before hand washing, but no one questioned it. No one had thought to propose that something so simple could make such a tremendous difference. Instead, people accepted the habits by which others seemed to abide. It took a pioneer looking at the facts and pointing them out for everyone.

Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis was that pioneer. He observed that new mothers' bacterial infections (thought of at the time as another illness, something doctors called "puerperal fever" or "childbed fever") dropped precipitously when obstetricians disinfected their hands. Afterward, he introduced hand washing with chlorinated solutions at Vienna General Hospital in 1847. The difference could not have been any clearer: at the time, maternity wards in hospitals experienced mortality rates three times higher than midwives' at-home deliveries. According to research of the day, Dr. Semmelweis' chlorinated hand washing slashed mortality to less than 1% [2].

Hand washing, though, was something that doctors had never even considered. There was fierce resistance to Dr. Semmelweis' advice. Over the twenty years that followed, Dr. Semmelweis became an evangelist for the practice, making slow headway into doctors' habits. He also became a pariah, though. Far from embracing his findings with open arms, the medical establishment pushed back even harder. Years later, Louis Pasteur confirmed Dr. Semmelweis hypothesis about the efficacy of hand washing, and Joseph Lister popularized the practice even further [3] [4].

The Evidence is Indisputable

Dr. Semmelweis saved lives by contributing to a shift in consciousness. While we may think of hand washing as an aspect of common sense today, it was not always that way. It was not obvious to people that they needed to wash their hands to protect their health. It was science that convinced people, gradually and painstakingly. At a point, the evidence and the data became indisputable, and then people started to listen. The world is better off with widespread hand washing, and the world will be better off with widespread phone sanitation.

We are at a moment in history when people are not thinking of phone contamination and its negative effects on their health. Every time that someone uses the bathroom, uses their phone, eats a meal, uses their phone again, and does not fall prey to a serious bacterial or viral infection, it reinforces their incorrect assumption about the safety of these practices. Make no mistake, though: infections are happening, and regular phone sanitation would prevent them.

The history of hand washing was far from linear. Although Dr. Semmelweis' ideas took time to enter public discourse. It took many intelligent, capable people working in conjunction to introduce hand washing on a large scale and make it the cornerstone of good hygiene that it is today. Look at the difference between then and now: if a doctor were to fail to wash his or her hands while working in a hospital in 2020, it would not only be an oversight but presumably an act of malpractice.

We cannot assume that people will know how to sanitize their phones instinctively any more than we could assume they would know how to unlock and navigate their phones. This is new technology, involving new concepts. The science does not lie, though. The numbers are there for anyone to see. Hand washing reduced infection and mortality, and phone sanitation will as well. The parallels are clear, and it is encouraging because there is a roadmap for us to follow. We can look to pioneers like Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis and find some reassurance that change is possible. It is possible to alter people's concepts about phone contamination and thus their habits around phone sanitation.

A Shift in Consciousness

We are confident that we can affect this type of shift in consciousness. We see that the numbers are on our side, and we believe in people's willingness to consider them. Especially in the months during and after the coronavirus pandemic, people will remain open to hearing about these issues and listening to suggestions about their behavior. There is an opportunity to do good here.

1. November 2019. "The Dirty Truth A 2019 report examining the gaps and potential risks in U.S. cleaning habits." Vital Vio.

2. Markel, H. 15 May 2015. "In 1850, Ignaz Semmelweis saved lives with three words: wash your hands." PBS.

3. Kadar, N. 13 November 2018. "Rediscovering Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis (1818-1865)." National Library of Medicine.

4. 14 December 2017. "Louis Pasteur (1822–1895)." Science History Institute.