The Way You Clean Your Computer Screen Could Be Silently Damaging It

·7 min read
Photo credit: bieshutterb - Getty Images
Photo credit: bieshutterb - Getty Images


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Whether you're on a laptop or parked in front of a monitor on your work desk, computer screens may be the first thing to get real grimy at your workstation. Dust is a major concern — it can silently coat a computer's screen or a monitor and disrupt the screen's colors or brightness. You might also have to fight oily fingerprints. Germs can be a concern, too, although SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that leads to a COVID-19 diagnosis) isn't primarily thought to be a threat to your health via surfaces like computer screens, for example.

Cleaning a screen requires a bit more of a delicate touch than the rest of your electronics. Some cleaners can be abrasive, and using too much liquid could cause your laptop and monitor to short altogether. And yet, unlike other electronics, a glass screen or LCD monitor can attract pesky streaks easily (just like stainless steel).

If there's one thing you should avoid entirely, it's Windex or any other glass cleaner that you'd find in the cleaning aisle, says Carolyn Forté, the director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Cleaning Lab. "Windows are much different than laptop screens. More so, the most common form of Windex [the plain variety] isn't meant for disinfecting, so it's not killing germs like a true disinfectant would," she explains. While it's certainly effective at removing streaks on glass, Forté says using a clean microfiber cloth before and after you attempt to clean your laptop's screen is the right way to go to remove any streaks or imperfections — and that a real disinfectant product could better kill and remove germs from your screen.

A note on the various degrees of cleaning: Some laptop users may only be able to sanitize their screen, which the CDC defines as "[lowering] the number of germs on surfaces or objects to a safe level," due to commercial cleaners containing certain chemicals. Others, depending on the kind of screen they use, may be able to completely disinfect the surface, which "kills germs on surfaces or objects" entirely, and "further lower the risk of spreading infection" overall.

What cleaning product can I use to clean my computer screen?

The answer is complicated, as there are hundreds of laptop manufacturers and even more when it comes to monitors, and they all advertise different solutions. Apple updated its advice for its customers in 2020 during the pandemic, clarifying that products like Clorox-branded disinfecting wipes are safe to use on their products if used carefully — but some devices, like the Apple Pro Display XDR, may have their own instructions that are independent of the company's general advice.

It often comes down to whether or not glass is part of your laptops' screen: For Mac users, this is usually the case, but PC models may not have a glass covering over their LCD screens. When in doubt, refer to your user's manual if possible, or reach out to your laptop's manufacturer online via email or on-site support chats to learn more.

That being said, Forté says most Apple laptops and monitors — or any laptop with glass-protected screens — can be wiped down with Lysol disinfecting wipes, which have been readily advertised as safe to use with electronics for years. Since laptops are routinely handled, Forte says you shouldn't aim to completely disinfect your device, as it won't stay disinfected for long. While Lysol wipes in particular need to remain wet on hard surfaces for 4 minutes to safely kill viruses and bacteria, you only need to let your screen air dry after you've sufficiently wiped it down. Doing just this alone will clean it up effectively.

Remember: Like any other device, you never want to spray a cleaning agent directly on the screen — it could seep into the cracks and crevices of your laptop, Forte says. "You want to make sure that no excess water, cleaner, or liquid gets inside your laptop. Always spray a cloth first if you are trying to use aerosols or sprays."

Here's how you can safely use Lysol wipes to sanitize a non-LCD laptop screen:

  1. Be sure to unplug your laptop from its power source, and turn it off if possible (do the same for monitors).

  2. First, use a clean microfiber cloth to wipe down your screen; remove dust, scuffs and any other surface-level fingerprints if possible.

  3. Then, wring out a Lysol disinfecting wipe to ensure it's not oversaturated. You can gently wipe down your laptop's screen once, taking care to not touch any openings (including ports or speakers).

  4. Let your screen air dry. If streaks have developed afterward, Forte says you should wipe it down once more with a clean microfiber cloth, as this extra friction can help remove more germs as well as smooth out any streaks. While this process won't entirely disinfect your screen, a wipe followed by a microfiber cloth touch-up will clean your screen perfectly.

Can I use water and soap to clean my laptop screen?

If you have a PC laptop that's loaded with a regular LCD screen, you should not use disinfecting wipes, because manufacturers like Hewlett-Packard say that active ingredients found in both Clorox and Lysol wipes could damage your screen. This HP customer support web page explains why: "Do not use any of the following chemicals or any solutions that contain them: Acetone, ethyl alcohol, toluene, ethyl acid, ammonia, or methyl chloride," it reads. "Plastic and glass cleaners containing ammonia may leave a glare-causing film…"

Photo credit: PC Gamer Magazine
Photo credit: PC Gamer Magazine

Should you be using soap, then? Forté clarifies you shouldn't bother using soap and water to clean an LCD screen if you can't use a Lysol wipe on it in the first place. Some soap varieties may contain the ingredients known to affect LCD screens.

Microfiber cloths are made with specialized fibers that have more surface area to trap dirt, grime, and germs, Forté says, and they're better designed with edges to lift bacteria up off your screen. While a dry microfiber cloth can't disinfect an LCD screen like a Lysol wipe can, using one to wipe down your screen won't put it in danger of permanent damage that cleaners could pose.

"LCD screens accumulate smudges and scratches all the time. To clean these, choose a non-abrasive cloth or towel. Shut the computer off and disconnect the power cable. Wipe the LCD screen gently with a soft, dry cloth," reads recommendations on HP's support page. "If any marks remain, moisten the cloth with LCD cleaner, and then gently stroke the cloth across the display in one direction, moving from the top of the display to the bottom."

Should I clean my keyboard in the same way?

Since your keyboard is attached to your laptop, you might be wondering if you shouldn't be using disinfectants on this surface as well. Apple maintains that you shouldn't use abrasives or cleaners containing solvents "that might damage the finish," whereas PC laptop manufacturers all have various instructions (HP has previously said soap is fine).

Forté says you shouldn't be afraid to wipe down your keyboard with a wipe after you've taken time to clean your laptop's screen. Despite official recommendations, keyboards are made with plastic keys that are non-porous, and Forte explains that they shouldn't be affected, especially if you're careful in ensuring excess liquid isn't seeping beneath the keys. Just like when you clean your screen, you'll want to make sure your computer is off.

Both Forte and Apple experts recommend holding your laptop at a 75° angle and using a can of compressed air to blow away flyaway debris that's become lodged between keys before wiping it down any further. Lastly, dip a clean microfiber cloth or a large cotton swab into isopropyl alcohol, or rubbing alcohol, to sanitize your keyboard.

The Bottom Line: It's clear that laptop and accessories' manufacturers have various recommendations when it comes to cleaning surfaces with disinfectants. While these cleaners may contain solvents or other potentially abrasive cleaning agents, they're designed to actually kill germs. Soap and water or microfiber cloths don't have the same cleaning power as disinfectants, but could be a safer alternative if you're concerned about affecting the workings of your computer screen.

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