How to clean your dirty, lint-stuffed iPhone

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Lint and SIM removal tool
This is the harvest from a single iPhone Lightning port.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Even if you keep your iPhone in a nice case and regularly polish the screen, it is probably a filthy cesspit of germs, fluff and abrasive dust. Fortunately, if you can be bothered to actually do something about it, cleaning your iPhone is easy and rewarding.

Rewarding in the sense that you’ll be rewarded with a pristine slab of glass and steel, instead of having to finger a filth-bomb every time you take your pocket computer out to use it.

Maybe you’re the kind of person who doesn’t care that your iPhone (and its case) is a festering bar of grot. Perhaps you manage to ignore the fact that the iPhone that you perch on your pillow is the same unwashed device that you exposed to an airplane seat — or, worse, the bacterial hellhole of the plane’s seat-back pocket.

If so, you’re probably also the kind of person who wears their street shoes indoors, puts their suitcase on their bed while packing, sits on the seats of public transit and then on their own sofa while wearing the same pants, and (if male) pees standing up, sprinkling the bathroom walls and floor with urine.

How to clean your iPhone

If that describes you, then carry on with your dirty iPhone. You deserve it. If, however, you lean more toward the Howard Hughes shoebox-slippers end of the cleanliness-paranoia spectrum, this article is for you.

General rules when cleaning gadgets

Dirt is abrasive, so just wiping it away can leaves scratches on the iPhone. This applies to the painted metal case of the iPhone 7 as much as it does to the glass backs of the iPhone X and iPhone 4, and the bare aluminum of the iPhone 6. So the first rule is to dust off any loose particles with a brush, or by whipping the device gently with a dry cloth.

You should also remove the case before you begin, taking extra care to remove the dust accumulated in between the case and the iPhone. On current iPhones, using Apple’s leather or silicone cases, dirt embeds itself in the seam between the screen and the steel band. Carefully remove this.

Then, Apple recommends that you switch the iPhone off before you begin cleaning in earnest.

Remove lint from the Lightning port

We’ll remove the built-up lint from the Lightning port first, as the next stage may involve liquids that will combine with the dust and gunk things up.

I use the SIM-card tool that came with the iPhone. Its sharp-enough tip lets you easily scour the inner corners of the Lightning port to carefully scoop out accumulated dust and lint. But whenever I mention this trick, somebody points out that it can short out the contacts inside the port and cause damage. That’s a possibility, so you should probably use something non-conductive instead.

Either way, this is an important maintenance task. If left to build up, the lint can become compacted and make charging unreliable. This also goes for the headphone jack on older iPhone models.

How to clean the iPhone screen

If you’re using a late-model iPhone, you can just use a dishcloth and soap to clean your iPhone. Don’t slosh things around too much, or you’ll get water and soap in the few remaining ports, but a damp cloth with a speck of soap will take care of most problems. This should be no problem with these water-resistant models.

A damp, lightly soaped cloth will take care of this.
A damp, lightly soaped cloth will take care of this.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

For older iPhones, just be more careful. Use a damp cloth, not a wet one, and a little soap to take care of the grease, and you should be good. This will remove most grease and grime. If you prefer, you could use pure alcohol. If you buy something described as rubbing alcohol, it may or may not have oils added. You probably don’t want those. Alcohol also has the advantage of sterilizing the iPhone, which is great if you ever let children use your iPhone.

You can clean the rear panel of the iPhone and the edge band the same way as the screen.

How to clean the iPhone camera lens

On a regular camera, the lens is its most delicate external component. Touching it can leave hard-to-remove fingerprints. Acids in those fingerprints can damage the lens coating over time.

Be careful, but not paranoid, when setting out to clean your iPhone.
Be careful, but not paranoid.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Your iPhone’s lens, on the other hand, seems as tough as the screen. And it may be the cleanest part of your iPhone. Even the dirtiest of hippies probably rubs the lens on a shirt hem every now and then to polish it and ensure a nice clear photo. You can just go ahead and clean the lens along with the rest of the phone.

But one important point is to never use abrasive cleaners ors cloths. No pan scourers, no powdered cleaning products, nothing that can scratch the iPhone. This is true not only for the camera lenses, but also the screen, and the rest of the iPhone.

Don’t forget to clean your iPhone case

The brown and black leather cases are the only ones that get better with use.
The brown and black leather cases are the only ones that get better with use.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Once you’ve cleaned up the iPhone, don’t forget to clean the case. Apple’s silicone cases can be scrubbed clean with soap and water, then left to air out. (The interior microfiber lining will take a while to dry.) The leather cases need special care. Any other case should be assessed on its own needs. Just make sure to let them dry thoroughly before putting the iPhone back in.

One more thing

In extreme cases, the iPhone’s recessed mute switch can get dirty enough to stop it from engaging properly. A sharp-edged plastic tool is good for fixing this problem. I’ve also achieved good results using cotton swabs (aka Q-tips) lightly moistened with alcohol while the iPhone is off. I won’t recommend this, as it’s probably a bad idea to scrub liquids of any kind into a vulnerable switch. But it worked for me.

And that’s it! Just make sure not to wait so long before cleaning your iPhone next time. (Meanwhile, maybe it’s time to clean your gross, waxy AirPods.)