We live in a touchscreen society. From ATMs and grocery store checkouts to airport ticket kiosks and fast-food self-serve ordering stations, there are public touchscreen kiosks and point-of-service (POS) touchpads everywhere. They’re popular because they offer exceptional convenience, allowing people to quickly get the information or item they want without having to wait for human assistance.
But, in our current climate, where the mere mention of coronavirus germs cause heightened anxiety, are touchscreen kiosks safe to use?
The short answer is yes...if.
If they are cleaned frequently and properly.
Touchscreens are a Better Alternative to Human Interaction
The novel coronavirus may survive on some surfaces up to (and perhaps longer than) nine days — and you can catch COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, simply by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. So, it may seem counterintuitive that touchscreen technology can actually enhance safety and deliver peace of mind. But that’s the case if proper care is taken to ensure these surfaces are free of contaminants.
“Using properly cleaned touch kiosks and POS systems rather than interacting with humans is good practice in terms of limiting the spread of germs, even without the specter of coronavirus,” explained ICS CEO Peter Winston. “For instance, using a credit card and touchpad at the grocery store, or Apple Pay on your phone, means you don’t have to hand the cashier cash. Not only is the currency filthy, but the cashier’s hands may be as well — even if they’re periodically cleaned using alcohol-based hand sanitizer. And you can also sufficiently distance yourself, which is essential when not every person out in public is wearing a protective mask.”
Of course, the benefits of avoiding humans in favor of touchscreens only pan out if those screens are cleaned often. (In the current environment, “often” translates to “between every customer.”) Here’s why.
Even though touchscreen technology is providing consumers with desired convenience, touchscreens and touchpads can be vectors of infectious diseases (if not cleaned properly). Scientists have found a plethora of bacteria on touchscreens, from staphylococcus, which causes nasty and often antibiotic-resistant infections, to Enterococcus faecalis (E. faecalis), which causes a soaring number of hospital-acquired infections. (According to the World Health Organization, 99,000 deaths annually in the U.S. are attributed to HCAIs at a cost of $6.5 billion.)
London Metropolitan University in 2018 found that touchscreens in some McDonald’s restaurants carried traces of feces. “It is a serious issue since most customers eat immediately after placing their order and grabbing their bag of chicken nuggets and fries,” Winston said. “Of course, the problem is not unique to McDonald's. It applies to any outlet that sells food that will be eaten without utensils. Hungry customers are extremely unlikely to not wash their hands after touching the ordering kiosk and before eating their food.”
And, the issue is not unique to food service. Research by Insurance Quotes found an average of 253,857 colony-forming germ units per square inch on airport check-in screens. Enterococcus faecalis (E. faecalis) bacteria, even listeria, have been found on public screens, including those in many hospitals. An E. faecalis infection may cause fever, fatigue, headache, chills, vomiting, and diarrhea. And in more severe cases, can lead to meningitis or urinary tract infections. Listeria in pregnant women, if left untreated, can cause miscarriages and stillbirths.
And, let’s not forget that the germs that cause colds and flu — and the potentially deadly COVID-19 — easily can be spread by touching a surface like a touchscreen that has respiratory droplets on it and then touching your face.
So how do you clean touchscreens kiosks and protect yourself and your customers using these devices of modern convenience?
How to Clean Effectively Without Damaging Your Device
If you’re using a touchscreen, the focus should be on frequent and effective hand washing, as well as disinfecting personal items like credit cards and mobile phones (especially mobile phones, which harbor 10x the germs of toilet seats!) after use. Here’s a helpful tutorial on how to clean your phone without damaging its oleophobic and hydrophobic coatings, which prevent water and oil from damaging the display. (If you have an iPhone, Apple recommends using a 70 percent isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes to gently wipe hard, nonporous surfaces. Avoid bleach.)
If your business owns customer or employee-facing touchscreens — information kiosks, pay-at-the-table credit card processors, handheld and fixed-tablet POS touchscreen systems — the cleaning task is more involved as this equipment rarely gets the same level of sanitation attention as other surfaces in a facility, such as counter tops.
Proper touchscreen cleaning requires a frequent sanitizing protocol using suitable disinfectants and cleansers that will not harm your valuable devices. Jeff LeBlanc, Director of User Experience at touchscreen kiosk manufacturer Advanced Kiosks, says the company tell its customers that hand sanitizer can be used to clean almost all monitors and components to ensure a clean touchscreen. “We recommend they use a damp cloth to wipe the monitor. They’re told not to saturate the cloth or surface of the monitor or any components, and to avoid any openings or ports.”
LeBlanc’s firm developed detailed instructions on how to safely clean a variety of touchscreen monitor types, including surface acoustic wave, projected capacitative and infrared. For instance surface capacitative touchscreens, commonly found in retail environments, have a transparent electrode layer on the top of a glass panel, covered by a protective layer. “When an exposed finger touches the monitor screen, it reacts to the static electrical capacity of the human body, which allows the screen to pinpoint the position of the finger,” LeBlanc said.
This is how his firm recommends cleaning these types of monitors, using a soft lint-free cloth:
The cloth may be used dry, or lightly dampened with a mild cleaner. For example, you can use a mild soap and water solution, a 50% isopropyl alcohol mixed in 50% water solution, or a disinfectant product such as Virex.
Be sure the cloth is only slightly dampened, not wet. Never apply cleaner directly to the touch panel surface; if the cleaner is spilled onto the touch panel, soak it up immediately with absorbent cloth.
The cleaner must be neither acid nor alkali (neutral pH). A small amount of hand sanitizer can work.
When using cleaner, avoid contact with the edges of the film or glass.
Wipe the surface gently, and wipe in small circles.
Never use acidic or alkaline cleaners, or organic chemicals such as: paint thinner, acetone, toluene, xylene, propyl or isopropyl alcohol, or kerosene.
Use of incorrect cleaners can result in optical impairment of touch panel and/or damage to functionality.
For detailed cleaning instructions for a spectrum of touch monitor types read How to Clean a Touch Screen on Your Self-Service Kiosk for the full guidance.
“Regardless of the type of customer-facing touchscreen your business utilizes, as the owner the onus is on you to make sure your restaurant’s Coke Freestyle beverage dispenser or your bodega’s digital cash register or your fuel franchise’s gasoline pump — or any other public screen you control — is clean and ready for customer use,” Winston said.
“Touchscreens are of immense benefit to businesses, their customers and their employees in terms of convenience, ease of use and easy access to essential information," Winston stressed. "Let’s make sure they don’t become a source of anxiety or disease transmission.”
For more on the role of touchscreens in a pandemic, check out COVID-19 Gives Voice and Gesture UIs New Relevance.