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How to clean your credit card

Personal hygiene is critical in the age of COVID-19. Here’s how you can prevent your cards from harboring the coronavirus


Experts say you can clean credit cards and other plastic payment cards, which appear capable of harboring the new coronavirus. And that cleaning very well could rid those cards of the virus. Here’s how you can practice good card hygiene, and what alternatives you can use.

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Amid the coronavirus pandemic, millions of Americans are diligently practicing proper hygiene, such as thoroughly washing their hands, regularly disinfecting various surfaces and religiously shielding other people from coughs or sneezes.

Should you embrace credit card hygiene, too?

Experts say you can disinfect credit cards and other plastic payment cards, which appear capable of harboring the new coronavirus. And that cleaning very well could rid those cards of the virus.

See related: Best credit cards for online shopping

How does the COVID-19 virus spread?

The COVID-19 virus spreads through respiratory droplets, which are produced when someone coughs or sneezes. According to Harvard University, these droplets usually travel about three to six feet and then settle on surfaces. The droplets can live on those surfaces for anywhere from a few hours to several days, Harvard says.

Based on lab tests conducted recently by federal and academic scientists in the U.S., this coronavirus apparently can linger in the air for up to three hours and on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to three days.

Should you disinfect your credit card?

The short answer: It probably can’t hurt, particularly if you suspect this coronavirus has tainted a card. But it might not be necessary.

Cyndie Martini is president and CEO of Member Access Processing, a Kent, Washington-based company that offers a payment-processing platform to credit unions. From a germ standpoint, handling a credit or debit card is similar to touching any other surface, such a countertop or doorknob, she says. If a surface isn’t sanitized, it could harbor germs.

“The key is to use caution,” Martini says, “and make sure you wash your hands after handling anything that you think could be contaminated.”

See related: Best cards for food delivery and meal kit subscriptions

How to clean your credit card

You could go as far as cleaning a card with a disinfecting wipe or an alcohol-based sanitizer, she adds, or even wearing gloves while you’re holding a card.

In early March 2020, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a list of disinfectant products that it says can kill the COVID-19 virus on surfaces. These products – from major brands like Clorox, Lysol and Purell – potentially could get rid of this virus on credit and debit cards.

Dr. Stephen Thomas, professor of medicine and chief of the infectious disease division at Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, suggests someone concerned about a potentially germy credit or debit card also could clean it with soap and warm or hot water.

“The mere force of the friction of cleaning will wipe away the virus, or damage the viral membrane and inactivate the virus. The soap or chloride-based cleaners [disinfecting wipes] will further damage the virus, making it nonfunctional,” Thomas says.

While disinfecting a card could erase the COVID-19 virus, Thomas questions whether vigorous cleaning might hinder a card’s functionality. That could include damage to a card’s chip or magnetic stripe.

Paul Pottinger, professor of medicine and director of the Infectious Diseases Training Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, says another anti-coronavirus step you could take is to place cards in a UV sterilizer device. The UV light in these devices can kill viruses and bacteria.

“However, this is not necessary,” Pottinger says. “Just clean your hands after each transaction, either with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.”

What are the alternatives to washing your hands or disinfecting a credit card?

If you’re worried about germy cards, Martini says you can rely on:

  • A card’s contactless “tap and go” feature. This technology lets you pay by tapping your card on a payment terminal. This eliminates the need to swipe or insert a card or to hand it to a clerk, all of which could expose the card to germs.
  • A smartphone equipped with a digital wallet like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay or Google Pay. This entirely avoids using a physical card.
  • An online checkout option like Amazon Pay, EMV Secure Remote Commerce, PayPal or Mastercard’s or Visa’s checkout services. In this case, too, a physical card isn’t required.

In situations like the coronavirus epidemic, “people are always going to be worried about their money, which makes complete sense,” Martini says. “Fortunately, from an access standpoint, there are enough safeguards in place to ensure people will always have access to their money electronically.”

See related: Coronavirus fears boosting contactless payments, study shows

How concerned should you be about germy credit cards?

For most of us, there’s little reason to fear touching a possibly germ-covered card.

A 2018 study by CreditCards.com and the University of Texas at Austin found credit cards had more types of bacteria on them than cash and coins. But medical experts emphasize that a typical healthy person likely won’t become ill merely by touching a card crawling with germs.

The study’s findings suggested, yet did not definitively determine, that metal cards host fewer germs than plastic cards do.

“We are not certain how long germs live on credit cards, probably hours to days, but long enough to be transmitted from a card to a card reader, and then to the next card,” Pottinger says. “Although the number of bacteria and viruses transferred in this fashion is probably small, you should consider your card to be contaminated with microbes from the other people who have recently used the same card reader.”

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The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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