When you think of everything in your life that needs to be cleaned regularly, your credit card is probably not near the top of the list. But the truth is, during the course of a day, your card can pass through many hands and see plenty of action in credit card readers and ATMs. These exchanges increase the odds of your card picking up dirt, debris, and germs.
Fortunately, there are many ways you can keep your credit card clean without worrying about damaging the plastic, chip, or magnetic strip. Even better, most cleaning methods take less than 30 seconds.
Let’s take a look at some different ways you can practice good credit card hygiene.
Why Clean Your Credit Card?
It’s common knowledge that most paper money and coins carry germs, but credit and debit cards aren’t any cleaner. In fact, microbes, bacteria, and viruses typically stay active longer on hard surfaces like plastic and metal, sometimes for days or even weeks.
If you touch your bacteria- or virus-laden card and then touch your mouth, eyes, or nose, you could be introducing unwanted germs into your body. Washing your hands after handling your card can prevent the spread of germs. So can washing your credit card.
Besides wiping away bacteria, microbes, and viruses, scrubbing your card can also remove dust, dirt particles, and grime. These elements can make your card’s surface feel greasy, gritty, and sticky, and they can accumulate on or around the raised credit card numbers or letters.
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How to Clean Credit Cards
There is no one way to clean your credit cards. The method you use depends on personal choice and the cleaning materials you have on hand. If you’re worried about getting your card wet, rest assured plastic and metal credit cards are meant to be waterproof.
Whatever your cleaning method, there are a couple rules of thumb to keep in mind. The first is to be gentle. Too much elbow grease or force may cause the card to wear down prematurely and could wipe away the ink. The second rule is to dry the card completely before you put it back in your wallet or use it.
Here are some effective ways to clean your credit cards:
Soap and Water
You can wash your credit card as you would your hands — with good old soap and water. Simply suds up your card with hand or dish soap and warm water, and gently clean for 20 seconds before rinsing it off completely. Wipe dry with a paper towel, soft rag, or lint-free microfiber cloth.
Rubbing and Isopropyl Alcohol
Both types of alcohol can be used to clean your cards. Simply wet a cotton ball, tissue, paper towel, or soft cloth with the alcohol and wipe the card. To remove stubborn gunk trapped around the raised letters or digits of your card, try using a cotton swab dipped in alcohol.
Antibacterial or Sanitizing Wipes
The same wipes you use to clean surfaces at home can also be used on your credit cards. These products work to rid your card of any bacteria and viruses hanging out on your credit or debit card.
Multi-surface household cleaner
An all-purpose cleaner will also do the trick of cleaning your card. It’s better to spray the solution onto a cotton ball, paper towel, or clean rag instead of directly onto your card. Vinegar, which also works as a household cleaner, is another option.
UV Light Sanitizer
These devices use ultraviolet light to kill any viruses and bacteria found on nonporous surfaces. Often used to kill germs on cell phones, many of these machines sanitize credit cards as well.
One caveat: If you have a credit card made of metal or a metal composite, you may need to follow a different cleaning regimen. Apple, for example, warns against applying certain products or methods when cleaning the titanium Apple Card. On the list are household or window cleaners, compressed air, ammonia, and abrasive cleaners. If you have a metal card and aren’t sure what material it’s made of, check with your credit card issuer before cleaning it.
How to Clean the Chip and Magnetic Strip on a Credit Card
There may be times when you insert a credit card into a chip reader or swipe it at the card reader machine, but can’t complete the transaction. This could be because your credit card’s chip or magnetic strip needs to be cleaned.
You might think getting the chip or strip wet would damage the card, but in reality, the chip reader and magnetic strip can be cleaned with the methods mentioned above. However, you don’t want to soak your card in any liquid — even soapy water — or scrub the chip or strip too hard. Doing so can damage it over time.
There are also ways to de-gunk a chip or strip that don’t involve cleaning products. For instance, after gently wiping off your card, you can use a rubber eraser to lift any remaining strip residue. Another option is to place a piece of clear tape over a dirty strip or chip and then peel it off.
5 Things to Avoid Doing When Cleaning a Credit Card
Not all cleaning methods are created equal. In fact, some could damage your card. Here are five to avoid.
1. Scrubbing with a rough sponge
You don’t need to apply too much pressure or scour your card with an abrasive sponge. Both could damage the card, especially the chip and magnetic strip.
2. Your washing machine
You might think throwing your card into the wash with your clothes is harmless. But the harsh chemicals found in most laundry detergents could do more harm than good. For one thing, they can cause the card’s protective coating to peel off.
3. Hand sanitizer
While hand sanitizer can work in a pinch, it isn’t the best product to use when cleaning off your card. The moisturizing ingredients in the gel or liquid can leave behind a residue.
4. Soaking in rubbing alcohol
While you can wipe down your card with rubbing alcohol, experts warn against submerging your card in it because it can be corrosive.
5. Using heat
Heat and hot water can kill off germs, but using very high temperatures to clean or sterilize your credit card can actually damage it. Using a blow dryer, a clothes dryer, or boiling water to blast off any germs can cause the card’s plastic to soften or warp.
Cleaning vs Disinfecting a Credit Card
Both cleaning and disinfecting your credit card are effective, but they aren’t synonymous, and one step should precede the other.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, you should clean first and then disinfect. Why? Washing a surface before you do anything else removes impurities like dirt, whose presence may make it harder for the chemicals in sanitizers and disinfectants to reach and kill germs.
How Often Should Credit Cards Be Cleaned?
How often you should clean your card largely depends on how often you use it. Ideally, you should clean your credit cards after every use, though that can be difficult if you’re out and about and using your card at different places. Generally, aim to clean your card once a day if you use it regularly, or once a week if you don’t.
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Other Credit Card Maintenance Tips
Your wallet can get pretty dirty, making it harder to keep your credit card clean. Try storing it in a plastic photo holder or a card protector sleeve. Your credit card company may have issued your card in one, or you can make your own by wrapping a credit card-sized piece of paper around the card and taping the ends together. Another option is to purchase a separate credit card holder.
You may also want to use contactless credit card payments, which allow you to avoid swiping or inserting your card into a reader. One way to do that is with a contactless credit card. These cards feature an icon that resembles the wi-fi symbol and let you “tap and pay” at a payment machine.
You may also decide to store your credit card in a mobile wallet, which is a virtual wallet that lives on your cell phone, smartwatch, or other mobile device.
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Any time your credit card changes hands or is inserted into card readers and ATMs, it can pick up dirt and germs that can live on the surface for days or even weeks. Cleaning your credit cards regularly can help protect you from bacteria, viruses, and other germs. Using soap and water, rubbing alcohol, antibacterial wipes, or multi-surface household cleaners may all help you keep your card in tip top shape. Using a contactless credit card or mobile wallet are other ways to cut down on your card’s exposure to germs.
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Can credit cards survive being washed?
They can, as long as you use gentle methods and surface-friendly products. Things to avoid: using an abrasive sponge and scrubbing too hard; submerging your card in potentially corrosive liquids like rubbing alcohol; and running the card through the washing machine.
Why do people clean their credit cards?
Credit cards can accumulate dirt and germs whenever they change hands or are inserted into a card reader or ATM. Cleaning your credit cards gets rid of bacteria and viruses that can stay on your cards for a period of time. But it can also remove stubborn grime that can scrape or otherwise damage your chip or magnetic strip.
Can you clean a magnetic strip on a credit card?
You can clean a magnetic strip with soap and water, an antibacterial wipe, rubbing alcohol, a safe household cleaner, or a UV light sanitizer. You can even use a pencil eraser or a piece of clear tape to remove dirt from a magnetic strip.
Photo credit: iStock/Khosrork
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