There’s a pretty healthy economy online for selling and trading used smartphones. Unfortunately there’s no guarantee that even a well-kept and functional device wasn’t subjected to smoke and tar from a smoker. Maybe you can send the device back to the seller, but if you’re stuck with it, that’s a bummer. A buddy of mine recently found himself in this very situation with a phone, and it inspired me to look up what methods could be employed for cleaning a phone out.

This is a problem we used to face with studio recording equipment back in the days when voice over announcers would chain smoke in the recording booth. Moisture from breath, and tar from the lungs, would glue itself to the microphone internals requiring expensive manufacturer support to scrape all the gunk off sensitive components. Thankfully our phones aren’t that fragile.

We have a couple options for detoxing a smartphone and removing cigarette smell, but they all require a little patience.

Working with any cleaning fluids requires care and attention. We’ll reiterate throughout this piece. Do not flood the open sections of your phone with liquids, and as some liquids are acidic or caustic, avoid using them on exposed electronics or battery terminals.

First we want to strip the phone down as best we can. If there’s a case, you’ll probably just want to scrap it. If there’s a screen protector, examine the screen for any minor fractures, and take care removing it. If you can remove the back of the phone, pop it off and slide out the battery.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4 back cover plate open disassembled used cleaning health smartphoneFor the first fast detailing we want some kind of acid to help break things up. White vinegar is an item many of us will have in our kitchen pantries. Mix up a solution of half vinegar to half distilled water, and lightly soak the solution up with cotton swabs. Use these swabs to lightly wipe at every surface of the phone which doesn’t have exposed contacts and electronics. Take your time, and don’t over soak the swabs, we don’t want any drips.

cotton swabs qtips cleaning health disinfecting smartphoneI’m not a big fan of that vinegar smell though, so another option is to use a citrus acid like lemon juice. We need to be careful here if you squeeze a fresh lemon, as it does have a minute amount of sugar in it. Any buildup of juice might make the device a little sticky. Once completed though, hopefully the acids in the vinegar or lemon juice have helped cut into the smoke smell.

lemon juice health cleaning disinfecting smartphone

As a follow up to the acids, we can also do a light detail with rubbing alcohol. It’s vital that the device doesn’t get soaked. Take your time, go slow, and avoid dripping any cleaning fluid into exposed sections or on exposed electronics. Alcohol evaporates quickly, but you should still give it a couple minutes to fully dry before powering the phone back on.

If after acid and alcohol we still have an odor, we can try a longer term fix. Baking soda can help remove scents from our fridge, but we might need to move to something like activated charcoal. Avoid fancy BBQ charcoal with quick lighting treatments or mesquite flavorings. We want similar stuff to what’s used in water filters.


Drop some charcoal in a large paper bag, like a grocery bag, and find some way to keep the phone separate from the charcoal. A wire rack can keep your phone on top of the charcoal, or you can just be careful to keep everything from touching on the bottom of the bag. Close that bag up, and let the phone sit in there for about a week while the charcoal does its scent absorbing magic.

If an odor still lingers after acid, alcohol, and charcoal, the phone might be a lost cause…

Do you have any other tips and tricks for detailing and disinfecting your technology? Drop us a comment below!

Charcoal pic via RaveDave.

Juan has been geeking out on personal computing since before PCs had GUIs. After studying Theatre in college, Juan worked with a contractor that supported servers and mobile devices for Department of Energy facilities. After moving to Los Angeles California, and working as a commercial casting director, he now dedicates his time to discussing the tech landscape as a consumer advocate. You’ll often see him pop in local news broadcasts. Passionate about mobile content creation, he recently published his first book on smartphone photography.

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