Copper “touch tools” are being advertised everywhere online right now. They promise touch-free interactions with things like screens, PIN pads, and door handles. Since they’re made of copper, they also banish germs.
But do they actually work?
I wanted to find out.
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To start, I talked to Nick Guy, a writer at the reviews site Wirecutter. He penned an article headlined “You Don’t Need That Brass Touch Tool You Saw on Instagram.”
“They all say that they’re supposed to be an in-between so you’re not touching anything directly… and because copper is antimicrobial, they’re advertising that this is a safe way to have that in-between,” said Guy, over a Skype call from his home in the New York City area.
His article is skeptical of the tools, citing a study that says coronavirus could live on them for up to four hours. That means the nasty stuff could potentially be transferred to your pocket or purse.
Still, the interest in these tools is incredible. When I posted short clips of myself using a review unit that KeySmart sent of their CleanKey to my Instagram account, the replies came in fast. Everyone wanted to know where to buy it, how much it costs and whether it works.
KeySmart told me via email that they came out with a keychain stylus two years ago and sold less than 5 a month. In March 2020, they sold more than 10,000 of them. That’s when they came up with the $25 copper-based CleanKey.
The packaging on CleanKey promises to kill 99.99% of bacteria within 2 hours.
When I reached out to Peel, a company known for its super thin smartphone covers, they told me via email that they are seeing “high demand” for their Touch Tool, which they believe “were the ones to popularize the concept … and have since been copied quite a bit.”
But again, does it really work?
Next, I consulted the “guru of copper,” Michael Schmidt, a biology professor at The Medical University of South Carolina. He’s also host of the podcast “This Week in Microbiology.”
I was surprised to hear that he believes the tools are actually legit.
“The human race has been using copper for its anti-microbial ability for over 8 thousand years,” said Schmidt. He explained that early humans realized that when they carried water in copper items, they didn’t get sick as often.
He explained why copper has anti-microbial properties, but it’s super complicated. The best I can describe is to think of sickness causing germs as an envelope. Their instructions to reproduce and wreak havoc are inside. Copper ruins the envelope they’re in and this, in turn, damages the message inside.
“It literally destroys the message… and if there is no message there is no instruction to tell your cells to become sick,” explained Schmidt.
When I asked him about the four hour window to destroy germs, he said that it would take an awful lot of coronavirus for that scenario to be true. Additionally, a PIN pad or other infected object would actually look wet at that point, and no one would touch it anyway out of instinct.
Schmidt said for a tool to be effective, it needs to be at least 60% copper. Many of the keys are brass, which contains copper. If you do buy one of these tools, make sure you see at least this number in the documentation.
Also, it turns out you might have a cheaper solution readily available.
“The penny in your pocket is coated with copper… so you can get away with pennies, the penny’s surface is antimicrobial to touch the keypad, that would work just fine,” concluded Schmidt.
Did I get the answer to my question? Sort of. From what I can gather, these touch tools are a helpful way to put a barrier between us and nasty germs. My concern is that these tools might give users a false sense of security. They do seem to help us avoid germs, but common sense should still prevail.
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