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What Is an Oleophobic Coating?

Drop of water on a phone with an oleophobic coating on the screen
Kris Wouk

From iPhones and Android devices to screen protectors, many products proudly advertise that they use an oleophobic coating. What does that mean? The answer is both simple and surprisingly complex. Let’s take a look at how this coating works.

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What Is Oleophobic Coating?

While it’s a complex-sounding name, an oleophobic coating is designed to handle a simple job: keeping fingerprints off of your screen. Before smartphones shipped with these coatings, our devices were fingerprint magnets that could look old and heavily used after only hours out of the box.

You’ll increasingly find oleophobic coatings on any device with glass that is meant for people to interact with. This means not just phones, but tablets, touchscreens on laptops, and more. This also includes screen protectors meant for use on these devices.

Where won’t you find oleophobic coatings? Mainly, glass that the manufacturer never intends customers to interact with too often. The display on a laptop without a touchscreen, for example, won’t always have an oleophobic coating. This is partly because the coating doesn’t only affect how the screen looks, but also how it feels. The smooth feel of modern smartphone touchscreens has a lot to do with oleophobic coatings.

While this coating wearing off isn’t as catastrophic as damaging your phone’s screen, it’s still something you should try to avoid. In addition to preventing your phone from gathering fingerprints, the coating also makes it easier to wipe them away.

How Does Oleophobic Coating Work?

Oleophobic coatings work thanks to lipophobicity: basically, they have properties that reject oil. To be more accurate, a screen with an oleophobic coating just won’t attract oil the way that other surfaces will. This is opposed to a hydrophobic coating, which rejects liquid.

Smartphone screen with oily fingerprints
ThomasDeco/Shutterstock

While hydrophobic coatings exist, they’re not a great idea for smartphones. This is mainly thanks to how they affect the feel of a touchscreen. Hydrophobic coatings are a better fit for glass that you never need to touch.

Unfortunately, oleophobic coatings don’t mean that you’ll never have to worry about fingerprints on your smartphone’s screen. These coatings wear off over time, which is why Apple, for example, warns iPhone owners not to clean their screens with rubbing alcohol.

Alcohol specifically will make your coating wear away faster. That said, even if you never clean your screen with anything but a microfiber cloth, your coating will wear away from use.

RELATED: How to Clean Your Dirty Smartphone (Without Breaking Something)

How Long Does the Coating Last?

For all that they help keep your phone or tablet looking clean and new, oleophobic coatings are frustratingly fragile. Almost as soon as you start using your device or screen protector, the coating begins to wear off. Fortunately, you can slow this process.

To test the oleophobic coating on your phone or screen protector, carefully place a single drop of water on the glass. Assuming this is on your phone, make sure to keep this away from any sensitive areas like speaker openings. If the water beads up into a single drop, your coating is working well.

On the other hand, if the drop of water spreads across the glass, the coating is either wearing or has worn off completely. Companies may develop oleophobic coatings that wear more slowly, but for now, it’s not a matter of if, but when your coating will begin to wear. The coating will wear noticeably over time, and after a year or two, it may have worn off completely.

This is one reason to use a glass screen protector, even if you already protect your phone with a case. You’ll wear the coating on the screen protector, but this is more easily replaceable than your phone or tablet.

If you prefer not to use a screen protector, you can take certain steps to ensure your oleophobic coating lasts longer, like avoiding cleaning your phone with alcohol-based cleaners. You can also restore the oleophobic coating. To find out how, take a look at our guide to caring for and restoring your phone’s oleophobic coating.

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