Samsung is being sued by an Australian watchdog group because, the consumer advocates claim, the phone maker is trying to have it both ways. Samsung advertisements and social media posts show Galaxy phones deep in the ocean and floating in pools, but Samsung warns in the fine print against “beach or pool use,” and won’t cover water damage under its warranty.
Advertisements, IP ratings, and claims of phones being water resistant for X amount of time in Y depth of water are confusing. Some news and review sites make it worse by calling phones “waterproof” when they can’t really be called that (as Sony learned the hard way).
Here’s one simple way to look at it: no phone is really safe if it gets wet.
We take apart and analyze a lot of phones here at iFixit. We’re a common first call when media outlets like CNET, CNBC, or the Wall Street Journal want to explain how phones are made to be water-resistant, or how far a phone-buyer should trust that. But “how” is less helpful than “should,” for most people. Should you assume your IP68 phone will survive a dunk in the pool, the ocean, or (let’s be honest) the toilet? No, you should not.
What makes your phone waterproof is usually glue. Adhesive creates a watertight gasket around the buttons, ports, speakers, and other parts of your phone exposed to water and air. When your phone is brand new and nobody has abused it yet, it actually can survive an immersion in water—maybe up to 8 hours in an aquarium.
But adhesive wears down over time, and is vulnerable to cracks, bends, and exposure to chlorine and other chemicals. “After a year or two, your phone has probably lost a lot of its ability to repel liquids,” said iFixit teardown engineer Jeff Suovanen. Our CEO, Kyle Wiens, was more pessimistic with the Wall Street Journal: “The IP rating they give phones is valid the first day you buy a phone and invalid the day after that.”
Glue isn’t the only way to waterproof, though. Apple, OnePlus, and a few other manufacturers seal the connections on their main logic boards with silicone. And Apple is a leader in waterproofing smartphones without compromising repairability, Suovanen said. Putting the phone’s sensitive bits inside a chassis, screwing the display over top of that, and then sandwiching a gasket in the middle of those two makes it easier to disassemble and reassemble, without having to meticulously re-glue everything. Apple has even occasionally put some liquid-proof rainbow finish on iPhone components (as Wiens alludes to in an MSNBC segment), without advertising it, but that’s a matter for another, future post.
The same goes for the waterproofing: it works in a perfect state, right out of the box, but non-distilled water, beer, coffee, Frank’s Red Hot, chlorine, gravity, your pocket debris—everything breaks down your phone’s perfect seals over time. Even if compromised gaskets let in only a tiny bit of liquid, you’re not safe. Water damage to phones is not a matter of how much, but which components react to which minerals. It’s not the water that kills your phone, it’s the corrosion.
You do have some protection options, if you know ahead of time that your phone stands a chance of getting wet. LifeProof’s Fre cases are well-regarded for water protection, if you install them correctly. Bag containers like the MPow let you protect your phone while providing basic screen access. If you didn’t plan ahead and the worst does happen, turn off your device immediately, open it up for drying immediately, and don’t use rice.
So next time you see a phone pictured on the sand, near a pool, or surviving an entire Corona or Venti Medium Roast spill, remember: a phone is only waterproof until it is tragically not.