Having a big scratch on your phone is like having an itch in your brain you just can’t reach. Plus, it lowers the resale value of the device when you want to upgrade. A screen protector can keep the surface pristine, but buying one is more complicated than it should be. Let’s break down the difference between the each type, so you don’t waste your money.
Do I Really Need a Screen Protector?
The glass on your gadgets has gotten a lot more scratch-resistant since the days of the iPod. Corning’s Gorilla Glass will not scratch if you rub it with your keys or loose change, which is a big step forward. It is not, however, unscratchable, as some people believe.
These scratches likely come from sand and other particles with hard minerals in them, like quartz and topaz. Any object harder than your screen will scratch it, and while Corning hasn’t officially released its glass’ Mohs hardness rating, most testers have found it to lie between a 6 and 7 (the highest value, 10, is as hard as diamonds).
So yes, your screen can still be scratched, and it’s probably the sand in your pocket (or bag) that’s causing it. Screen protectors are not perfect—even the best ones are usually between a 7 and 8 on the Mohs scale, which is slightly better than Gorilla Glass—but they allow you to pop your phone in your pocket without worrying. Then, if and when the protector gets scratched, you can always replace it, keeping the actual screen immaculate when you go to resell it a few years down the line.
The Different Types of Screen Protectors
Search for “screen protector” on Amazon, and you’ll likely be overwhelmed by the results. There are so many brands, types, and price points that it’s enough to make your head spin. Thankfully, screen protectors can generally be broken down into a few simple types, each with their own advantages and disadvantages.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
PET is a type of plastic usually found on things like water bottles and food containers. PET screen protectors provide the least amount of scratch- and impact-protection, but they’re super cheap, light, and thin, and as a result are less visible once applied to your phone.
They also have a decently smooth feel, unlike the more durable but rubbery TPU. PET is also a bit stiff, so it can’t go edge-to-edge on phones with curved screens like the iPhone.
Thermoplastic Polyreuthane (TPU)
When you think of the screen protectors of old, you’re probably thinking of TPU. It’s a flexible plastic that’s a huge hassle to install (it involves using a spray solution and squeegeeing out lots of bubbles), doesn’t feel very smooth (thanks to its almost rubbery texture), and adds an “orange peel” type glare to your phone’s screen.
But it isn’t without benefits: it’s flexible, so it can go edge-to-edge on any phone, it has better impact protection than PET, and it has limited “self-healing” powers for small scratches.
These are the granddaddies of screen protectors. They don’t have the self-healing abilities of TPU, but they’re tougher in terms of scratch- and drop-protection, and these days they are pretty inexpensive, They also come in more varieties with features like privacy or anti-glare.
Because glass protectors are thicker, however, they’re much more visible on your screen.
These days you’ll also find liquid screen protectors on the market, which claim you can protect your phone just by swabbing a solution on your phone and then buffing it off. These protectors come with a host of quirks that make it hard to recommend. While it may provide some level of extra protection, the layer is so thin that tough scratches can likely still easily get through to the actual screen, which defeats the purpose of a screen protector.
Furthermore, you can’t just take this off and swap it with another screen protector. Most products say you cannot remove the product, it will just wear off over time (though there’s no visible way to tell when). That makes it hard to test because you can’t just scratch it and peel the product off—it’s unclear whether you’d be scratching the protector or the screen underneath.
So Which Screen Protector Is Best?
Don’t pay too much attention to the hardness rating that brands advertise—most use the ASTM hardness scale, in which the hardest pencil (9H) is softer than tempered glass, making it a useless indicator of protection. The Mohs scale—which does not use an “H”—is much more useful, though it doesn’t sound as good on the box. If you’re unsure about the hardness of a specific brand, Google around to see if anyone has tested it themselves with a Mohs kit.
In my opinion, most people are probably best off with a tempered glass protector: they have the smoothest feel, prevent the most damage, and are available at pretty decent prices. If you’re really finicky about looks, you may like PET or TPU better (since they aren’t as visible once applied to your phone), especially since films like TPU can provide self-healing edge-to-edge protection on phones with curved screens.
I’d avoid the liquid protection unless you know you aren’t going to use any of the others anyway, and want the warranty that Apple provides.