Explaining water and dust resistance ratings for your gadgets

Water-resistant doesn't mean waterproof. Here's how to find out just how rugged your smartphones, tablets, activity trackers and smartwatches really are.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Many companies are advertising smartphones, tablets, activity trackers, smartwatches and even some wireless speakers as being "water-resistant," but what does that actually mean? Can your gadgets be used in the rain? What about in the shower, or even the pool? The information these companies provide can be misleading, but I'm here to help break things down for you.

IP rating

The first thing you need to look for is a device's International Protection Rating, more commonly referred to as an IP rating. Rating codes do not include hyphens or spaces, and consist of the letters IP followed by one or two digits. Two common ratings for consumer devices are IP67 and IP68. Read on to find out exactly what that means.

IP codes are a standard set forth by the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). According to the organization, the codes are designed as a "system for classifying the degrees of protection provided by the enclosures of electrical equipment."

The first number in the rating code represents the degree of protection provided against the entry of foreign solid objects, such as fingers or dust. These protection levels range from 0 to 6.

The second number represents the degree of protection against the entry of moisture, with protection levels ranging from 0 through 8.

An IP code with an "X" in place of the first or second number means that a device hasn't been tested to protect against the entry of solid objects (the first number) or moisture (the second number). For example, a device with the rating IPX7 is protected from accidental submersion in 1m of water for up to 30 minutes, but it has not been tested against the entry of dust.

Below you will find a chart that outlines all of the protection levels set by the IEC.

Solid protection

IP Code Protection Object size
0 No protection N/A
1 Protection from contact with any large surface of the body, such as the back of a hand, but no protection against deliberate contact with a body part, such as a finger Less than 50mm
2 Protection from fingers or similar objects Less than 12.5mm
3 Protection from tools, thick wires or similar objects Less than 2.5mm
4 Protection from most wires, screws or similar objects Less than 1mm
5 Partial protection from contact with harmful dust N/A
6 Protection from contact with harmful dust N/A

As an example, an electrical socket rated IP22 (typically the minimum requirement for electrical accessories designed for indoor use) is protected against insertion of fingers and won't be damaged by vertically dripping water. Since we are talking about our gadgets, however, you only need to pay attention to IP ratings above IP5X or IP6X (for resistance or protection from dust).

Moisture protection

IP Code Protection Test duration Usage
0 No protection N/A N/A
1 Protection against vertically dripping water 10 mins Light rain
2 Protection against vertically dripping water when device is tilted at an angle up to 15 degrees 10 mins Light rain
3 Protection against direct sprays of water when device is tilted at an angle up to 60 degrees 5 mins Rain and spraying
4 Protection from sprays and splashing of water in all directions. 5 mins Rain, spraying and splashing
5 Protection from low pressure water projected from a nozzle with a 6.3mm diameter opening in any direction 3 minutes from a distance of 3 meters Rain, splashing and direct contact with most kitchen/bathroom faucets
6 Protection from water projected in powerful jets from a nozzle with a 12.5mm diameter opening in any direction 3 minutes from a distance of 3 meters Rain, splashing, direct contact with kitchen/bathroom faucets, outdoor use in rough sea conditions
7 Protected from immersion in water with a depth of up to 1 meter (or 3.2ft) for up to 30 mins 30 mins Rain, splashing and accidental submersion
8 Protected from immersion in water with a depth of more than 1 meter (manufacturer must specify exact depth) Varies Rain, splashing and accidental submersion

The Samsung Galaxy S5 is certified with an IP67 rating, this means that it is fully protected from dust (6) and can also withstand being submerged in 1m of static water for up to 30 mins (7).

Devices aren't required to pass every test leading up to the highest rating they achieve. Therefore a smartphone rated with IP67 hasn't been tested against dust protection levels 1 through 5, or water protection levels 1 through 6. Since the Galaxy S5 doesn't include the IPX5 or IPX6 rating for withstanding water coming from a jet, you shouldn't take the it in the shower or run it under the sink.

The Sony Xperia Z3, on the other hand, is certified with an IP65 and IP68 rating, which means it is protected from dust and against low-pressure water jets, such as a faucet, when all ports are closed. The company also specifies that the Z3 can be submerged in 1.5m (4.92ft) of fresh water for up to 30 mins.

Water pressure

If anyone ever tells you that a watch is waterproof, it's a lie. No watch is truly waterproof, and in fact the International Organization for Standardization and Federal Trade Commission prohibit watches from being labeled as being "waterproof." While a watch may be able to withstand a certain degree of water exposure, there is always a limit to how much water pressure it can handle before it begins to leak. The term "waterproof" implies that a device will remain unscathed under even the most difficult of circumstances.

To help regulate and explain water resistance in watches, the ISO has set standards that have been adopted by many traditional watchmakers. Most smartwatches and activity trackers, however, don't actually adhere to these standards and therefore aren't ISO-certified. Consumer electronics tend to follow the IP code, although some companies, such as Garmin, Pebble and Polar, independently test their products to determine how much pressure they can withstand.

Pressure tests are measured in ATMs, which stands for atmospheres, and then converted to water depth to make the measurements easier to understand. Each ATM is equivalent to 10 meters or about 33 feet of static water-pressure. Below you will find a chart that outlines that basic water-resistance levels.

Water pressure

Water Ratings Protection Usage
1 ATM Withstands pressures equivalent to a depth of 10 meters Improved resistance to rain and splashes. No showering or swimming.
3 ATM Withstands pressures equivalent to a depth of 30 meters Rain, splashing, accidental submersion and showering. No swimming.
5 ATM Withstands pressures equivalent to a depth of 50 meters Rain, splashing, accidental submersion, showering, surface swimming, shallow snorkeling
10 ATM Withstands pressures equivalent to a depth of 100 meters Rain, splashing, accidental submersion, showering, swimming and snorkeling. No deep water scuba diving or high-speed water sports.
20 ATM Withstands pressures equivalent to a depth of 200 meters Rain, splashing, accidental submersion, showering, swimming, snorkeling, surface diving and water sports. No deep water diving.

Unfortunately, because there is no universal testing method, real-world usage is different for every device. For example, the Pebble and Garmin Vivoactive both have a water resistance rating of 5 ATM. Both companies state that the watches can be worn in the shower and while swimming in a pool (surface swimming), however Fitbit recommends Surge users to remove the device before swimming, despite being rated 5 ATM.

It should also be noted that even though 5 ATM is rated for a certain depth, that depth is measured in static pressure. Water pressure can change quickly, such as when you move your arm to begin swimming. While you may only be in 10 feet of water, the pressure created from your arm movement could be equal to that of a couple ATMs.

As Garmin explains on its website, "even if a device is above a depth it's rated for, it might still suffer water ingression if it is subjected to an activity that creates pressure on it that exceeds that depth rating."

You should check the device's website and see what the company recommends before taking a smartwatch or activity tracker in the shower or the pool.

Things to remember

    • Most resistance testing is performed in fresh water. Devices aren't guaranteed to hold up to salt water, unless specifically stated from the manufacturer.
    • While showering with IP-rated devices isn't recommended, the device won't break if you forget to take it off. The device could begin to leak and become damaged with continued exposure however, and water damage may not be covered under the warranty.
    • Unless otherwise specified, most tests are carried out at temperatures between 15 and 35 degrees Celsius. (60 to 95 Fahrenheit). Higher temperatures in places like saunas, steam rooms and hot tubs could damage the device. For example, the Pebble has been tested to work within the temperature range of -10 to 60 degrees C (14 to 140 F).
    • For obvious reasons, leather watchbands are not water-resistant.
    • Make sure all flaps (such as those for charging ports) are closed before submerging your device.
    • Unless otherwise stated by the manufacturer, you should avoid pressing buttons on the device while it is underwater. This could allow water to enter into the casing and damage the device.
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