The modern flat panel display is smaller, lighter and brighter than the old Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) monitors we grew up with. Unfortunately, the flat panel displays on computers are also much easier to damage than was the CRT behind its protective glass cover.
NOTE: We're talking here about LCD monitors, which are by far the most common. There are a few other kinds, notably plasma displays, which are somewhat different.
Most of the problems with flat panel displays are iatrogenic; that is, they are caused by people trying clean the monitor. A lot of things that work fine on the glass-protected CRT monitor screen can harm a flat panel display.
Whatever the cause, replacing a flat panel monitor is still expensive, and the more so when the replacement was avoidable. In general, it's not worth trying to repair a damaged screen, so a monitor with destroyed or damaged pixels, severe scratching or faded spots, areas of glare, etc., almost always means replacing the monitor. In addition to the cash outlay, it also cuts user productivity. This can be especially true if the damage is done over time so the image quality slowly degrades and the user doesn't realize the screen has been damaged.
The best thing you can do to protect your company's flat panel displays is to educate your users on what to do, and especially what not to do, in caring for their monitors. The dos and don'ts aren't difficult, but some of them are counter-intuitive because they are different than caring for a CRT monitor. Providing users with a list of Thumbs-Up and -Down and a supply of proper cleaning materials goes a long way toward preventing problems.
A flat panel display is a complex multi-layer sandwich. In the most common variety (LCD display), it consists of a light source, two oppositely oriented polarizers separated by a layer of liquid crystal medium, plus many different layers of specialized coatings and other optical devices. (If you want more details, see this tutorial on the design and construction of a flat panel display.) When a pixel is activated, the liquid crystal layer changes the polarization of the light at that point, allowing it to pass through the front polarizer and on to the viewer.
However all this techno-magic isn't the problem. What usually causes problems is the care and feeding of flat panels. The most common problems come from the nature of the screen surface.
Unlike CRTs and some other flat panel applications (such as the classic example of flat panels used in industrial applications, which are much more rugged), flat panel computer monitors usually aren't protected by a glass cover. Instead you're looking at the top layer of the screen itself, protected by a hard polymer coating. This is a pretty sturdy structure, but it's not as damage-resistant as the glass cover over a CRT. (On the other hand, a flat panel display will never explosively implode – if that makes sense – like a CRT tube.)
The most common forms of damage are scratching or wearing away the coatings on the front of the panel or destroying one or more of the pixel elements from pressure on the screen.
In general, scrubbing the screen is right out. Pressing hard against a flat panel can damage the anti-reflective coating, even damage or destroy pixel elements. Wiping the screen should always be done gently and only if needed.
The good news is that flat panel displays don't generate nearly as much static electricity as CRTs, so the screens don't attract as much dust. This means they need less cleaning and can get by with gentler cleaning.
When cleaning a flat screen, the user should turn off the monitor and leave it off for five or ten minutes. This allows the monitor to cool down and permits any static charge to dissipate. This is important, because the LCD layer is heat sensitive and easier to damage when it is warm.
One of the most common causes of damage is using the wrong kind of material to clean the screen. Most paper products have the potential to scratch the screen from entrapped particles. Paper towels, tissues, toilet paper, etc. should never be used to clean the screen.
The best thing to use is a microfiber disposable wipe specifically designed for computer flat panels. (The ones for flat panel TVs works too, but a flat panel television is usually a little more rugged than a desktop computer monitor.) These are readily available from computer stores or online and they're not much more expensive than paper tissues (which emphatically are not recommended). These wipes, or anything else used to clean a screen, should only be used once and then discarded. Reusing them runs the risk of scratches.
Most cleaning products should not be used on the screen. This is especially true of glass cleaners such as Windex, especially the varieties that contain ammonia. Electronic cleaning sprays that contain methyl chloride (contact cleaners) also damage the coating.
There is some controversy over using isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol to clean a flat panel monitor. Some sources say it's fine; others recommend avoiding it.
The best cleaning fluid is distilled water. Tap water, especially in hard water areas like the southwest U.S., tends to leave streaks or smears.
Whatever liquid is used to clean the screen, it should never be sprayed on the screen itself and most especially it should not be allowed to run down the screen. Liquids can get underneath the bezel (the “frame” around the screen) and damage active components. The rule is to lightly moisten the microfiber pad or other item used to clean the screen and then gently rub to remove dirt or stains.
Keep in mind that all LCD screens are not created equal. The screens on smart phones in particular are designed to take more abuse than a monitor. So things there are fine on a phone can damage a computer screen.
With a little education for your users and a little care, your flat panel displays should last for years.