Computers get dirty, especially their human interface surfaces — keyboards and pointing devices. In some instances, dirt can even affect input device performance as well as appearance. Some time ago the faithful SlimType gave me a scare when the F and W keys stopped responding properly. […]


Computers get dirty, especially their human interface surfaces — keyboards and pointing devices.

In some instances, dirt can even affect input device performance as well as appearance. Some time ago the faithful SlimType gave me a scare when the F and W keys stopped responding properly. A keystroke would register only when the key was pressed more firmly than usual, and the subtle over-center click of the SlimType’s scissors keyswitch mechanism was missing — the malfunctioning keys feeling “numb” and offering higher than normal resistance.

The medicine that time proved to be blowing out the accumulated crud beneath the key console with compressed air. I successfully used an automotive shop compressor with a blow gun. For more cautious folks, or those without convenient access to a compressor, one of those little aerosol cans of compressed air used for cleaning photography equipment could do the trick.

But sometimes a bit of compressed air isn’t enough. So, here is our guide to cleaning everything from mice to laptops.

Getting Started: Apple’s Cleaning Recommendations

Apple has posted a Knowledge Base article covering recommendations and guidelines for cleaning Apple computers, displays, or input/ peripheral devices. Much of its advice should be common sense, such as before you start cleaning:

  1. Turn off your Mac.
  2. Unplug the power cord from the wall or power strip.
  3. Remove the battery (from products with removable batteries such as some Apple portables or from wireless devices such as mice and keyboards).
  4. Disconnect all external devices from the computer.

Other warnings some users might be less likely to think of are:

  • Don’t use window sprays or cleaning products containing ammonia, chlorine, or abrasive ingredients.
  • Don’t use rough towels or cloths to dry the plastic.
  • Don’t spray cleaner directly onto your computer. Liquid could drip inside the case and cause an electrical shock or malfunction.
  • Don’t use excessively damp cleaning wipes.

If more than dusting is needed, use a lint-free cloth slightly dampened to wipe away dirt or grime. Don’t over-wet the cloth. If you can squeeze drips of water out by wringing, it’s too wet.

Solvents and Cleaners

Plain water may not be effective on oils or grease residues, in which case a stronger agent will be needed. Try iKlear or mild detergent first.

Cleaning Laptops

Instructions specific to Apple laptops include not using isopropyl alcohol on bare LCD panels (or any type of alcohol or ammonia-based glass or window cleaner, I hasten to add). Use only a damp, soft, lint-free cloth or purpose-made, Apple-approved LCD cleaning product like iKlear.

Aluminum portables are best tackled with a damp, soft, lint-free cloth. Apple says it’s safe to use 70 percent isopropyl alcohol on them (I personally wouldn’t) or iKlear. Remove surface dust or loose dirt gently with your bare hand before proceeding with cleaner and cloth. After cleaning, dry the aluminum with a soft, lint-free cloth.

For plastic portables, the same applies as aluminum, but I would recommend a gentler, damp-cloth approach first and reserve the heavier-duty agents for stubborn stuff. As with the metal machines, remove any loose surface dirt gently with your bare hand before proceeding with cleaner and cloth. After cleaning, dry the plastic with a soft, lint-free cloth.

For the new unibody MacBook’s non-slip plastic coated aluminum bottom case, Apple recommends using a 3M Gray Microfiber or soft dye-free, lint-free cloth for cleaning, once again giving its blessing to 70 percent isopropyl alcohol or iKlear on the bottom case.

Mouse Cleaning

Mice get dirty. When your mouse becomes covered in fingerprints or its surface is soiled, you can gently wipe it with a clean, lint-free cloth. If necessary, moisten the cloth using plain water, making sure not to over-saturate it, and be mindful that the mouse’s internal electronic components may be damaged if water seeps or drips inside.

With Apple’s Mighty Mouse, the scroll ball can be cleaned using a lint-free cloth lightly moistened with water, making sure to rotate the ball itself to ensure complete coverage or you can use something like Wet One.

Drowned Keyboard First Aid

Moisture is potential death to electronics, as anyone who’s ever spilled liquids on a computer keyboard or laptop can ruefully tell you. Apple also warns against using solvents like acetone, alcohol, or alcohol-based cleaners on your computer, admonishing to never spray cleaner directly onto the machine, since liquid could drip inside the keyboard or case and cause an electrical shock (or more likely a component-frying short-circuit and/or residual corrosion).

Should you spill liquid on your keyboard, if it’s thin and clear fluid, immediately shut the computer down, unplug the keyboard, turn it upside down, and drain the liquid out, let it dry (inverted or on edge is best) for 24 hours at room temperature, after which it may or may not recover. If the liquid is greasy, sweet, sticky, or acidic, you’re likely out of luck. I ruined a MacAlly iceKey scissors-action keyboard a while back by sloshing diluted Grapefruit Seed Extract (extremely acidic) on it twice in a week — the only times I’ve drowned a keyboard in two decades of computer use. We disassembled the keyboard and cleaned the circuits, but corrosion had set in.

Computer Disinfection

With the H1N1 flu pandemic, computer contact surface disinfection has moved to the front burner, especially for machines accessed by multiple users. Apple support also has a Knowledge Base article entitled How To Disinfect The Apple Internal Or External Keyboard, Trackpad, And Mouse. The article recommends, in addition to regular cleaning of your computer and input devices, that disinfecting them may be desirable, noting that,”Multiple people using the same computer, people using the computer when they were ill, and the particular environment where the computer is used, are a few reasons you may wish to disinfect areas of the computer that people come into contact with the most.”

Using a mild soap with antibacterial properties will help, but Apple suggests properly disinfecting contact areas with products like Lysol Wipes, Clorox Disinfecting wipes, or Clorox Kitchen Disinfecting Wipes. I would be cautious about using them on the screen however (except for glass-covered aluminum laptop and iMac displays), and would stick with water or iKlear for that. Otherwise, follow the general rules outlined in the regular cleaning instructions above, with a special caveat to not use disinfectant wipes containing bleach, or disinfectant sprays in general.

What are some techniques you’ve used to clean those hard to reach and sensitive areas of your gadgets?

  1. Jose A. Mari-Mutt Monday, December 14, 2009

    Nice article! Contrary to much advise, I use Windex to clean the displays of all my computers and have encountered no problems. I spray it on liberally, spread it around with napkin and dry the display with another napkin.

  2. The H1N1 virus’ lifespan outside of a host is a couple hours at best. The same holds true of many other viruses and bacteria that causes illness in humans. If you’re in regular repeat physical contact with people who may be ill, that’s one thing. But for most people in most situations disinfection of surfaces is more about hysteria than science.

    Nonetheless, keeping your electronics clean is good for the longevity of the devices. Here’s some more tips for Apple-specific products:

    Mr. Clean magic erasers (similar products available from other brands) work wonders on most keyboards, including Apple’s aluminum models but the relatively sharp edges of the keys in Apple keyboards rip the erasers up a bit. Use them, but be careful not to let any of the eraser bits get under the keys and when you’re done, run a vacuum cleaner over the keyboard.

    A vacuum cleaner is also a good solution for the dust that gets in the grille on the front and back of a MacPro tower (you don’t want to blow compressed air into the tower, as that will just get more dust on the components inside).

  3. I love iKlear. I use it on everything and it works great. I’ve been using it for 5 or 6 years. It cleans any part on your computer. To disinfect my keyboard I take a squirt of Purell and rub it around in my hands for a second. While my hands are still wet I gently spread it on every key. I don’t know if Purell will disinfect plastic like it does human hands but I figured why not try. It must work. It’s mostly the alcohol that does the work.

  4. ancientchineesesecret Monday, December 14, 2009

    What about those nasty ring around the collar stains?? I’ve tried soaking them out. I’ve tried scrubbing them out. Nothing works!!!

    1. Wisk

  5. Instead of 70% isopropyl alcohol, I recommend making a 10-15% solution using distilled water. That should leave no water stain marks and it’s not as aggressive.

    1. Water is much more aggressive toward electronics than isopropyl alcohol. I worked in the chip industry and we routinely used alcohol cleans but avoided using water. Most electronic warranties are voided if the product is exposed to water. Water causes corrosion, alcohol doesn’t.

      Any plastic that is harmed by isopropyl alcohol is a wimp. It is one of the most benign products. That is why is us called rubbing alcohol.

  6. Charles W. Moore Monday, December 14, 2009

    Hi Moe;

    I’m no expert on viruses, but the CleanLink H1N1 Fact Sheet For Cleaning Professionals (http://www.cleanlink.com/cp/article/H1N1-Fact-Sheet-For-Cleaning-Professionals–10915) says:

    “There are currently no special directives regarding cleaning to prevent the spread of H1N1. Survival times for influenza A particles on surfaces are: 8 to 12 hours on paper or cloth; 24 to 48 hours in ambient temperatures on non-porous surfaces such as doorknobs, counters, desks, etc.; up to 72 hours on wet surfaces.”

    According to WikiAnswers:

    From the CDC and Flu.Gov web pages:

    The H1N1 virus is new. Research is being conducted to better understand its characteristics. Studies have shown that flu viruses can survive on hard surfaces and can infect a person for up to 2 to 8 hours after being left on items like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, and desks. Frequent handwashing will help you reduce the chance of getting contamination from these common surfaces.

    The UK National Health Service (NHS) says :
    “The flu virus can live on a hard surface for up to 24 hours, and a soft surface for around 20 minutes.”

    The GMA Fct Sheet On H1N1 (PDF downloadable here: http://www.gmaonline.org/science/swineflufacts.pdf) says:

    In an environmental survival study, influenza A virus placed on hard, nonporous surfaces (steel and plastic) could be cultured from the surfaces at diminishing titer for <24 to 48 h and from cloth, paper, and tissues for <8 to 12 h at conditions of 35% to 40% humidity and a temperature of 28°C (12 ). Higher
    humidity shortened virus survival. Virus on nonporous surfaces could be transferred to hands 24 h after the surface was contaminated, with hands for 15 min after the tissue was contaminated.

    Sounds like science to me. ;-)


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  8. Nothing to do with bacteria, viruses, and dirt, but I use a freeware program called Keyboard Cleaner. It stops your keystrokes from registering while you’re cleaning your keyboard.

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