One of the often-overlooked victims of our constant computer usage is our keyboards. Look down at your keyboard right now and say aloud the last time you cleaned it. There’s no reason to be embarrassed — dirt, dust, food crumbs, and hair build up in keyboards over time. It’s inevitable.
As part of spring cleaning, now is the perfect time to give your keyboard a good clean and a fresh start. Not cleaning your keyboard is not only unhygienic — it can eventually damage your keyboard and reduce its performance. It may sound like a daunting task, especially if you have a particularly gnarly keyboard, but we promise it won’t take long and will be well worth it in the end.
Every keyboard mess is different, but the same tools are required to give it a deep clean. Here’s what we recommend having on hand for this deep clean:
- Compressed air
- A soft brush of some kind (a new toothbrush will do in a pinch)
- A microfiber cloth
- Dishwashing liquid or rubbing alcohol
For a more thorough clean, you could also grab the following:
- A keycap remover
- Cleaning gel
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Cleaning a mechanical keyboard
The first thing to do is quite obvious: Flip your keyboard upside down and give it a gentle, but firm, shake. This should get rid of some of the looser debris hiding between your keys. Once you’re through this deeper clean, you should do this regularly — once every season sounds like the right amount of love.
Give your keycaps a bath
Even if your keycaps aren’t noticeably grimy, they aren’t clean unless you’ve been regularly sanitizing your keyboard. You might not see visible dust and fingerprints on your keys, but they aren’t fresh-out-of-the-box clean. Let’s give them a wash.
- Take a quick photo of your keyboard or make sure you can find an image of it online so you can return the keycaps to their rightful positions later.
- Carefully remove all of your keycaps, either by hand or with a keycap puller, and put them into a container you can add water to.
- Add a few drops of dishwashing liquid and some warm water. Make sure all the keys are submerged and give ‘em a good stir with your hand to make sure each one gets a little soapy. The soak time here depends on how dirty they are. An hour is a decent timeframe.
- After your keycaps have been soaking for a bit, remove them one by one, give each a thorough wipe down with a microfiber cloth or brush, rinse them in clean water, and lay them out on a clean towel somewhere to dry.
- Be very careful with drying time. The longer you can leave your keycaps out, the better. Even the smallest amount of moisture left behind can drip down the stems, onto your switches, and cause damage to your keyboard. Leave them out for a few hours at least. If you’re impatient, you can use a hairdryer on a low setting to speed up the drying.
My keycaps taking a little soak and drying off.
Underneath the keys
While your keycaps are soaking, you can get down to business and tackle the more involved cleaning. The real mess is going to be underneath your keycaps. Hair, dust, food crumbs, and everything else you’ve ever had near your keyboard has fallen through the cracks between keys and has been living there since who knows when.
I hadn’t cleaned my keyboard in about five months. It was 80% dust and cat hair underneath the keycaps.
There are several methods you can use to rid your keyboard of debris. If you make cleaning your keyboard a habit, you may only need to use one.
Blow it out
Canned air or “duster” is a must-have for PC users. Using it on keyboards, you can blow away most dust and crumbs without any effort. These products are all very similar, so don’t fret over brand names. A few tips before you start blasting.
- A longer straw makes things a bit easier. With a longer straw on your can, you can put a bit of distance between it and your keyboard, making it easier to see where you’re aiming.
- Read and follow usage instructions on the can. Some products suggest a more ventilated space, have positioning requirements, and list compatible electronics.
- Never spray air too close or directly at your target. If you’re too close, canned air tends to leave a bit of moisture behind. Do a bit of testing in a safer space to zero in before hitting your keyboard.
- You’re blowing around dust here, so make sure you do this somewhere you are either planning on cleaning immediately afterward or don’t need to fuss about.
- Once you’re done with the compressed air, give your keyboard another shake out, as you probably loosened other debris with the air.
Break out the brush
For debris that has somehow taken root on your keyboard and cannot be removed with compressed air, you’re going to need to put in a little elbow grease. A softer brush built for cleaning PC components is ideal here, but you can get away with a brand new soft-bristle toothbrush if you’re gentle.
- Brush your keyboard like you would sweep your floor — try to be moving in one direction and ridding your keyboard of dirt. Don’t just push around from one end of your keyboard to another.
Once you’ve removed all the debris from your keyboard, it’s time to spot clean those small stains and blemishes. These spots are usually places where you touched your keyboard after eating or drinking, leaving behind a messy fingerprint or smear.
For cleaners, you can use rubbing alcohol (which is fast drying) or a bit of warm water and dishwashing liquid. Whatever you choose, be sure to wring out excess liquid before cleaning. Use a damp Q-tip or microfiber cloth to gently rub clean any questionable spots remaining on your keyboard.
Let these spots dry completely before putting away your cleaning supplies. You might need to take another pass at it.
Once you are satisfied and your keycaps have dried, pop ‘em back on and get back to it. The internet awaits.
Cleaning a laptop keyboard
Laptop keyboards can get just as disgusting (if not more so) than a mechanical keyboard. The cleaning methods for a laptop are identical to those above, minus the ability to remove and hand wash the keycaps.
Use compressed air
A quick blast of air will clear your laptop of most dust and tiny crumbs hiding out near your keys. Be sure to use the compressed air from the side so you’re pushing this debris away instead of further wedging it into your keyboard.
Brush it down
A quick brushing between the keys will do wonders and remove any debris that your compressed air might’ve missed.
This is more important with a laptop than a mechanical keyboard because users spend so much time resting the palms of their hands below the keyboards. These areas often gather grease and oil from your hands more than any other area. We recommend using the same rubbing alcohol or dishwashing liquid mixture as above and wiping down these areas with a microfiber towel.
PC users have mixed opinions on cleaning gels — some have concerns over residue getting inside their keyboard, while others swear it’s the only cleaning method that works — but I was having trouble getting my MacBook Pro keyboard to sparkle so I gave it a shot.
There are a lot of different kinds of cleaning gels on the market. I snagged this Super Clean 2-pack on Amazon because, well, it was the first one that showed up when I searched for this product on Amazon. These gels typically all work in the same fashion, but please read your labels before using them in case there are specific instructions or warnings.
The instructions for Super Clean were pretty explicit: Lay the gel over your keyboard, press down lightly on the gel, let it sit for a few moments, then remove the gel.
More mechanical keyboard guides
- Mac users: These are the best keyboards, keycaps, and switches
- The 10 best mechanical keyboard switches you’ve never heard of
- 7 ways to make your mechanical keyboard quieter
- The 8 best keycaps to upgrade your mechanical keyboard
- The 8 best USB cables to elevate your custom mechanical keyboard
- Are ceramic keycaps the next big keyboard trend?
- How to lube mechanical keyboard switches and stabilizers
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