How to Clean Your Mac (On the Cheap)

  Eric Buczynski       February 15, 2007      Tutorials Mac Hardware

I’ll admit it: I’m not a neat freak. And the fact that my gear is in an attic where dust likes to accumulate doesn’t help the situation. The dust accumulates in the strangest of places, and one of those places is near my computers. So every now and then I’ll open up the Mac and do a little bit of cleaning here and there. I don’t stop there, however. Other surfaces and peripherals also get the cleaning treatment. There are a few right and wrong ways to doing this, which I’ll explain in this article.

There’s probably not so much dirt and grime accumulating in and on your Mac and other peripherals to slow down your system or get in the way, but a little preventive maintenance never hurts. I recall reading horror stories about dust-choked G4 upgrades that cause Macs to shut down. I’m guessing it also has something to do with overheating, but that can be fixed somewhat easily as well. Cigarette smoke is a big offender since the tar residue can gunk up the system to the point of needing replacement. Thankfully I don’t smoke. (For those of you who do… It’s too bad you can’t redeem Marlboro points for a new computer.)

What do you need to clean? Definitely an old rag or some paper towels. A handful of Q-tips works wonders if you’re a super-clean freak. You’ll also need a can of compressed air, which usually go for around $5-$10 and can last for months. If you can, try to pick up a handheld computer vacuum as well. These are helpful for eliminating dust bunnies in hard-to-reach areas. They also fit in small nooks.

Down and Dirty: Cleaning Your Mac

First, let’s get to the heart of things: the Macintosh itself. If you haven’t already, power down the Mac and open the case. Your first instinct might be to simply use the compressed air and blow it everywhere, but that may only move dust particles to other areas or wedge them deeper into their hideouts. If you have the vacuum, use that on the dusty areas and even on places where dust doesn’t seem to appear. Get around the CPU, underneath it if there’s any space, on and around the hard drives, underneath the motherboard, and on and around the ports on the back panel. Even the fan accumulates dust, so be sure to clean that off too. Like water, dust is attracted to other dust particles, so it doesn’t hurt to clean off areas that may appear clean to the naked eye.

If you don’t have a vacuum, or after you’re done using the vacuum, feel free to use the can of compressed air to weasel out the dust bunnies in the same areas described above. The cans always come with thin tubes to attach to the nozzle, so it can get to places the vacuum can’t. On my G4 Mac, I usually start with the CPU heatsink and get around the grills, then use it on the side panel opposite the motherboard, under the motherboard itself, on the backs of the hard drives and their connectors, any other internal places I’ve missed, and then the hidden areas on the case itself like the grills around the power supply and rear ports. It’s also good practice to open the tray of the CD or DVD drive and blow some compressed air in there.

If I want to do a deep cleaning, I’ll disassemble my whole machine and clean off each part, but this is overkill for some and not always necessary, especially if your Mac is in a relatively clean environment. When I go this far I get underneath the logic board and around the chassis (lots of dust there). Even if you don’t want to disassemble your Mac, Q-tips moistened with water will absorb more of the dust in the corners and smaller places. Don’t forget to use a dry Q-tip end to dry the same areas that were cleaned with the wet end.

Taking Care of the Keyboard and Mouse

I’m one of the unfortunate people that get dry skin in the wintertime. After laboring many, many hours on Macinstruct articles, the dry skin tends to fall into the cracks of the keys on the keyboard. They’re not huge noticeable flakes, of course, but they’re large enough to be visible on the sides of the keys. I’m also guilty of eating in front of my computer, so there have been a few crumbs in between the keys from time to time.

When it comes time to clean the keyboard, the number one rule is never disassemble the keyboard unless you know what you’re doing! I emphasize this because there has been many a keyboard where the spacebar ceases to work the way it did before it was disassembled. With that in mind, if you want to clean the keyboard completely, be aware of the risks. I’ve found that simply blowing a can of compressed air along the keys in a keyboard can sometimes pop up the dust that will fall right back into the keyboard. The best technique is to tilt the keyboard at an angle, (90 degrees - facing me - or almost 180 degrees upside-down works for me), but this sometimes varies, depending on the way the keyboard is made.

I use an optical mouse, so I’ve never needed to clean out the inside. If you’re still using a classic mouse with the rollers and mouse ball, open up the mouse and remove the mouse ball. If there are major dust balls that can’t be shaken out, use a small screwdriver to remove them, and finish by blowing compressed air in different areas in the mouse. There’s a tried and true method of applying Scotch tape across the rollers to remove some of the gunk, and although this works even when getting minor debris off with a small screwdriver, I’ve often wondered if any of the sticky material on the Scotch tape lingers on the rollers. Using a small flathead screwdriver, be sure to remove the gunk the accumulates in the gap between the mouse buttons as well. If your mouse has a mouse wheel, there’s no need to use Scotch tape on the edges. Simply find a gap around the mouse buttons and wheel that you can apply the small pipe of the compressed air to blow out any offending dust.

Printers, Monitors, and Everything Else

When it comes to cleaning monitors, it’s important to soak the rag or towel first and not squirt water directly on to the monitor itself. That’s a no brainer. Even that’s not as important as making sure the power to the monitor is off first. See Apple’s How To Clean an LCD Panel for more information. I also clean the base of my LCD monitor as it too accumulates dust. Anything black tends to show off more dirt. If you’ve got a CRT monitor, I suggest using the same techniques of applying water to the rag or towel first. This way there’s less chance of any liquid getting on the glass tube or anode cap. If you have a speaker system, be sure to wipe that down too. Dust won’t affect audio quality of course, but you may miss the visual excitement of dust settling off of the speaker with every thumping bass sound.

Printers are easy to clean, but just stick to the outside. With scanners, a standard glass cleaner or even an eyeglass solution should work.

That pretty much sums it up as far as cleaning the hardware. When in doubt, clean! Your stuff will not only look good, it will run better too! Even if you don’t work on your own machine, cleaning the Mac will make things easier on those doing the troubleshooting on the inside and it will save time - which in turn will save you money.

There you have it! I hope you’ve found this cleaning guide fresh and friendly. This is your penny-pinching Pollock Eric Buczynski signing out!

Addendum: Even More Cleaning Tips!

Macinstructor David Stark has volunteered the following tips to make cleaning your Mac even easier.

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