Practical Computer Advice
from Martin Kadansky
Volume 11 Issue 7
July 2017
How to Clean Your Keyboard

The problem

Since your keyboard is probably sitting on your desk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it is subject to a constant "rain" of debris, including dust, pollen, carpet fibers, pet (and human) hair, skin cells, oil and bacteria from your hands and (depending on your habits) food particles, grease, and cigar or cigarette ash.

In my experience the most common motivations for cleaning a keyboard are:
  • Remove visible dust and debris
  • Clean out debris that has fallen inside
  • Remove stains and smudges
  • Disinfect to kill germs and bacteria
How to begin

In order to clean your keyboard, you'll be handling it in ways that will probably press its keys somewhat randomly. In order to prevent stray keystrokes from causing any unintended consequences on your computer, I recommend that you:
  • Save all your work and then use Shutdown to power off your computer. Don't use Sleep, Standby, or Hibernate because your keyboard can wake up your computer.
  • If it's a wired external keyboard, unplug it from your computer.
  • If it's a cordless or Bluetooth external keyboard (and thus battery-powered), turn it off. If you can't find a power switch, take out its batteries.
  • If it's a laptop, after it's powered off you should unplug all of the wires and disconnect any USB flash drives and devices. If you might not remember which wire went where, take a picture before you start.
Remove visible dust and debris

For an external keyboard (not built into a laptop), turn it upside down over a trash can (i.e., with its keys pointing at the floor), and gently "bump" it horizontally on each of its 4 edges in order to dislodge any loose debris. Depending on how long since it was last cleaned, you'll probably see a visible "rain" of debris fall out from between the keys.

For a built-in laptop keyboard, I recommend opening the lid and doing the same, but if it's too heavy or bulky for you to hold it with one hand while "bumping" it with the other, you'll need someone else to help you so it doesn't drop to the floor. However, if the hinge connecting the laptop to its monitor is already broken or damaged, it might be a good idea to skip this step.

Then, holding the keyboard perpendicular to the floor (with its keys pointing at the wall), spray between the keys with a can of compressed air, holding the can upright and pointing its straw almost parallel to the keyboard to blast the debris sideways out of the keyboard. Do this over the trash can or even outside, not on your desk.

Don't use a vacuum cleaner, especially with a built-in laptop keyboard. It can damage your laptop in a variety of ways, including a potential discharge of static electricity. Don't use an air compressor, the force of the air it produces can cause other kinds of damage.

Clean out debris that has fallen inside

In order to remove the debris that has gotten underneath the keys, you'll need to gently pry some of the keys off the keyboard to get to the area underneath. Rather than removing all of the keys, start by removing just a few to gain access. Note that larger keys like the spacebar, shift, enter, and return keys may have more complicated mechanisms underneath (including metal brackets) than smaller keys. Use a flat, wide-blade screwdriver or butter knife to avoid scratching or denting the keys. Keep away from the trash can to avoid having a key pop off and disappear.

If you might not remember where the keys were located, take a picture of the keyboard before you start. Note that some keyboards have multiple keys with the same label but slightly different shapes: shift, control, enter, etc.

Then, as above, hold the keyboard sideways (far away from your desk) and use an upright can of compressed air to spray under the keys and blow out the deeper debris. If you work methodically from one side of the keyboard to the other, most of the debris may collect on that side, reducing the number of keys you'll need to pull off.

For a built-in laptop keyboard, the most thorough cleaning approach is to take the laptop apart. Since that can be very complicated, I recommend doing the best you can while keeping it simple.

When you're done, snap the keys you removed back onto their posts, being careful to put any metal brackets back in properly as well.

Remove stains and smudges

Take an old T-shirt or towel, apply some water until it's moist but not dripping, then clean the stains and smudges from the keyboard. If you use a paper towel, be careful that it doesn't rip into pieces that could get stuck between (or under) the keys.

I don't recommend using soap, detergent, ammonia, bleach, or other harsh chemicals.

Disinfect to kill germs and bacteria

To disinfect a keyboard, use disinfecting wipes, or put a small amount of isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol onto some cotton swabs or an old T-shirt, and then gently clean the tops and sides of all the keys.

Cut down on debris going forward

You can reduce the amount of debris that falls into your keyboard each day by simply covering it with a towel or some paper when you're not using it.

For a laptop, since a portion of the internal heat escapes up through the keyboard, I recommend that you only cover the internal keyboard after choosing Sleep or Shutdown or Hibernate, or you can simply close the lid, which covers the keyboard and also typically puts the laptop to sleep.

However, if you leave your laptop powered on around the clock with the lid open, completely covering the keyboard is not a good idea unless you can leave some room for ventilation. I recommend partially closing the lid so the keyboard is covered, but not far enough to trigger the sleep function.

Where to go from here
  • This is not a five-minute job. If you've never cleaned a keyboard before, plan on about an hour. You'll probably use most of a can of compressed air and more cotton swabs than you expect.
  • You could clean your keyboard every year or so, but it's fine if you end up doing it every 5 years.
  • For more ideas, google: clean keyboard
How to contact me:
phone: (617) 484-6657

On a regular basis I write about real issues faced by typical computer users. To subscribe to this newsletter, please send an email to and I'll add you to the list, or visit

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Copyright (C) 2017 Kadansky Consulting, Inc. All rights reserved.

I love helping people learn how to use their computers better! Like a "computer driving instructor," I work 1-on-1 with small business owners and individuals to help them find a more productive and successful relationship with their computers and other high-tech gadgets.

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