Your Computer Is So Much Dirtier Than It Looks

Cleaning it may help it run better — and keep you healthy to boot

Photo: Natthawat/Getty Images

You might feel lonely if you’ve been working from home this past year with only your partner, your roommates, or your own damn self as company. But you’re not as alone as you may feel. In fact, you have millions of co-workers — and they’re currently milling around the watercooler that is your desk. They are chatting, catching up, and most importantly, breeding.

These co-workers, of course, are bacteria, fungi, and the occasional virus, and they’re mostly harmless. But while it’s unlikely that anything hanging out on your personal computer keyboard will lead to your death, the conditions could lead to your computer’s early demise — and could, in the right circumstances, make you sick.

Mostly, though, your computer can just get really, really gross.

Roberta Piket, the founder of laptop repair and information technology shop Geek Girls IT Services, once picked up an extremely buggy computer from a client. “I sent it to the contractor who was repairing the laptop, and he informed me that when he opened it up, it was filled with dead roaches,” she says. “It had been sitting around in a Brooklyn apartment for a while, and somehow they had gotten into the vents … it probably has something to do with why this device stopped working.”

The term “buggy” originated in the very, very early days of computing. According to a recent Gizmodo article, the term was coined back in the 1940s, when a moth somehow got into a big, early computer. While the term commonly refers to glitches nowadays, more literal cases aren’t unheard of.

“With laptops, you have that extra issue that anything that’s in there can attract insects.”

“How do they get in there? I hate to say it — I would never name names — but: uncleanliness,” Joe Silverman, CEO of New York Computer Help, told Gizmodo. He says cockroaches are attracted both to the heat generated by the computer as well as a common habit. “And then there’s crumbs. A typical computer user might, for instance, eat breakfast over the keyboard, or bake and cook over it — which is definitely happening a lot more now, with the coronavirus,” says Silverman.

While most people don’t have cockroaches crawling in and around their laptops, plenty of us are eating at our computers, which is potentially a hazard to our own health and absolutely a danger to our laptops. Piket says that she took a look at one of her own employees’ keyboards shortly after the pandemic began and was shocked at the amount of food and crumbs that fell out. “With laptops, you have that extra issue that anything that’s in there can attract insects in, and they can get inside the device itself,” she says.

Desktop keyboards are typically easier to clean and, if necessary, replace, she says. But because laptop keyboards sit right above critical computer components, it’s much more crucial that you keep them clean. “On a laptop in particular, keeping your keyboard clean means you’re helping to keep the inside of your laptop clean,” she says. You don’t want dirt, crumbs, or dust to get into your computer because that impedes airflow, which means your computer won’t cool as efficiently. Overheated computers are slower computers; they’re also more likely to die prematurely.

But this isn’t something many give a lot of thought to. I rarely clean my laptop, and while I don’t eat at it, I have spilled a few drops of coffee on it. Most troublingly, it’s speckled with dust, and there’s dog hair poking from the keys. I shudder to think about how much of that hair has actually worked itself into the keyboard.

Many computers croak at their first taste of toppled Pepsi, but some valiantly endure years of meals and spills. Quinn, who requested that only their first name be used to protect their privacy, is disabled and lives in Australia. They spend a lot of time at their computer, so it’s seen a lot. “It’s a very sturdy friend to me,” they say. “I eat and drink at my laptop, had many spills, but it’s a beast so it keeps chugging along. A friend’s cat stole some keys, and my cat sheds a lot so — it’s bad, needs a clean to be honest.”

Quinn’s workhorse computer

They use glasses cleaner and a cloth when it gets too dusty, they say, and they clean the keyboard when they “get grossed out by it.”

My computer is newer — I bought it in September of 2019 — so it doesn’t look quite as beaten up, but my cleaning regimen isn’t even as rigorous as Quinn’s. Sometimes I’ll blow or swipe the excess dog fur that collects in the hinge, or on sunny days, I’ll wipe the screen with a tissue. I realize that my neglect of my laptop is shameful, but I’ll say this: I don’t eat or smoke at my computer, and my weekend cocktail typically gets consumed away from the laptop (though I should commit more fully to drinking my morning coffee somewhere else). This is why, despite my own disgraceful relationship with cleaning this thing, it doesn’t look too bad.

While you are sharing your computer with millions of bacteria, mold, viruses, and fungi, for the most part, you don’t need to be freaked out that your filthy laptop will get you sick — though eating at your keyboard might make this a little bit more likely.

If food falls into your keyboard, it acts as a reservoir that “potentially gives places for bacteria to hide and extra things for bacteria to eat. So they might persist a little bit longer in the absence of cleaning,” says Jeffrey Gardner, PhD, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. In terms of keeping yourself safe from getting sick, though, “cleaning your keyboard, religiously, is less important than washing your hands,” he says.

Frequently washing both your hands and keyboard is more critical if you’re sharing your keyboard with other people.

“If you’re the only one using it, the risks are small,” says Chuck Gerba, a professor of virology at the University of Arizona who has studied pathogens in offices, though he notes that people at home are less concerned with washing their hands at home than at work, potentially exacerbating the issue. “If you have family members sharing the computer, then it can be a germ exchange point.”

And family members includes pets. “I’ve seen a couple of cat butts up against the screen so far in talking to people on Zoom meetings. So I think pets may play a role too,” says Gerba. “I’m amazed how many times a cat walks across the screen.”

Alison Foreman, an entertainment writer in Los Angeles, had a disastrous situation involving a pet and her laptop that threatened to total the device. While trying to finish an assignment for a college class, her hamster, Ru, peed on her MacBook. “What’s worse, hamster pee isn’t like human pee. It’s much thicker and uh — milkier? So I got a very clear view of this yellowish mixture seeping into the keys. The dude at the repair store laughed at me for a solid five minutes,” she says. “I turned it off fast enough that there wasn’t any serious damage — just some meticulous cleanup work.”

Foreman learned her lesson, she told me. She doesn’t let her pets crawl around on her tech anymore, though it still acts as a magnet for fur. She cleans it weekly because otherwise “it’s too gross to work on.”

“I’ve seen a couple of cat butts up against the screen so far in talking to people on Zoom meetings. So I think pets may play a role, too.”

The best bet, according to Piket, is simply keeping your computer as clean as possible in the first place. That means not eating at your computer, keeping drinks at a safe distance, and cleaning it regularly — frequently enough, essentially, to keep it from looking dusty and gross.

If you do spill something on your laptop, immediately unplug it from the power supply and, if possible, remove the battery. You can submerge the keyboard in a bowl of uncooked rice if you have enough of it around, she says, and wait for it to dry out. Once you’re certain it’s totally dry, you can turn it back on. “But even if you do that, there may be damage that may not manifest until months later,” she says, particularly since, if the motherboard gets wet, the laptop is toast. “Maybe it would have lasted another year or so” if you hadn’t spilled anything on it at all.

To clean your laptop of crumbs and other debris, iFixit recommends holding the laptop upside down then blowing compressed air or using a soft cloth to dislodge anything that might be slowing down your computer or making the keys sticky. Piket recommends wiping at the keyboard with a cloth dampened — not soaked — with isopropyl alcohol, which has the additional benefit of killing at least some of the bacteria and viruses currently mingling on your keyboard.

Foreman uses a cleaning gel to remove pet hair from her keyboard while my husband, who is fastidious about keeping his elaborate computer station clean, has an electric can of compressed air that he uses on his mechanical keyboard. “One thing I hope you’ll get from this story,” he told me on Monday, “is that you’ll want to get a mechanical keyboard.”

It’s a good suggestion: Mechanical keyboards are easier to take apart and clean, and, as Piket says, if you spill something on one, you’re on the hook for a much cheaper replacement than if you spill something on a laptop and it soaks through to the computer’s core parts (mechanical keyboards are also often pretty cute).

Generally speaking, though, the most important thing is this: Don’t eat and drink at your keyboard. Eating while you work is bad for your health, bad for your productivity, and bad for your computer. The last thing you want is to one day discover that your laptop is now a housing complex for cockroaches.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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