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I cleaned my 5-year-old keyboard - and it was almost therapeutic. Why you should do it too

Discover what's lurking under your keys - then follow these simple steps to get rid of it.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Keychron K4 with keycaps removed

Jason Perlow/ZDNET

Your keyboard is a vital tool for computer use -- and, apparently, a veritable landfill for crumbs, dust, and who-knows-what-else. We lovingly clean our mouse balls (remember those?), polish our optical sensors, and wipe our monitors until they gleam. But how many of us deep-clean our keyboards? When was the last time you even thought about it? 

I'm ashamed to admit that I never do. Instead of cleaning them, I've been tossing out keyboards every few years and buying new ones. But as a writer, I splurge on high-quality ones, like the Keychron K4, which I got for over $100 in 2019. It's wireless, with mechanical Cherry MX keys, Bluetooth, backlighting -- the whole shebang. I like their keyboards because they can customize to your preferences down to the component level and use open source logic in their microcontrollers, making them easy to update.

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The only problem? It got really dirty. So, for the first time, I decided to clean my keyboard. How bad could it be, right? 

Bad. Imagine five years of accumulated food matter and gooey dried beverage residue. The stuff you see with the keycaps on is just the tip of the iceberg; when they come off, it's a greatest-hits collection of all your breakfasts, lunches, late-night snacks, coffee spills, and Diet Coke disasters. 

Here's how to clean your keyboard and keep it clean for the future. Remember that not all keyboards, such as membrane-style units, have removable keycaps, but most mechanical keyboards do.

1. Remove your key caps

Jason Perlow/ZDNET

Start by removing your keys. But before you take them off, take a picture of the keyboard so you know where they all go when you have to put them back.
You can easily pop the keycaps off with a flathead screwdriver or a butter knife. 

2. Wash the keycaps

Jason Perlow/ZDNET

Put the keycaps in a big bowl of warm water with some light dish detergent to remove oils and any caked-on residue. I used the bowl from a salad spinner to let them soak for several minutes, agitated them a few times, and then washed the soapy residue off. 

I recommend using a salad spinner since it'll make the next step much easier. 


Keycaps off and in the spinner bowl.

Jason Perlow/ZDNET

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3. Spin-dry the keycaps

Jason Perlow/ZDNET

The salad spinner is a very effective way to remove all the excess water from the keys. I had to run it about four times to remove the residual moisture, ensuring they were completely dry before reassembling. 

4. Clean the board

Jason Perlow/ZDNET

Return to the keyboard itself. Use rubbing alcohol and cotton-tipped swabs to remove dirt and grime from the crevices, particularly between the key mechanisms and edges. 

Then examine each keycap for anything not caught during the salad spinner rinse, and use swabs and tissues to remove anything persistent. 

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5. Vacuum the board

Jason Perlow/ZDNET

An auto-detailing kit can help vacuum out the tight spots on a keyboard. These kits often come with small brushes and attachments perfect for reaching those difficult areas. 

This vacuum tip with a brush helped get all the corners and spacing between the keys with hard-to-remove dust and debris, making the cleaning process much more efficient. 


Clean and bare keyboard

Jason Perlow/ZDNET

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6. Reassemble your keyboard

Jason Perlow/ZDNET

Now that all your components look brand-new, it's time to put the keycaps back on. Refer to the photo you took earlier to ensure each keycap returns in its correct place.


Keys replaced on Keychron K4

Jason Perlow/ZDNET

The transformation is remarkable -- the keyboard looks almost brand new after a thorough cleaning. Even though I've worn off some of the letters, it now looks fresh and functions perfectly, proving that a little effort in maintenance can extend the life of your keyboard significantly. 

7. Keep your desk clean

If you want to avoid having to do this again, consider not eating or drinking at your desk (as unrealistic as that may sound). 

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