Look down at your keyboard, and if you're surprised—or mildly disgusted—by what you see, it might be time to give your computer a good cleaning.

Many of us live with our computers, so it's inevitable that crumbs, lint, and assorted grime have found their way into the nooks and crannies of your device. But it doesn't have to be that way. 

"It's rewarding to work on a computer that's really clean," says Consumer Reports product tester Antoinette Asedillo. "But there's a right way and a wrong way to clean electronics."

Here's a primer on how to clean your computer and peripherals properly. 

What You'll Need

  • A lint-free cloth
  • A can of compressed air
  • Dishwashing detergent
  • A portable vacuum
  • Water
  • Q-tips

What to Do

Before you attempt to clean your computer, make sure to unplug it and power it down. You should also take a moment to refer to the owner’s manual for do's and don'ts about cleaning solutions and techniques that might be specific to your device.

The shell: Start by adding a tiny drop of dishwashing detergent to a small amount of warm water. Soak a sponge with the mixture and wring it out until it’s damp, then gently wipe the exterior of the computer. While you're at it, sponge off the mouse and trackpad, too.

"Q-tips are great for hard-to-reach areas," says Asedillo, "And then you can finish the job by drying it with a lint-free cloth." 

Ports and vents: Use a compressed air can to dislodge debris from the various nooks and crannies. Hold the can at an angle so that you're not blowing the debris deeper into the machine. A soft paint brush or an old toothbrush can also help remove dust and pet hair that remains trapped there.

Most laptops are quite well sealed, so don't bother trying to clean their innards.

"But dust can accumulate inside tower-model desktops, causing the cooling fans to work overtime," says Asedillo. She suggests using a compressed air can to carefully remove the accumulated dust. Asedillo advises against using a vacuum cleaner inside the case, to avoid possible static discharge, which could compromise your machine's circuits.

The screen: Use a dry lint-free cloth to remove the surface dust. Soak a sponge in plain water and wring it out until it's just damp. Wash the screen by moving the sponge in small circles, applying just a bit of pressure.

Don't use ammonia, ammonia-based window cleaners, alcohol, or other chemicals, Asedillo warns, because they may damage the display's coating. "Harsh cleaners can damage a screen's anti-glare properties and even make a touchscreen less responsive," says Asedillo. TV, tablet, and smartphone owners should heed this advice, as well.

The keyboard: Admit it: Your keyboard is a magnet for dust and debris, and maybe even food crumbs. How can you hide the evidence? "Believe it or not, the tool of choice is a small, portable vacuum cleaner," says Asedillo.

If you don't have a small vacuum, try a small brush or the sticky end of a Post-it or simply turn the keyboard upside down and give it a shake. "You want to remove the mess rather than pushing it deeper into the machine," Asedillo cautions.

Finish the job by wiping the keys with a cloth lightly moistened with plain water or rubbing alcohol. Don't apply the liquid directly onto the keys; apply it to the cloth instead.

Cleaning Your Electronic Devices

Is your keyboard looking downright disgusting? On the 'Consumer 101' TV show, Consumer Reports shows you how to de-gunk your electronic equipment.