PC maintenance involves all kinds of things that many might initially overlook, such as how to clean thermal paste off your CPU. You might go years without even thinking about reapplying your thermal paste.
Removing thermal paste isn’t difficult, but it’s one of those small skills that, as a PC gamer, it’s invaluable to be comfortable with. If you know what you’re doing with thermal paste, there’s one less thing to worry about when you unscrew that CPU cooler .
There’s no definitive way that you should remove thermal paste, but there are some things you should keep in mind during the process.
Why Reapply Thermal Paste?
Thermal paste is what’s lathered between the lid of your CPU and the baseplate of your CPU cooler. It aids heat transfer from one surface to the other by eliminating any tiny gaps that might exist between the two.
But thermal paste doesn’t last forever . Over time it can dry out and become less effective at transferring heat from the CPU to the cooler, so you might want to clean thermal paste off your CPU and reapply it every so often.
And while it’s not likely to dry out quickly, there are other reasons you might need to reapply thermal paste.
If you want to clean your CPU cooler it’s often easier to do so after dismounting it, and you’ll need to reapply thermal paste before remounting it. And if you buy a new CPU but continue using the same cooler, you’ll need to dismount it for the new install and then reapply thermal paste before reinstalling it.
Here are all the tools you might need for cleaning thermal paste off your CPU:
- Lint-free paper towels
- High purity alcohol
- An anti-static wrist strap
- Thermal paste
A lint free paper towel is usually all that’s needed to remove thermal paste. But if you want to be extra thorough you can use 99.9% isopropyl alcohol or a high purity surgical spirit, and if you want to be extra safe you can use an anti-static wrist strap to keep yourself grounded while working inside your PC.
While having a tube of new thermal paste isn’t necessary for removing that which is already on your CPU, you’re going to want to reapply the paste before reinstalling your cooler, so make sure you have some handy.
How to Remove Thermal Paste
How you remove thermal paste depends on how thorough you want to be. And if you want to ground yourself with an anti-static wrist strap, you should do so before you start. Of course, you should also turn off your PC before starting.
1. Remove your CPU Cooler
You can’t remove thermal paste from your CPU if your CPU cooler is installed, so you should start by removing it.
Each cooler will have its own installation and removal process, but it should involve unplugging its power connector, unclipping or unscrewing the heatsink from the motherboard , and lifting it off. Once it’s unscrewed or unclipped, you should twist the cooler gently while pulling, because lifting straight up can sometimes pull the CPU out of its socket.
2. Wipe the Thermal Paste off your CPU
Once you’ve removed your CPU cooler, take a lint-free paper towel and wipe as much of the thermal paste off the CPU lid as possible. You can apply some pressure while rubbing, but not so much that you start to bend the motherboard.
Avoid getting thermal paste on anything other than the paper towel and ensure that no fibers are left behind on the CPU or motherboard.
If your CPU lid is completely clean after wiping, you can skip step 3 and move on to step 4.
3. Wipe a Pure Alcohol Solution over the CPU surface
If some thermal paste is dry, it might be difficult to remove with just a paper towel. And because dry thermal paste is more likely to escape somewhere onto the motherboard, it’s best to use a pure alcohol solution to help loosen it.
Dab a clean paper towel into a high purity alcohol solution, then gently wipe the CPU lid with it. If the thermal paste isn’t coming off, you can apply a little pressure and rub the CPU lid with the alcohol-dampened paper towel.
After the thermal paste is removed, give your CPU time to completely dry before reinstalling your CPU cooler – this shouldn’t take long, because pure alcohol dries quickly.
4. Reapply Thermal Paste and Reinstall your Cooler
Before reinstalling your cooler, you’ll want to reapply thermal paste.
Take your thermal paste applicator and gently squeeze a pea-sized drop onto the centre of the CPU lid – this will spread out when your cooler’s baseplate pushes down onto it.
Now, reseat your CPU cooler, placing its baseplate squarely on top of the CPU lid. Keep the cooler still while you screw or clip it in place, and then tighten it to keep it secured to the CPU and motherboard. Plug its power connector back into the motherboard, and you’re good to go.
How to Remove Thermal Paste Without Alcohol
In most cases, alcohol isn’t needed to remove thermal paste from your CPU.
Unless the thermal paste is particularly dry, a single paper towel should be enough to completely clean it off your CPU. Simply rub the paste off with a paper towel and make sure you don’t get it on any other components.
But if the thermal paste is very dry, you might need to use an alcohol solution to remove it from the CPU lid.
If you don’t have high purity alcohol to hand, other solutions may work, but you should check a solution’s ingredient list to make sure it won’t damage anything. For example, nail polish remover can work because it contains acetone, but it should be one that doesn’t contain certain ingredients, so you should research whatever solution you’re considering. And of course, if in doubt, don’t try it.