FAQ: Can I use ______ to clean my PC components?

Thermal Compound Components
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This is reposted from LinuxTechTips user Queek, but given the number of forum posts I've seen wondering about solvents without an authoritative answer, I thought it'd be useful to include something here from an actual chemist.

Isopropyl alcohol (otherwise known as rubbing alcohol or surgical spirit) is perfect for cleaning thermal compound off of your CPU/GPU. You do not need to use anything else. It’s cheap, reasonably non-toxic (don’t drink it please), and readily available almost anywhere.
Let me follow up by saying that I have a Bachelor in Science, majoring in chemistry, and I’m currently in graduate school doing a PhD in chemistry, so this is as good a source as any for this answer.

I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen a thread start on this forum asking whether the OP could/should use {insert solvent solution here} to clean their PC components. I thought I might make a thread where we can send everyone to answer those questions. Here is the blanket answer for those questions:

No, you do not need to use that to clean your CPU, use isopropyl alcohol instead. Put a small amount of isopropyl alcohol on a soft cloth (microfiber cloths are recommended) or cotton balls, and wipe away the thermal paste. When clean, allow the residual solvent to evaporate before applying more thermal compound and installing the heatsink.

In most cases, the suggestions are reasonably good solvents, and most of those will clean (read: dissolve) thermal compound, but you have to take into account the effect that those solvents will have on your components. For example: will that solvent oxidize your components? Will it start to dissolve the PCB? Will it strip cosmetic paint? Will it cause electrical shorts?

If in doubt: use isopropyl alcohol.

I've heard from several people that you can't buy isopropyl alcohol easily from stores in the UK. However, most stores seem to have isopropyl swabs, which are a perfect replacement. Effectively these are just pieces of wipe that have the solvent that you want pre-applied. In a pinch (with no access to isopropyl alcohol), you can use these to clean your CPU and such. You should be able to order isopropyl alcohol from Amazon if you can wait for a few days. (Editor's Note: In the US you should be able to ask for 99% isopropyl from behind the counter at most pharmacists.)

Isopropyl alcohol is also really effective at cleaning brushed aluminium finishes on cases and such.

I’ll dedicate the rest of this post to listing other solvents that I’ve seen questions about, and giving good reasons why you should/shouldn’t use them. If you want to know about a particular solvent that I don’t have listed here, reply to the thread and I’ll see if I can add a blurb for it.

I have not used any of the following solvents for cleaning my PC components. I stand behind the use of isopropyl alcohol for cleaning PC components (this is what I use). If you decided to use a solvent on this list (or not on it), you’re doing so at your own risk, and I assume no responsibility for the damages that might result. When using solvents, it is highly recommended to wear eye and hand protection, and use only in a well ventilated area.

## % solutions
Solutions come in many concentrations, and when they are sold to the public, these are usually depicted as a ## % solution. The primary component remains the same, but the diluting solvent can sometimes cause problems. For instance, a 70% solution of isopropyl alcohol is likely diluted with water. Water evaporates much more slowly than alcohol, so to use this properly, you will have to carefully dry the cleaned components quickly after use to avoid water damage (instead of just wiping away most of it and allowing to air dry). Be careful when using diluted solutions, particularly of the diluting components. It will always be better to use >98% solutions of isopropyl alcohol.

Water is a great polar solvent, which means it’s great at pickup up ions (read: salt). I can guarantee that no matter what water you have access to (be it distilled water or the misleadingly named “deionized water”), it will contain ions. Even if you found water with no ions in it, it would pick up ions from the surrounding environment very quickly (this is why water-submerged computers are not a thing, even though water has a better heat capacity than mineral oil). In addition, water is great at oxidizing metals (eg. copper). Water is a great way to short electronics, can oxidize your components, and it doesn’t evaporate particularly quickly, so it really is a poor choice for cleaning PC components.
However, it is commonly recommended to clean the fan filters of your case with water (sometimes with soap). This is fine, as there are likely no electrical components on your fan filter. I would recommend trying to dry the filters with paper towel (or equivalent) as quickly as possible, as sometimes they are held together with metal rivets, which may be rusted by the water.

Consumable spirits (vodka, rum, gin, etc.)
While these alcoholic beverages do contain both ethanol and water (which are great solvents), they also contain remnants of whatever fermentation process made them into beverages. The alcohol and the water are likely to clear away the thermal compound on your CPU, but after you wipe off the resulting gunk, those solvents will evaporate away and leave behind whatever was in the drink itself. These beverages tend to be sweetened with sugars, and flavoured with various aromatic compounds, which will pyrolyze into a terrible gunk when you heat up your CPU. Although I can’t say for sure, I expect that this gunk would be a poor thermal compound. While alcoholic beverages may seem like an okay choice for cleaning PC components, they are likely to leave behind a film, defeating the purpose of cleaning your components.

Ethanol (ethyl alcohol) / Denatured alcohols
Ethanol is one of the few choices that would be suitable for cleaning PC components, except that all of the commonly available ethanol is denatured, and that denaturant can cause problems. It is a good solvent, and has a high enough vapor pressure that it will evaporate quickly off your components. In most locations, ethanol is likely more expensive than isopropyl alcohol, which means that you’ll probably use isopropyl instead of it. One thing to make note of is the denaturant used in the ethanol you’re buying. A denaturant is an additive which makes it unfit for consumption (read: poisonous). Most commonly in ethanol, these denaturants are methanol (toxic) or bitterants (which make them taste really, really bad). This breed of solvent is commonly called “methylated spirits”, and you should be careful when purchasing them as PC cleaners, as some of these additives may significantly harm your PC components if you spill them on anything other than your CPU heatspreader. So yes you may be able to use ethanol to clean your components, but unless you know specifically what is in your denatured alcohol, I would recommend just going with isopropyl alcohol.

Methanol (methyl alcohol, wood alcohol)
This is also a really good solvent, and is inherently poisonous, so you don’t have to worry about denaturing additives. However, methanol is such a great solvent that it will probably start dissolving paint on your PCB if you spill it. Given the toxicity of this solvent and the risk of damaging your components, I would recommend against using this as your PC component cleaning solvent.

Acetone is a great solvent for dissolving many plastics. If it doesn't dissolve the plastic, it will usually result in a swelling of the plastic, and will also cause the dye in the plastic to seep. There are few plastics that are inert to acetone, so I would really, really not recommend using this as your cleaning solvent for PC components.

Mineral spirits
Mineral spirits are a petroleum fraction (it is distilled from oil), and therefore no one knows what the hell it has in it. Yes, they might have a general idea of the composition, but no one will know the exact composition of your solvent. This solvent is used commonly for stripping paint and degreasing engine components. By now you should have guess that this will probably be a poor choice for cleaning PC components, as you don’t know what it will do to your components.

Lighter fluid
The primary component in lighter fluid is usually butane, which is an organic hydrocarbon. This may work as a solvent, and might not damage your components if you spill it. However, depending on the composition of the thermal compound, this organic solvent may not completely dissolve all of the thermal compound (polar components of the compound are unlikely to dissolve in this solvent). This solvent might work, but it may be a difficult clean requiring plenty of rubbing.

Paint thinner
This is a solvent which will have a similar composition to mineral spirits, but with additional solvents thrown into the mix (eg. acetone, dimethylformaamide). This would be an even poorer choice for cleaning PC components, as it contains acetone, and is almost certainly going to damage your components. Also, as the name suggests, it will probably strip the paint off your motherboard. Don’t use this.

Hexane (or hexanes)
This is a fantastic solvent for cleaning computer components, but it has the major drawback of being very toxic and carcinogenic. In the interests of your health, I don't recommend using this solvent. There have been instances in the past of hexane poisoning in factories which fabricate electronic components.

Ethyl acetate
If you can get ethyl acetate in a reasonably pure form, this is probably an okay solvent to use for cleaning PC components (it is used commercially for this purpose). It is reasonably non-toxic and will evaporate reasonably quickly. In all likelihood, it will be easier to come across isopropyl alcohol than this, but it should clean your components without damaging the surrounding area. I’ve never personally used this stuff for PC cleaning, so use at your own risk.

Nail polish remover
While the most common component of nail polish remover is ethyl acetate, the solvents specifically sold as “nail polish remover” tend to have additional fragrances, and may have other solvents like toluene and formaldehyde. Along the same lines of the alcoholic beverages blurb, if you use nail polish remover to clean your components, you are likely to leave compounds behind on the heatspreaders, and the additives may damage your components.

Hydrogen peroxide
This is not a solvent, it is a strong oxidizer. Although hydrogen peroxide and isopropyl alcohol usually live side by side in the cupboard (usually for medical uses), do not grab the wrong bottle. You are very likely to damage your components if you use this as a cleaner.

Brake cleaner, engine degreaser
Don’t use this. Brake or engine cleaners tend to be hybrid mixtures of solvents specifically designed to be the most effective at dissolving gunk of any shape and form. Common additives are methanol, acetone, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, and plenty more. Nearly all of the solvents used are toxic, and will almost certainly begin to dissolve your PC components. Don’t use this.

Hybrid solvents (super solvents)
It is a common practice in industry to make up hybrid solvent mixtures which perform fantastically. There are various chemical compositions of these mixtures, and all of them will perform very well for the use on the bottle, but the chances are very good that one or more components in that mixture will damage your PC. Generally speaking, if the bottle or can doesn't tell you that it is a specific solvent, it is probably a hybrid and you shouldn't use it. If you want to check, ask for the MSDS and see what the cleaner is comprised of.

Windex is a hybrid mixture consisting mostly of water, with the second solvent being isopropyl alcohol. The solution also contains a weak base (ammonium hydroxide), as well as other additives including water softeners, perfumes, and surfactants (compounds that lower the surface tension between two liquids). The ammonium hydroxide can result in undesired oxidization of whatever you're cleaning, so its use on delicate computer components is not recommended. While this will likely work as a cleaner solvent, residue from the spray after evaporation may result in poorer than desired heat transfer or pyrolysis of the residue on the heatspreader.

Cleaning other components
Displays and touchscreen devices
LCD screens (the screen of your monitor) generally have coatings on them which fall into the similar unknown category of screen protectors. It is very likely that you will damage your screen in some way by using a cleaning solvent such as isopropyl alcohol. For cleaning your screen, you should use a damp (with water) soft cloth to wipe away whatever is on your monitor. This may take several repeats, but should clean your monitor just fine. Be careful to avoid dripping water down the screen; this is a wiping procedure, not a washing procedure.
Linus shows you how to clean effectively in this TechQuickie video.

Screen protectors
Screen protectors are not glass, but end up getting just as grimy as the glass would itself. However, because this isn't glass, and the compounds used in their making can vary a lot, one can't just assume that isopropyl will do the trick. In fact, isopropyl alcohol will probably end up damaging the coating, as will most of the other solvents above. In this specific case, you should use a damp (with water) soft cloth to wipe away the oily residue coating your screen. This should be safe to do as most screen covers are water-proof or -resistant as a feature. This may take several tries and a bit of time, but you don't want to dissolve your screen protector.
Isopropyl alcohol is all you need for cleaning CPU's and motherboard components.

tl;dr No, you don't need [insert cleaning solution here]. -Source: PhD Student, Chemistry