Cleaning thermal paste off CPU? Did you really think you’d be doing that one day? Or did you even know computers had thermal paste in them? A greasy paste protecting your dear computer from heating up after those long hours of gaming? Well, it’s true that your and everyone else’s CPU does have thermal paste on it.

Now that the secret has been divulged, you have to get to the important part – taking care of it because it helps your CPU stay cool. The application of thermal paste isn’t rocket science, but it requires careful disassembly of some of the most sensitive components inside your computer. Hence, it makes sense to learn how to clean thermal paste off the CPU properly.


Key Takeaways

  • Thermal paste is used to keep the temperatures of the CPU low, as it helps cool it down.
  • It is important to replace the thermal paste after every few months, as it can get dried out.
  • Replacing the thermal paste is pretty straightforward, as you only need to remove the cooler from the CPU. 

What’s Thermal Paste, And What Is Its Purpose?

Thermal paste is, well, as the name says it, a paste that rests between your CPU and the heat sink. The reason for its existence there is to keep your processor cool. Ever wondered why those big graphics cards have up to 3 blow fans mounted on them?

The reason is that your processor heats up to great temperatures and needs a quick cooling method. While other components inside your favorite case might rest during certain tasks, a processor is always working—kind of like your brain. You might not be moving your legs while you are lying down and watching a movie, but your brain is still working.

The purpose of the thermal paste is to get rid of heat as quickly as possible, but you might ask yourself, “Why is there a heat sink then?” Yes, the heat sink is supposed to cool off your processor, but there are certain discrepancies in this setup.

Also Read: What is the best CPU temperature while gaming? 

The baseplate of your heat sink is tightly attached to the CPU. Why? Well, the idea is to let as little air as possible between the two surfaces because air is bad in conductivity.

Looking at the way your heat sink’s baseplate is pressed against the ‘back’ of your processing chip, you might assume there is no air between them. View it with a microscope you’ll be shocked at how many air pockets are still there.

That’s where thermal paste comes in—to fill those grooves between the two surfaces. Moreover, it conducts heat faster than air would, allowing the heat from the processor to be transferred to the heat sink and then out of the case within seconds.

How To Clean Thermal Paste Off CPU

Now to the main part—how to clean thermal paste off the CPU. As stated earlier, it’s quite a straightforward job i.e., you remove the paste, and you apply the paste. However, it’s the small steps within the process that require extreme care. A few things that may go wrong are as follows:

  • You may end up breaking the locks on the heat sink if you apply too much force or rotate them in the wrong direction.
  • You may end up applying excessive thermal paste on the CPU when then gets into other components and causes all sorts of problems.
  • You might miss properly cleaning off the old thermal paste, which in turn makes the new paste ineffective because the old and dried-up paste is already sitting in the microscopic grooves.
  • Not being grounded while changing the paste and causing the flow of static charge to affect various PC components.
  • Failing to lock the heat sink properly in place is just as dangerous as not having a heat sink on the processor at all.
  • Using a dirty piece of cloth to clean off the old paste and leaving behind dust particles that could damage the heat sink’s base plate or CPU’s integrated heat spreader
  • Cleaning off the old paste with too much hand movement, hitting and damaging other sensitive components around the CPU.

It’s best that you think of yourself as a surgeon while performing this job, and that’s about all you need to make the process safe and successful. Now, let’s get onto the most important part of cleaning thermal paste off.

First Step: Getting The Cleaning Supplies Ready

Before you begin the removal and reapplication process, it’s best to have all your cleaning supplies handy, so you can avoid looking for them while your CPU lies there unprotected. Here are the items you will need.

  • Cleaning cloth – A microfiber cloth would be best, but you can do it with a paper towel too. Some people also use a coffee filter but opt for that option only when they don’t have a microfiber cloth available.
  • Alcohol – Isopropyl alcohol with more than 90% alcohol is the best option because the thermal paste is manufactured to react well with it. Rubbing alcohol that’s designated below 90% might not clean the thermal paste residue that well.
  • Cotton swabs – You initially clean the paste with a piece of microfiber cloth, but the invisible residue is cleaned using cotton swabs.
  • Thermal paste – Keep new thermal paste nearby, and make sure you pick one after reading online reviews for the best results.

Once you have all these things nearby, you can start disconnecting all the cables to create a safe working environment.

Second Step: Unplug Your Computer

It’s a fairly simple part of the process but more important than any other. You have to make sure you unplug every cable that’s coming into or going out of your computer. You could get a high-voltage shock if you fail to unplug your PC before removing the case and touching the internal components.

Also Read: How to test motherboard without CPU. 

Third Step: Removing The Heat Sink

This is the step that you need to perform with the utmost care. Be gentle with how you handle the heat sink and its locks. Any violent movements or forceful yanking could cause the locks to break, and you will then have to buy a new heat sink.

It is also important to note that there is a cable running from your CPU cooler to your motherboard. Make sure you remove it before working on the heat sink.

Most heat sinks have 4 locks on them in the form of push pins. To unlock them, you will have to rotate them counterclockwise. If you’re having a hard time figuring out the counterclockwise rotation, just rotate the pins to your left side.

It’s best that you go with a cross pattern when unscrewing the pins. What that means is that when you unscrew the bottom left pin, you unscrew the top right pin after that. You then unscrew the bottom right pin and then the top left one.

You might have to rotate the heat sink side to side with gentle movements to loosen and remove it. Once loose, lift it up gently, and put it on the side. Make sure to lay it down sideways to avoid contact between the surface and the thermal paste on heat sink’s baseplate.

Fourth Step: Cleaning The Old Thermal Paste Residue

At this point, you can see the old thermal paste on the CPU. It might look a bit dry, but it will still be greasy to touch. If it’s completely dried, be thankful that you decided to reapply the new paste before things went south.

You begin the cleaning process by holding the microfiber cloth in your hand and making a gentle swipe on the CPU. This one swipe will give you an idea of how much paste there is. It’s best that you perform this step by swiping in your direction because circular motion can cause the dried-up residue to fall on the sides of the processor.

Once you notice that no more paste is coming off on the cloth, you can move on to the next step. The next step is to perform the cleaning at a microscopic level. That’s where you will need a cotton swab and alcohol.

You want to avoid getting it dripping wet and leaving big drops on the CPU. Think of keeping the swab in such a position that it’s touching the surface of the alcohol only slightly. Rotate the cotton swab a little to get alcohol evenly on all sides. This method is better than dipping the entire swab into alcohol.

Don’t make quick motions at this point. Place the swab gently on the CPU and start cleaning with a gentle circular motion. Check the swab to see if it’s covered in thermal paste, and change to the cleaner side to continue cleaning. You will have to perform this process a couple of times for the best results.

You will have to let go of the urge to get it impeccably clean. Some residue will continue to appear on the swab, which is nothing but staining from the paste coming off with alcohol. It’s okay to stop cleaning after cleaning a couple of times with alcohol.

Fifth Step: Reapplying The New Thermal Paste

Reapplying the new paste is not difficult at all. You have a syringe with the paste in it. You push gently on the syringe to get a pea-sized blob on the processor. Yes, that’s the standard the community of computer experts uses for the amount of paste needed on the processor, i.e., pea-sized.

You have performed the reapplication of the new paste, but you will have to clean the baseplate of your heat sink, too, before you put it back on. Clean the baseplate using the same cleaning process as in the fourth step.

Yet again, you will have to be quite gentle with placing your heat sink back on the processor. Avoid shaking it because that can splatter the thermal paste you have on the processor. Once the heat sink is in place, you will press the pins and rotate them clockwise, this time to lock them into place.

Here, it is important to lock the pins in the diagonal or X pattern, as stated earlier at the time of removing the heat sink. Doing so helps keep the pressure even on the processor. Otherwise, too much pressure on one side can cause the processor to slip ever so slightly.

So, you can now plug in your computer and test its temperature on your favorite PC monitoring tool. You should also notice a slight or significant improvement in the performance of your processor while playing games. However, if the overheating problem persists, it’s best to take matters to a professional technician.

Can Your PC Run Without Thermal Paste?

The short answer would be yes. However, it’s not a matter of whether your PC will switch on or not. The real question is how long it will work before it gives in. Can you walk in the scorching heat of the desert without water? Yes. How far can you go?

Why Clean Old Thermal Paste?

So, why would you clean the thermal paste that’s already there on your CPU to replace it with a new paste? That’s a great question to ask and one that PC gamers would love to answer at length.

No matter the quality of the thermal paste, it will dry out at some point and become more and more ineffective in conducting heat from the CPU to the heat sink. If you use a monitoring software app, you’ll notice your CPU temperatures going to extremes.

As soon as your PC temperature goes beyond 70-degree Celsius, you should start monitoring it carefully. If it is hotter than 80 degrees Celsius most of the time, you need to take some action. And if it goes higher than 90 degrees Celsius and stays above 90 for hours, you are technically committing a slow murder of your PC.

Some of the issues you can face due to your CPU overheating include the following:

  • Poor gaming performance despite having a high-spec GPU
  • All PC components will start malfunctioning, including your hard drives
  • Your PC starts shutting down while in use
  • Your CPU crashes

If you are seeing CPU temperatures in the vicinity of 90 degrees Celsius at all times and the fan on your heat sink is always fast and noisy, you better get your CPU checked as soon as possible.

Similar Posts: Why your CPU fan is not spinning. 

What’s The Best Thermal Paste For The CPU?

Of course, when it comes to buying anything for your computer, you want to know the best option out there. Just like other products, when it comes to cooling solutions, there are certain companies that are considered a sign of standard and trust.

Therefore, rather than going into the nitty-gritty of how manufacturers make their thermal pastes, it’s best you pick one being offered by a well-known company. The name that gets mentioned the most in the world of thermal pastes is the Arctic. The brand name is quite apt, and their MX-5 is considered among the best options on the market.

Other names that you will usually be recommended include the following:

  • Grizzly Kryonaut
  • Noctua NT-H2
  • Phobya Liquid Metal
  • Gelid’s GE Extreme
  • ProlimaTech PK-3

Before you buy any of these products, you surely want to check out their thermal conductivity, which could be anywhere from 5 W/mk to 15 W/mk, with higher being better.

Where to Buy Thermal Paste

You can buy thermal paste from a computer shop near you. If you are not the type that likes to go out, you can order one from Amazon. You can even see the reviews from the people to find out which one would be best for you. Usually, the prices of thermal pastes range from $5.99 to $19.99.

Final Thoughts

So, now you know what thermal paste is, why it matters for your CPU, and why you need to change it. While it’s not something you would frequently do, you surely want to know how to clean thermal paste off the CPU and reapply it if you like buying and selling used computers. Don’t forget that the companies that make cooler fans and systems make the thermal paste too. So, if you are out buying thermal paste, you might want to check out the thermal paste from the company whose cooling system you have on your PC.

FAQs

How often to clean thermal paste?

If your computer doesn’t show signs of overheating, you can wait for up to 3, 4, and even 5 years before you reapply new thermal paste. However, if your PC has an overheating problem, you might have to do it more frequently. It’s best you get your PC fixed instead.

What is thermal paste made of?

Aluminum oxide, boron nitride, urethanes, silicones, and epoxies usually make the thermal paste and perform the function of conducting heat and filling microscopic grooves.

How to ground myself while reapplying thermal paste?

Touching the case of your PC will get you grounded and stop the flow of any static charges. You can also buy a separate grounding mat that professionals use when working on computers.

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What started out as a love for PC gaming turned into an enthusiasm for PC tech and hardware. Ali is a high school graduate who aspires to be a dentist. On the side, Ali likes to keep up with the latest in PC tech, and write about it.