How to Safely Clean Your Nasty Game Controllers

Sony PlayStation Dualshock ControllerRoobcio / Shutterstock

Game controllers are magnets for dirt and grime. It doesn’t matter if you take very good care of your towels, they will eventually need a thorough cleaning to remove skin, debris and bacteria. Here’s how to do it without damaging your equipment.

Before cleaning

Before you start cleaning your controllers, it’s a good idea to check the following “problem” areas, where grime is most likely to have accumulated:

The “grip zone” where your hands hold the controller while you play.
The small space around the edge of the controller where the front and back plates meet.
Analog sticks.
Charging, headphone and extension ports.
All tight corners of the controller that are not easy to clear.

To thoroughly clean your controller without disassembling it, you will need the following:

A soft, lint-free cloth
Isopropyl alcohol (at least 70 percent; the more the better)
A sheet of paper or a wooden toothpick
A bottle of misting pump (optional)
A plastic straw (optional)

You should always use water or rubbing alcohol to clean your controllers. Most gamepads have a nice, tacky finish, and harsh cleaners like bleach could ruin the look of plastic.

It is also a good idea to avoid compressed air, as the force of the air can damage the components inside the controller.

A DualShock 4 controller sitting on a piece of paper next to a toothpick, a Q-tip, an isopropyl alcohol spray and a cloth. We bought this DualShock 4 controller in a thrift store. The tips we describe here removed the grime and made it shine.

How to clean a slightly dirty controller

First, clean the controller with a soft, damp, lint-free cloth. Use a little water to start and avoid all abrasive cleaners. Wipe the controller everywhere and remove any obvious grease or dirt.

Place the damp cloth in nooks and crannies that are not normally accessible. Owners of Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will want to pay close attention to the sinks where the analog sticks come out. It is easy for grime to build up in these tight turns.

A cloth wiping a DualShock 4 controller.

Now bring your attention to the analog sticks. Be careful however, the sticks are covered with a soft rubber which may wear out (in particular on the original DualShock 4 controllers from Sony). Stand under the analog sticks and remove the dust and dirt that has accumulated.

You can also maintain a direction and rotate the stick while you wipe the “ball” underneath. It won’t fix a sticky analog stick, but it could prevent such problems from happening in the future.

A hand cleaning an analog stick with a cloth on a DualShock 4 controller.

Use isopropyl alcohol to dislodge stubborn dirt

Isopropyl alcohol is a relatively safe cleaning agent. It helps remove dirt that can be easily dislodged, making it an effective cleaning solution that evaporates when you’re done.

One of the most effective ways to use rubbing alcohol is to dilute it 1: 1 in water, then apply it with a misting pump. Shake your solution well, lightly spray the controller, then clean it with a soft cloth. Alcohol should help remove any lingering dirt and kill bacteria in the process.

A DualShock 4 controller with a Q-tip above it next to a bottle of isopropyl alcohol.

For very stubborn dirt, dip a Q-tip in alcohol and apply it to the dirty area. The alcohol will pass through everything that makes the dirt stick to the controller, then you can just wipe it off.

You can also use antibacterial wipes already soaked in alcohol. Since there are so many uses of isopropyl alcohol, it’s a good idea to always have it around.

How to clean the “seam” and thin gaps

Now let’s take a look at the “seam” that runs all around the edge of the controller, where the front and back interlock. This small space attracts all kinds of dirt and bacteria, but it is not impossible to clean it.

Fold a piece of paper several times, until it is solid but still thin. Pass the edge of the paper through the space. As you do so, you should see dirt build up on the edge of the paper. Wipe it off and repeat until the controller is clean.

You can also use a thin wooden toothpick to clean this area. The wood is soft enough to penetrate the space without scratching the plastic, although the tip may not survive very long.

Avoid using metal objects, such as paper clips or knives, as they could easily scratch the controller. You could also injure yourself if your grip slipped.

A toothpick cleaning the seam on a DualShock 4 controller.

You can also apply rubbing alcohol directly with a Q-tip before cleaning the seam with the toothpick. In fact, you can do this for all the thin edges of the controller, including around the DualShock 4 touchpad button if you’re using one.

How to fix sticky buttons and D-Pads

If you’ve spilled something on your controller, the buttons on your face may be sticky. They may feel mushy and not depress properly, or they may be completely stuck. Although you can open the controller to attempt a fix, there are a few other things you can try first.

Before attempting to clean these areas, make sure the controller is turned off and disconnect all removable batteries if you can. Be careful not to turn on your controller when attempting this correction.

Soak a Q-tip in alcohol and drop a small amount around the edge of the affected buttons. Then use the Q-tip to clean up any obvious dirt in these areas. Press the buttons repeatedly to get the alcohol into the contact mechanism and loosen the dirt.

A Q-tip wiping a button on a DualShock 4 controller.

Let everything dry (rubbing alcohol evaporates fairly quickly), then test your controller. Repeat the process several times if necessary, until the buttons return to normal. It may not be enough to save your controller, but it’s a lot less complicated than opening it, so it’s worth a try.

You can also slice a plastic straw in the middle to form a semicircle shape. Then you can drag it to the side of the affected buttons. Also, maneuver the straw around the edge of the buttons to dislodge any grime that might cause them to stick.

How to clean the ports and speaker grilles

A dirty charging port could prevent the charger from making proper contact and charging your controller. However, the controller ports are sensitive, so it’s a good idea not to stick anything too deep into it. If you do, you could bend or break the pins inside.

A Q-tip cleaning a port on a DualShock 4 controller.

Dip the Q-tip in rubbing alcohol, then use it to clean the entrance to all ports. Again, be careful not to force it too deeply.

Repeat this process on any speaker grilles or other smaller areas you may have missed.

When all else fails, take it apart

Disassembling your controller is risky if you don’t know what you’re doing. You could lose small components, like springs or screws, or even give yourself a little shock. This is why you should always do your homework before trying to take it apart.

After disassembling your controller and disconnecting the battery, you can clean the affected areas with alcohol or soap and water. Let everything dry completely before trying to reassemble it.

DualShock 4

iFixit has a dedicated hub for original and amended DualShock controllers 4. First, follow the guide and disassemble the controller into three sections.

Then you can switch to more complex guides, like replacing the pimples on the face or the battery.

Xbox One controllers

iFixit also covered most Xbox One controllers, including several revisions of the basic wireless and Elite, which was classified as a completely separate device.

Nintendo Switch Joy-Con

There is also a iFixit hub dedicated to the Nintendo Joy-Con removable controllers. You can learn to replace the joystick, turn it off drumsor get advice sync issues, also.

Xbox 360 controllers

There is a detailed guide to demolishing a Xbox 360 Wireless Controller to clean it up on iFixit. Head to the wireless controller hub to see guides on replacement face pimples or analog stick covers.

DualShock 3 controllers

Sony’s PlayStation 3 era controllers are also covered by I fix it. You can replace the drums, the motherboard, or even repair the loading port If you need to.

Keep your controllers clean

Ideally, you want to prevent your controllers from becoming a health hazard in the first place. Here are some things you can do:

Wipe your controller after each use, preferably with an antibacterial wipe.
Wash your hands before taking your controller.
Do not eat while you are playing, especially fries or other appetizers.
Clean the nooks and crannies regularly to avoid having to perform a thorough deep cleaning.

Unfortunately, accidents do happen. If you spill something on your controller and it affects the operation of the buttons, follow one of the iFixit videos or guides that we have included above. It is worth a try before you shell out money for a new controller.

While you’re at it, your laptop could probably also use a good cleaning.

RELATED: How to properly clean your raw laptop

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