How to prevent letters fading on your Mac’s keyboard

KeyboardIconXYour Mac’s keyboard is built to be fairly durable; however, there are instances where the letters on it may wear. For external Apple keyboards this can result in a blank white key, and for backlit keyboards you may find the sharp-edged letters are now a splotch of translucent white. This can have you considering a replacement, which can be expensive for MacBook systems. If you are noticing fading keys on your Mac, then there is an easy way to prevent the problem from spreading, and even fix a key that is already faded.

Identifying key fade

The best way to tackle keys fading is to identify those that are about to fade. There are four stages to the wear on most keys:

  1. Texture Wear — As you use your keyboard its textured finish will become smooth. This is almost unavoidable, but keep an eye on those that are progressively smoother than others.
  2. Delamination — The top layer of plastic may wear through and when viewed at an angle, show a boundary that looks like a liquid stain. This suggests the key’s color is about to strip away. You may see the backlight show through this area a little.

    Key delamination on a MacBook Pro

    Key delamination can be seen by looking at a direct reflection of bright light. This is often a precursor to key fading.

  3. Edge fading — This is where the color is being eroded, to the point where it is affecting the edges of the letters. This area usually fades first because this is where most of the wear occurs.

    Key edge fading on a MacBook Pro

    Key edge fading may be subtle at first, but grow rapidly.

  4. Letter loss — The edges of your letters fade enough so that you can no longer make them out.

Granted the first stage is always going to happen, but the second and third stages of key fading can be halted, and even the final stage can be somewhat recovered.

Preventing key fade

For keys at stages 2 and 3, you can prevent further damage by covering your keys. Of course there are numerous third-party silicone covers that will work, but an easy and extremely effective solution is to use standard clear cellophane tape (household, or packing tape):

  1. Use a dot of mild hand soap on a damp towel to wash the affected keys.
  2. Dry the keys thoroughly.
  3. Hold a piece of tape with a pair of fine tweezers.
  4. Cut the tape into a square that will amply cover the fading letter, but not be wider than the key itself.
  5. Place the square down on the key and press it firmly (a rolling motion from one side to the next will help prevent trapping air bubbles).

When done, the tape should become almost invisible, and texture differences should be minimal. This will give your key a solid barrier to any more fading.

What about washing hands?

Even though keeping your hand clean is a good idea, especially if you have obvious grime on them, the problem may simply be unavoidable. The issue here is essentially corrosion of the key’s plastic, which seems to happen most from the oils on one’s skin. Therefore unless you wear gloves, or meticulously wash your hands, if your oils corrode the keys, then you are going to see them fade faster than others. The cause for this may be from stress, gender, genetics, or anything, but there overall seems to be no rhyme to why it happens. In some cases keys may fade exceptionally fast, while for other people the original key texture may be preserved for months and even years.

Tackling a faded key

If your key is already faded and you can no longer see the character on it, then the solution is easy. First use a fine-tipped permanent marker to re-draw the missing character, and then use the steps above to protect this drawing with a coat of cellophane tape. You can also consider artfully filling in missing black areas to restore the translucent character for backlit keys, so it will still appear as it originally did.

Beyond this, the only option besides a silicone key cover is to have your system serviced, or if you are using an external keyboard, then simply replace it.

14 thoughts on “How to prevent letters fading on your Mac’s keyboard

  1. John M. Hammer

    For what it’s worth, I have a PowerBook G4 and have been using it since December 2003. Its keys look and function as well as the day I bought it. On the other hand, I have had at least 6 Apple keyboards for the various desktop Macs I’ve owned in the last 12 years and all but the last of them have very worn-looking keys and the oldest I had to send to recycle because some of the keys just weren’t working well anymore.

  2. xAirbusdriver

    Some people just have “corrosive” personalities! ;-P

    I may be wrong (Again?), but I think many keys have a slightly concave top surface. That may make the cellophane tape “fix” somewhat less than purfict. The really hard part will be cutting the piece while preventing finger prints and dust from getting onto the sticky part. And the really fun part will be when the tape starts coming off while leaving the goop* on the key.

    * “Goop” is a highly technical term used by adhesive scientists

  3. mrmogimagoo

    I have one of those solid black Apple keyboards that came with my QuickSilver power PC.
    Extremely hard to see in dim lighting conditions. However i can’t get rid of that keyboard because it has a ” power on ” key and the keys simply work no matter how hard or softly i pound them. The key board even fell to a concrete floor with no ill effects.

    I have an Apple keyboard that came with 8500 ( some18-20 years ago ) and it looks like new and works ( it also has a power on key and a few other bonus features to the keyboard such as power off key. All the letters have not faded or have not worn off.

    I also have a couple or more iMac keyboards and they look as though they were used in some war.

    I believe that not all Chinese made keyboards are the same especially these days.

    These days the guys in suits at Apple know how to shave dollars and cents in producing all their products at some foreign factory to increase the Apple bottom line.

    No more do we have pride in made in the USA products.

    i would sooner pay more for a high quality product made in the USA employing US citizens then some cheaply made product made in some good forsaken foreign country which i have to
    send off to land fill because the keys no longer function or the video card goes dead etc etc.

    Recently i have sent a few iMac’s to the land of dead iMac’s.

  4. seika17

    You can buy replacement keys affordably on eBay. Pop out the old one with a credit card and press on the new one.

    1. mrmogimagoo

      R all ” replacement keys ” the same regardless of which Apple keyboard i own ?

      I have some extended keyboards: They have numbers, up/down/side2side etc keys on the left hand side with the normal keys ( modifier etc etc keys ) on the right.

      Then i have some of those latest versions of keyboards what i call compacted keyboards which i hate. Thank god for USB connectivity because those keyboards are never unpacked and never plug’ged in once i learned how they work. Then i plug-in a extended keyboard.

      Also tried to use a track pad but can not get the hang of swiping back and forth up and down.

      1. seika17

        Some may be the same, but I’m sure they’re not all the same. I just search eBay and Google for the model of laptop or keyboard I’m working on and make sure I’m buying for the right one. There are plenty of people parting-out keyboards after they’re no longer usable (spilled apple juice, fried motherboard, broken screen, etc.).

        1. mrmogimagoo

          I have never had good luck with my eBay purchases. Nearly all the time i learned the hard way that the sellers are really scamers and in the end my purchase was a waste of hard earned money especially since i have to convert my dollars to US funds including shipping/handling costs.

          And so now if my keyboards die i go to apple and buy a brand new one with fully warranty. Sure it’s more money but then i walk into a store and walk out with a new product. Rather then going thru eBay and when the item comes in the mail i look at it and say what the **** did you do with piece of electronics: it looks like you dug it out of the land fill. ?

  5. Carter W

    Keep your fingernails trimmed! Touch typing will result in the nails scrapping off tiny bits of the key caps, leading to a disaster area eventually, with the lettering indistinguishable. Went through a bunch of iBook keyboards–fortunately, the keyboards were easily replaced and Apple provided replacements even out of warranty.

    Thought the MacBook Airs would be free of the problem but no I can see some letters starting to go.

    HOW ABOUT CLEAR NAIL POLISH AS A SOLUTION? What do you all think about that? Anyone tried it?

  6. B. Jefferson Le Blanc

    I think the issue with Mac laptops is that Apple expects the computers to be replaced before the keys wear out. If you’re one of those who holds on to your old MacBook (Pro) for more than a few years, this can be a problem. Of course, there are other expensive components that may fail, as well. SuperDrives are among the most fallible – no doubt because they have extremely delicate mechanisms that are exposed to the elements, where equally delicate components in a hard drive are not. Of course that’s not an issue with modern Macs that lack an optical drive.

    The best way to preserve your laptop keyboard is to use an external keyboard and mouse whenever possible. This can also prevent further deterioration of your laptop’s keyboard if you adopt the practice now.

    In respect to keeping your keyboard clean, it’s simply harder to see the dirt on a black keyboard than it is on a white one so it’s likely to get less regular maintenance. But not letting the grime sit on your keys indefinitely seems to me to be the best way to reduce the corrosive effects of oils and acids. What’s that old saying, A stitch in time saves nine?

  7. Julia

    Another option is to buy a keyboard with laser etched lettering.

    I use an ancient IBM model M keyboard with my iMac. I bought it in a use computer shop 15 years ago and have been typing away on it daily ever since. It has very little wear. Either I have noncorrosive fingertips or else they used better ink back in 1984 when they made it.

  8. Vern Klukas

    Some keyboard keys use a process called dye diffusion to mark the letters on. Those tend to be very durable, and is probably the method used for that IBM keyboard.

    For me, I wear the key surface away with my finger nails—a keyboard lasts about 2 years before what I call the “Adobe” keys (A,S,D,Z,X,Q & C) show significant wear.

  9. Julia

    Dye diffusion, huh? It must be a more expensive process. I searched and found a place that sells replacement key caps for the model M. They’re kind of expensive though. I probably won’t need any since this keyboard by all appearances is going to outlive me. Plus I have another one in a box in the garage.

    It’s funny how old things were often made so much more durable. I tried to love the stock iMac keyboard but after a year I gave up. It’s pretty but it just doesn’t have a good feel to it. The model M works so much better but is kind of big though. And noisy.

    1. Mr. Tway

      I have been using Apple and Logitech keyboards for over twenty years (yikes, he’s old). The Apple keyboards, including an ancient pre-Intel Powerbook that I leave on a workbench in my garage, still have keys in perfect condition. The Logitech keyboards usually fade on heavily used keys within a year or two. The latest Logitech Wireless Solar Keyboard K750 for Mac that I ordered on May 22, 2015 started to lose its lettering immediately and now, after three months, seven keys are almost unreadable. Support sent me to their warranty department and they said that’s normal wear and tear. It’s a cheap keyboard but I don’t think loss of lettering in 3 months qualifies as normal.

      I’ve tried various press on keys, tape, etc. on the older Logitechs but the most durable solution I found was an old Brother PT-1700 labelmaker. I just print the letters I need on the *laminated* tape that most closely matches the keyboard. Trim as needed and peel off the back. Press firmly and they seem to last longer than any of the manufactured press on keys. When they do wear out they pull up fairly easily using the tip of an Xacto knife.

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