Most of us get cranky from time to time.
The same goes for our computers and smartphones. They may crash or run sluggishly and drive us nuts when storage is cramped.
Sometimes a quick reboot seems to mercifully fix all problems. Sometimes you need to free up space by removing apps or programs you haven’t used in eons. But often one of the most simple ways to restore order — at least when you’re browsing the web — is to clear the cache and cookies from your browser. It's something recommended every month or two, but you can do it more often if your device is acting like a snail.
Why clearing a cache matters
Cache, pronounced cash, in this context refers to an area that becomes a temporary home for files and data left while you were patrolling the internet, including images, videos and text. Their chief purpose is to personalize your experience upon your return to a site, since whatever is left behind is stored locally and doesn’t have to be downloaded during each subsequent visit. In theory, this speeds things up and doesn’t put any undue strain on your computer’s battery.
Your browser also will accumulate crumbs left behind known as cookies, not the tasty kind but rather the sort that reminds a site who you are. On your return to an online shopping destination, for example, you may not have to reenter your log-in credentials or add back items that you left in the shopping cart.
Kaspersky, a cybersecurity company, compares cookies to getting a ticket for a coat check. That ticket is stored in your browser so that you are identified as the coat owner upon your return, and the site can “assemble your activity data and recall your visit just as you left it,” according to its website.
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While many if not most cookies are benign, some may be used to track you for ad purposes and invade your privacy. Left untended, the cache itself can build up and claim storage space and memory you could otherwise use. You also may experience glitches or a page that fails to load, especially if a new version of the page bumps heads against a cache stashed with older stuff.
Clearing your cache and cookies generally causes little harm. But the first time you return to some places online, you may have to log in again or wait for certain content to load.
Here is how to clean things up on the four most popular web browsers: Apple Safari, Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge and Mozilla Firefox. Three of the four have versions for both Windows PCs and Macs with subtle differences between them, as well as versions for both iPhones and Android smartphones.
Safari 5, Apple’s last version of Safari that worked on Windows, debuted in 2010. Apple subsequently discontinued Safari versions for Windows. Apple did not create any officially sanctioned version of Safari for Android devices.
Apple Safari has two ways to clear its cache
You have a couple of ways to clean things up on Safari.
For the first method, launch Safari on a Mac. Under the Safari pull-down menu, click on Preferences and click on the Privacy tab at the top of the window. Click the Manage Website Data button and scroll down the list to find the website or sites that have stored data that can be used to track you. Tap Remove to remove the data at the given site or tap Remove All to get rid of the tracking data at all the sites. Tap Done when you are done.
Under this Privacy tab, you can also check a box to Block all cookies, but as Apple warns, making this selection may mean some websites may not work, and others may log you out.
Start the second method by clicking on Preferences. This time, click the Advanced tab on the upper right and select the Show Develop menu in menu bar box so that a check mark appears.
Then, outside of Safari Preferences, click on the Develop menu option that now appears at the top of the Safari browser. Click the Empty Caches option under that menu.
On an iPhone, tap Settings and scroll down to the list of apps. Tap Safari and then tap Clear History and Data, which will remove your history, cookies and other browsing data. It’s worth noting that your browsing history will be cleared from all devices signed in to your iCloud account, including computers and any other phones or tablets.
Google Chrome has basic, advanced options
On a computer, open Chrome and click on the three vertical dots in the upper right corner of the browser window. Choose More Tools | Clear Browsing Data… from the window that appears. Check the boxes to clear your entire Browsing history, Cookies and other site data or Cached images and files if the Basic tab is highlighted.
If Advanced is highlighted, you will see other options you could check, not that you necessarily want to in every instance. These additional options, which you might have to scroll down to see, include Autofill Form Data, Site Settings and Hosted App Data. Chrome also allows you to clear your cache entirely or back to specified time periods.
Click Clear data when you are satisfied with your selections.
If you want to clear browsing data only from the device you are working on while keeping it elsewhere on your Google account, make sure to sign out of your account first.
On phones, in the Chrome app on iOS, tap the three horizontal dots. On Android, tap the three vertical dots instead.
In both cases, tap History and then tap Clear Browsing Data. You will then be able to clear data for your Browsing History, Cookies, Site Data, Cached Images and Files, Saved Passwords and Autofill Data. You will also be able to choose a time range for the data you want to clear: last hour, last 24 hours, last 7 days, last 4 weeks or all time.
Tap Clear Browsing Data on iOS or Clear data on Android to complete your cleanup mission.
Microsoft Edge allows automatic cache clearing
On a Windows PC or Mac, launch the Edge browser and choose Settings and more by clicking on three horizontal dots at the upper right corner of the screen. Click on Settings, and from the menu on the left pane click on Privacy, Search and Services.
Under Clear browsing data select either Clear browsing data now or Choose what to clear every time you close the browser. Click Choose what to clear, and from the Clear browsing data menu select all or some of the options that appear: Download history, Cookies and other site data, Cached images and files, Passwords and Autofill form data (includes forms and cards), among them. Click Clear Now when done.
On an iPhone or Android device, launch the Edge app and then tap the three horizontal dots at the bottom of the screen. Tap Settings | Privacy and Security | Clear Browsing data and decide on the options, which are similar to the choices presented on a PC or Mac.
Mozilla Firefox lets you customize or go automatic
After opening Firefox on a PC or Mac, click the hamburger symbol — it resembles three stacked lines — and then click Settings on the menu that appears, then Privacy & Security on the left. Scroll down to Cookies and Site Data and click Clear Data. On the window that pops up, you can remove all the Cookies and Site Data by keeping that box checked and/or Cached Web Content by keeping that box checked. Tap Clear if satisfied with these choices.
On an iPhone, launch the Firefox app, and tap the hamburger menu at the lower right corner. Tap Settings, scroll down to the Privacy section and tap Data Management. You will see a list of the types of information you can remove: Browsing History, Cache, Cookies, Offline Website Data and Saved Logins. Tap the button next to each option to enable or disable that selection. When satisfied with your choices, tap Clear Private Data.
On Android, launch the app and tap the three vertical dots on the lower right corner. Tap Settings, scroll down to the Privacy and security section, and tap Delete Browsing data. Choose the data types you’d like to delete among Open tabs, Browsing history and site data, Cookies, Cached images and files, Site permissions and Downloads. Tap the Delete browsing data button to complete the exorcism.
Firefox includes a separate menu item for automatically deleting browsing data whenever you quit the app.
This story, originally published Jan. 26, 2022, was updated to add information about how often to clear your cache.
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.