How Long Does Thermal Paste Last? (Absolute Guide)

The application of thermal paste is important for efficient cooling as the coolers cannot do it alone. Thermal paste is usually applied on the CPU and the GPU, and in some cases, it is also used in industrial devices like power transistors. However, the application of thermal paste won’t last forever as it will eventually expire or dry out.

How long does thermal paste last? In terms of usability, it can last up to 5 years. Though, manufacturers suggest that you replace it at least once every 2-3 years. But even with this, thermal paste’s longevity and efficacy may still vary due to several factors.

tubes of thermal paste on red table

In this article, we will discuss how often you should reapply thermal paste, when to replace, and more on the factors that affect its lifespan.

What is Thermal Paste?

Thermal paste (also called thermal grease, thermal compound, thermal gel) is a sticky substance that is applied to the GPU and CPU’s IHS. Its job is to fill the gaps and imperfections between the GPU or CPU IHS and heatsink to allow the heatsink to cool the CPU and GPU quickly and efficiently by allowing for better heat transfer.

Application of thermal paste before attaching your heatsink or cooler is important so that the heat from the CPU or the GPU will dissipate quickly. This is because however smooth the surface of the IHS and the base of the heatsink is, there are still gaps between them that cannot be seen in the naked eye.

This results in the base of the heatsink not having 100% contact with the GPU and CPU’s IHS. The thermal paste will eliminate those gaps and will allow the base of the heatsink to have direct contact with the IHS of the CPU or GPU die.

If applied correctly, the cooler will have a more efficient and faster way of heat transfer from your device, some of which will dissipate through the thermal paste.

How Long Does Thermal Paste Last in a Tube and When Applied?

In general, thermal paste can last up to 5 years, or even more. However, most manufacturers recommend that you replace it every 2 or 3 years. They also recommend storing your thermal compound for no more than 3 years, as the quality and efficacy of thermal paste may degrade over time even if it’s not used.

Some applications of thermal paste can last over 5 years at the longest. In personal experience, I had some systems running for more than 5 years without having to replace it. But just to be safe, it is highly recommended to change your thermal paste after a maximum of 3 years.

Thermal paste on GPU die

There are, however, some factors that will determine how long different thermal compounds last on the device when applied. Below are the common factors that come into play that will determine the lifespan of the thermal compound applied on the device:

Heavy usage

If you use your PC heavily on a daily basis, it is recommended to replace your thermal paste more often compared to everyday-used computers. Also, extreme use of computers also means that it will get too hot more frequently, which might shorten the lifespan of the thermal paste and lead to overheating.

Quality of thermal paste

Anything that is of good quality will obviously last longer. This will also apply to the thermal paste being used. The type of thermal compound is also a factor, as there are some pastes that you can still use when detaching the cooler from the motherboard, as long as it hasn’t dried out yet.

Tubes of Thermal Compound on a desk

Environment

The environment also plays a huge role when it comes to the lifespan of the thermal paste. Normal room temperature conditions are ideal for storage. Storing the thermal paste in a direct source of heat or a cold place may degrade its quality and shelf life. Places like the attic and window with direct sunlight are just examples of storage areas that should be avoided.

Excessive amount of paste

Some may think that applying an excessive amount of paste may be an efficient and fast way to cool their CPU or GPU down, however, that is not the case. Also, too much paste may be at risk of leak and could potentially harm your PC.

Removing the coolers

Removing your coolers from the CPU or GPU would obviously require you to reapply thermal paste again. This is a general practice, even with experienced PC builders. Although, there are some premium thermal paste that will allow you to reuse it as long as it hasn’t dried out.

What Thermal Paste Types are there?

When it comes to the type of thermal paste, there are a wide variety of brands to choose from, as well as the type. Among the varieties available on the market, the most common types are the following:

Ceramic-based Thermal Paste

Ceramic-based thermal paste is probably the most common and widely used thermal paste due to its affordability and availability and yet so efficient conducting heat. They are easy to apply and are generally safe to use since they are not electrically conductive.

Carbon-based Thermal Paste

Just like ceramic-based varieties, carbon-pastes does not have electric conductivity, which is safer to use. The only drawback of carbon-based thermal paste, like ceramic-based, is that they are not the best conductor of heat. They are a good application for general-used computers to mid-range gaming PCs.

Diamond Carbon-based Thermal Paste

Diamond carbon-based pastes are just like carbon-based paste. The difference is that it contains diamond powder, which is a good conductor of heat. It also acts as an electric insulator, which means that it has good protection against electricity and can prevent short circuits.

Silicon-based Thermal Paste

Silicon-based paste contains silicon which is also a good conductor of heat. They are good for all types of usage, and are suited for use by beginners as they are easy to apply and are not conductive to electricity.

Metal-based Thermal Paste

Metal-based paste contains metal, like aluminum and silver, both excellent conductors of heat. They are best applied to devices that can heat up very quickly, but they are not advisable for beginners as metal-based thermal pastes are electric conductors and may cause short-circuits if not applied properly.

Liquid-metal Based Thermal Paste

Liquid-metal based thermal pastes are similar to metal-based, but in the form of liquid. They have excellent thermal conductivity and are far superior compared to other types of pastes. But since liquid-metal is also a conductor of electricity, they are not advisable for use by beginners. They are also more difficult to apply since it is liquid and may cause leakage if not applied properly.

Pea-sized dot of thermal compound on IHS

Here are some less than conventional thermal paste options that you can also use in emergencies www.gizmofusion.com/thermal-paste-alternative.

How do I Apply Thermal Paste?

For newly purchased CPU or GPU, it usually comes with pre-applied thermal paste. Some new coolers also come with it pre-applied on the base of the heatsink. But if you are re-applying to an old unit, below are the steps on how to properly apply thermal paste, both for the CPU and GPU.

  1. How to apply thermal paste on the CPU

    1. Carefully remove the CPU cooler first before applying the paste
    2. Wipe the old thermal paste from the CPU and the base of the cooler using isopropyl alcohol and a cotton swab or any lint-free cloth or paper towel.
    3. Put a small amount of thermal paste, which is about the size of a pea. Alternatively, you can use an X-pattern for CPUs with larger heat spreaders. Try not to use too much paste as it can spill out of the sides.
    4. Spread the thermal paste evenly across the CPU IHS using the spatula that came with it.
      Note: You may also skip this step as the thermal paste will just spread evenly on its own when you install the CPU cooler.
    5. Install the CPU cooler and make sure to secure it tightly so it will have direct contact with the CPU.

Whilst on the topic of CPUs, here is an article that you may like that discusses the factors that affect a CPUs performance.

  1. How to apply thermal paste on the GPU

    1. Remove the graphics card from the motherboard.
    2. Unscrew the heatsink from the card using appropriate screwdrivers.
      Warning: Removing the screws from the graphics card may void the warranty. Always check first if there is any warranty sticker attached above the screws.
    3. Wipe any remaining thermal paste from the GPU and the base of the GPU heatsink using isopropyl alcohol and a cotton swab or any lint-free cloth or paper towel.
    4. Using compressed air, blow any dust particles from the card and the cooler. You may also use a fine-bristle and static-free paintbrush.
    5. Apply a very small amount of thermal paste on the GPU.
    6. Screw the heatsink back to the GPU. The thermal paste will just spread on its own as you apply pressure to the heatsink.
    7. Install the graphics card back to the motherboard.

Can Thermal Paste Go Bad?

Does thermal paste expire? Yes, it does. But the only way to know whether it has gone bad is based on its consistency. And since thermal pastes have a limited shelf life, they will eventually expire.

Dry thermal paste on GPU

If it is either dry or too watery compared to the first time you have used it, it may have already gone bad. I wouldn’t risk using a thermal compound that looks and feels different compared to when I used it for the first time.

How long is thermal paste good for? If stored correctly, and depending on brand, around 3 to 5 years.

How to Determine if Your Thermal Paste is in Need of Replacement

Increased temperature is one of the most telling symptoms. If you have been using your computer for some time now and have noticed an increase in temperature, you should first look at the fans and vents to see if there is any dust buildup.

If the fans are clear from dust, then there is a good chance that your thermal paste may have dried out already or have gone bad. In this situation, replacing your it is necessary.

If you haven’t experienced any of these, keep in mind that you should still replace your thermal paste eventually. How often should you change thermal paste? Most manufacturers recommend a new application after 3 years. Also, if your computer has remained unused for a very long time, it is best if you check it first before using it, as the old thermal compound may have dried out already.

Is it Possible to Use My Old Thermal Paste?

In regards to using old thermal paste, it depends on how old it is. Thermal paste expires after a certain period of time. For example, if it has been sitting on the shelf for more than 3 years, you should check to see if its consistency has changed.

Spreading thermal paste on CPU

If it looks fine, then you may still be able to use it. Although, manufacturers state that the shelf life of an opened tube of thermal paste is usually only 2-3 years before expiration.

Is it Possible to Apply New Thermal Paste Without First Removing the Old One?

You should never reuse old thermal paste in any circumstances. Old paste tends to dry out quickly, which could cause high CPU temperature and inefficient dissipation of heat from the IHS to the cooler. The old paste needs to be removed for best performance.

While there are some high-quality thermal pastes from other brands that will allow you to reuse them even if you remove the coolers, it is still recommended to change it anyway. Thermal pastes are very affordable and a small drop wouldn’t cost you too much.

How to Extend the Life of Thermal Paste

If you want to extend the life of your thermal paste, doing so would require little effort. Just like how you care for your computer components, the same way can be applied to thermal paste. Below are some pointers on how to increase its lifespan.

  1. Regularly clean your computer.
  2. Always store the thermal paste where it is in a cool and dry place, away from any direct source of heat and moisture.
  3. Always refer to the manufacturer’s manual or guides on how to use and store properly.
  4. Avoid removing the heatsink of your CPU or GPU as this will require you to reapply the thermal paste again.
  5. Installing dust filters on your PC case might also help to minimize any dust particles inside your PC.
  6. Never buy in large amounts if you only use it on your computer alone as it may go bad if it remains unused for long periods of time.

Conclusion

As you are well aware, thermal paste is a very important part to any computer. It is integral in keeping the CPU and GPU as cool as possible to stop you from running into issues.

So now that the answer to the question “does thermal paste expire” I suggest that you read the article I have written on how to tell if a CPU is dying. One of the issues which can cause this I’m sure you are not surprised to hear is overheating.

You can find this guide here, www.gizmofusion.com/how-to-tell-if-your-cpu-is-dying.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Is thermal paste supposed to harden?

Yes. It tends to dry out and harden after a long time. This is normal. If unused, it may also dry out faster.

Does thermal paste go bad?

Over time, yes. Thermal compounds will degrade over time if unused or if stored incorrectly.

Can I turn on the PC after applying thermal paste?

Yes. Using your PC just right after applying thermal paste is perfectly safe. In fact, it performs at its peak when it’s new.

How do I clean thermal paste off my CPU?

In order to properly clean thermal paste, you can use any lint-free cloth or paper towel along with alcohol. You may also use cotton swabs. Just put a small amount of alcohol to your cloth, paper towel, or cotton swab, and carefully wipe off.

How often should you reapply thermal paste?

Most manufacturers recommend once every 2-3 years.

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