Your MacBook's overheating? Why it happens & 10 ways to fix it

Macs, especially portable models like the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, have very sophisticated cooling systems designed to ensure that they don’t overheat. However, most of us have at some point experienced the symptoms of an overheating Mac, from fans spinning up to performance slowing down. Most of the time, those are the only symptoms. However, in rare cases, overheating can cause physical damage to components. Here’s what to do if your Mac is overheating and how to avoid it happening in the first place.

Why does my MacBook get so hot?

There are a number of reasons for MacBook overheating. Here are some of the most common. 

1. Too much stress on the CPU

The harder your Mac’s processor cores are working, the more likely they will heat up and contribute to overheating. Maybe you've noticed that your Mac's getting slower when you launch both a browser and, let's say, a video editing app. That's because these types of apps are usually running many processes, using up your Mac's processing capability and making your Mac struggle, which causes overheating.

2. High ambient temperature

Macs are designed to comply with various temperature limits. But extreme heat can harm your computer; that's why Apple recommends using your Mac where the ambient temperature is between 50°and 95°F (10°and 35°C). Placing your MacBook under direct sunlight can significantly shorten the life of your machine and be dangerous.

3. Clogged or blocked fans

We all love using our Macs in bed, but your cozy warm blanket can be the reason for your MacBook Pro running hot. The vents at the back of your Mac, at least on those Macs with fans, are used to blow warm air away from the components inside the chassis. If the vents are clogged or blocked, there will be nowhere for the warm air to go when the fans kick in.

4. Malware

Malware is difficult to spot on a Mac, but it can run a ton of intensive processes hiddenly, making your Mac heat up. Browser hijackers, adware, and backdoors are common threats on a Mac, so check your Mac for those if you feel like it's been heating up for no obvious reason.

5. Frozen or unresponsive apps

All apps sometimes freeze and misbehave, making those spinning wheels appear on a Mac. But, even if an app is unresponsive, it is still consuming Mac's memory. Whenever there's a laggy app, your Mac allocates lots of CPU resources to fix it, which, in turn, heats the processor.

Of these reasons, the first is by far the most common. However, you shouldn’t ignore the other four. Something as simple as moving your MacBook from your lap to a hard surface can keep it cooler and reduce the chance of it overheating. Similarly, if your Mac is several years old, dust inside the case can interfere with the fans and prevent them from cooling properly. If your Mac is a few years old, you may be shocked by how much dust can get in through the ventilation holes!

What to do if your MacBook is overheating

If your MacBook is getting hot, the action you take will depend on what’s causing it to overheat. However, given that the most common cause of overheating is an overworked CPU, we’ll start there.

1. Check CPU usage

If your Mac's overheating, the first and foremost thing you do is check the CPU usage. You don't need any third-party apps to do that; I'll show you how to check the CPU load using Activity Monitor:

  1. Open Activity Monitor (Finder > Applications > Utilities).
  2. Click the CPU tab. 

You'll see all your apps and processes listed, from the most intensive to the least CPU-heavy.

It's easy to quit those intensive apps: select the process or an app and click the "X" button. Confirm to quit the app. 

You can also customize which process you want to see listed: click View in the top menu and select System Processes. Now, only system-related tasks will be displayed. If any of the system processes are using too much CPU resources, try restarting your Mac — a simple restart will clear your Mac's memory and start these processes correctly.

2. Close browser tabs you’re not using

Having lots of open browser tabs is one of the most common causes of an overworked Mac, especially if you use Chrome. Each open tab uses memory and consumes CPU cycles. So, the more you have open, the more CPU cycles and energy you’re using. Close down those you don’t need and bookmark the web pages instead.

3. Check your login items & launch agents

Login items are apps that open right at your Mac's startup. Usually, we're so busy doing things on our Macs that we don't notice these login items. But your Mac sure does — it starts running hot unable to handle all programs simultaneously. Let's take a look at what login items you have enabled:

  1. Click Apple menu > System Preferences.
  2. Select Users & Groups.
  3. Go to the Login Items tab.

Here you'll find apps that launch at your Mac's startup. Select the app and click the "—" button to remove it. Done!

You can also investigate launch agents. This category of apps refers to small programs that always work in the background and perform routine tasks. For example, Chrome has a few launch agents constantly running on your Mac to make sure Google services run properly. But they as well may be taxing on the processor. How to check what launch agents you have running?

  • Open Finder and choose Go in the top menu.
  • Click on Go > Go to Folder…
  • Now paste in: /Library/LaunchAgents

You’ll see the folder with the list of launch agents inside it.

Since we’re now in the Library, it’s risky to try and delete anything here on your own. I prefer using CleanMyMac X to find and remove login items and launch agents quickly. This app also helps clear system junk and declutter my storage, which is helpful if you're running out of free space on your Mac.

  1. Download the free edition of the app here.
  2. Launch the app and go to the Optimization tab.
  3. Now, click Launch Agents and select the items you want to disable.
  4. Repeat for login items.

Voila, you can now let go of some burden on your memory. The app is notarized by Apple, which means it passed the safety check.

4. Quit unused apps

Even if some apps don’t look like they’re doing very much, they still use some processing power. They’re probably using CPU cycles and carrying out background tasks that could slow things down. Here's a quick trick that will help identify and close active apps on your Mac:

  1. Press Option-Command-Escape. 
  2. In the window that appears, you'll see the list of all active apps on your Mac. Select the app you want to close and click Force Quit.

Use this little trick when your Mac starts overheating — closing unused active apps will lighten the load for your Mac's CPU.

5. Reset the SMC

System Management Controller is in charge of Mac’s ventilation system, among other things. If your Mac seems to be too hot without reason, maybe resetting the SMC will work for you.

Note

You can't reset SMC on M1 Macs — all settings stored in SMC are embedded in their processor.


Macs with a removable battery:

  1. Turn off your Mac and remove the battery.
  2. Press the power button and hold it for 5 seconds.
  3. Put the battery back in.
  4. Start up your Mac.

Macs with a non-removable battery:

  1. Shut down your Mac.
  2. Press Shift-Control-Alt (Option), and, while holding these 4 keys down, press the power button.
  3. Hold all 4 buttons down for 10 seconds, then release them.
  4. Start up your Mac by pressing the power button.

Desktop Macs:

  1. Shut down your Mac.
  2. Pull out the power cord and wait for 15 seconds.
  3. Put the power cord back in.
  4. Wait 5 seconds, and then turn on your Mac.

6. Avoid direct sunlight

If your MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro is heating up, move to somewhere cooler or out of direct sunlight. The temperature of the room you’re in or the sunlight hitting your Mac contributes to overheating. Place it on a hard, cool surface instead of in your lap to keep the air vents unobstructed.

7. Physically clean your Mac

Dust and debris can really mess up with your Mac's fans; that's why if your Mac keeps overheating, it's time to give it a thorough cleanup. A can of compressed air can help clear those hard-to-reach corners of your Mac: you just need to remove the bottom panel and spray the air into the vents. Then, grab a microfiber cloth and gently wipe away any dust. Reinstall the bottom panel at last. 

If you are not confident removing the panel yourself, you can make a Genius Bar reservation to get your Mac's fans cleared for you.  

8. Run some maintenance

If you have no time to perform these performance tweaks and get to the reason why your Mac's overheating, there is a quick solution you could try. CleanMyMac X, an app I've mentioned before, has a Maintenance module with plenty of tools that will help you troubleshoot all kinds of Mac issues. 

  1. Launch CleanMyMac X (download the app from the official site).
  2. Go to Maintenance.
  3. Click Run Maintenance Scripts.
  4. Hit the Run button.
  5. Maintenance Scripts in CleanMyMac X

You can also run other tools, like Free Up RAM and Repair Disk Permissions, to eliminate errors and fix bugs on Mac.

Tip

If you think malware may be the reason your Mac overheats, run a Malware Removal scan in CleanMyMac X — it identifies all kinds of Mac malware and lets you remove them from your Mac.

9. Update your Mac

With every software update, Apple releases fixes to performance issues on Mac. Maybe this Mac overheating problem you're struggling with has already been fixed with the latest macOS release? Let's check if your Mac is up to date:

  1. Go to Apple menu > About This Mac.
  2. Click Software Update.
  3. If an update is available, click Update Now.

10. Unplug peripherals you’re not using

If you have peripherals, such as an external hard drive plugged in, and they don’t have their own power sources such as a battery or plug-in power supply, they need to draw power from your Mac. This puts additional pressure on your Mac’s battery and power management system and could contribute to overheating. So, if you’re not using them, unplug them.

Managing heat means spinning fans in Macs that have them. Fans use power, so when they spin up, if your Mac is running on battery power, it will lose charge more quickly. To avoid that happening, plug it into a power source.

There are a number of things that can cause your Mac to overheat, from misbehaving applications pushing the CPU too hard to blocked vents or fans not working, and even the ambient temperature of the room you’re working in. Whatever the cause, overheating can damage your Mac, and you should take steps to stop it and prevent it from happening in the future. By following the advice above, you’ll minimize the chances of it overheating and make sure it keeps running smoothly.

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