Why and how to erase your browsing history

Cover your tracks in any web browser.

backlit laptop keyboard
Your internet history contains all the browsing secrets you might want to hide.Pixabay

Web browsers keep track of your past activity for a reason. That history comes in handy if you want to find a funny article again, return to your favorite photo of the kids, or if you want to restore a tab you accidentally closed. At the same time, some people find this constant tracking a little on the creepy side. Not to mention that, if you share a computer with others, you might not want them finding out about a gift you secretly bought them, your interest in 1970s folk rock, or your more private Google searches.

Fortunately, all of today’s web browsers make it easy to erase your history and wipe away your online tracks. In this guide, you’ll find out about the information your browser automatically logs, what that data does, and how to get rid of it.

What your browser saves

Google Chrome
Like most browsers, Google Chrome lets you choose which types of data to erase.David Nield/Popular Science

Before you roll up your sleeves and start blitzing all the data stored in your browser, you should know what that information is and what it does. After all, on some occasions, you might want to clear specific types of files and not others. When you dive into a browser’s settings, you’ll see references to these different data types, though the terms might vary slightly from browser to browser.

First of all, our primary concern: your browser history, which is the list of sites and pages you've visited in the past. This history helps you retrace your steps, bring back pages you want to refer to again, and reach your favorite sites more quickly. Many browsers draw from your history to suggest specific URLs as soon as you start typing addresses in the search bar.

Browsers also track your download history, which is just a list of files you’ve downloaded. Don’t confuse this history with the actual files themselves, which live somewhere on your computer. It’s simply a list of references to them, which can help when you’ve previously downloaded a file and can’t find it, or you want to download the same file again.

Next up are cookies: little bits of code that sites will want to store on your system. Cookies help websites recognize who you are, but they come in a variety of forms. For example, if you go to a weather website and it instantly shows you the cities which you previously searched for forecasts of, that’s a cookie in action. If you return to a shopping site and it still has the same items in your basket, that’s cookies at work again. These files won’t harm to your computer, but some users don’t like being tracked in this way, and prefer to delete them on a regular basis.

While you’re looking at cookies, you might see that your browser distinguishes standard cookies from third-party ones. Third-party cookies track behavior across multiple sites; they’re usually injected into ads rather than being part of the actual page code. You can blame this type of cookie for personalized ads: If you’ve spent some time searching multiple sites for tents and you start seeing tent ads everywhere, third-party cookies are responsible.

Finally, browsers keep a "cache," which contains local copies of graphics and other elements that your browser uses to load pages more quickly. If you head back to a site you've just visited, for example, the browser can draw site images from the cache rather than pulling them from the web again. The cache thus reduces the amount of data downloaded and speeds up the whole page-loading process. While it can provide snoops with a few hints about your browsing history, you need a certain amount of technical know-how—and luck—to understand it properly.

When you decide to erase your internet history, most browsers will list all these types of data separately. You can decide to clear everything out, which lets you start all over again—as if you had a new browser on a new computer—or you might decide to keep certain types of files, like the cookies and cache, to make your browsing life more convenient.

Private or incognito mode

a man in a hat, sunglasses, and a suit, sitting on a bench outside using a laptop, perhaps in incognito mode
You don't have to dress like this to use incognito mode, but you can if you want.IgorVetushko via Depositphotos

For those worrying about privacy, modern browsers allow you to surf in a mode called private or incognito. Simply open a window in private mode, browse as you please, and close it when you’re done. As soon as the window shuts, all the browsing history and stored cookies from that session will automatically disappear. So, if you want to secretly shop for presents on a family computer, incognito mode is a good way to do it without leaving a trace.

However, this mode won’t erase everything you do. If you log on to a site like Facebook or Amazon in incognito mode, those pages will recognize you and record your browsing activity. In other words, your browser won’t remember what you’ve been up to, but any sites you log into will. This means you might see evidence of your private browsing in ads that appear later. And if you download files, private mode won’t wipe them either, though it will clear out your download history.

How to erase your history in any browser

a screenshot of the browsing history options in Microsoft Edge
The browsing history options, as seen here in Microsoft Edge, are usually easy to find.David Nield

No matter what browser you prefer, they all make it relatively easy to delete your history within a few minutes.

In Google Chrome, click the three dots to the right of the address bar to open the menu, then choose Settings. Scroll down and click Advanced, then Clear browsing data. Make your choices from the list, set the time period you’d like to clear, then click the Clear data button. Note: If you’ve set the browser to sync with other computers via your Google account, clearing your history will also erase data across all the other devices where you’ve signed into Chrome.

Those using Mozilla Firefox should click the three horizontal lines to the right of the address bar to open the Firefox menu, then pick History. Click Clear Recent History and choose what you want to clear from the list and the time period you want to wipe. When you’re done, hit Clear Now.

If you’re using Apple Safari on macOS, you can blitz your browsing history by opening the Safari menu and clicking Clear History. Choose the time period you want to erase from the drop-down menu, then click Clear History to confirm the action. When you clear your history in Safari, you won’t get the option to delete different types of data, so it will wipe your cookies and cached files along with your history.

Windows 10 users who are giving the new Microsoft Edge browser a whirl can also clear their browsing history. Click the three dots to the right of the address bar, then pick Settings from the menu that appears. In the Privacy & security tab, find Clear browsing data and click Choose what to clear. Next, make your choices from the list, which includes browsing history and cached data, then click Clear.

Opera
Opera lets you simply select data types and then delete them.David Nield/Popular Science

If you’re still running Internet Explorer, you can clear your browsing history by clicking the cog icon in the top-right corner, then choosing Internet options. On the subsequent dialog box, open the General tab and click Delete under Browsing history. Then pick your data types and click Delete to finish the operation.

Finally, in the Windows version of the popular third-party browser Opera, click Menu in the top left of the screen. Then hit History and Clear browsing data to find the right dialog box. Choose your types of data, specify your time period, and click Clear data. On macOS, Opera requires a slightly different process: Open the menu and select Clear browsing data. You’ll end up with the same history-clearing options—types of data, time period, etc.—that you would get in the Windows version. Hit Clear browsing data and you’re done.