How to send self-destructing messages

Five apps that leave no trace.

Confide app
Apps like Confide let you send messages without leaving a digital trail.Confide

There’s something mysterious and magnetic about a message that disappears after you read it. And this type of communication can be useful too, allowing you to share private words or silly pictures without leaving a digital data trail. We collected five services, from email to instant-messaging, that let you send self-destructing messages. Read about each one, and then find the app that works best for you.

1. Gmail

As part of its recent revamp, Gmail has added a new Confidential Mode, which lets you give your sent messages an expiration date.

To make this work, instead of shooting your self-destructing emails to another server, Google hosts them on its own servers, where it can delete them after a set period of time. If both sender and recipient use Gmail, this process works seamlessly: Incoming messages look like typical emails, but when the expiration date arrives, the body text disappears (although the email itself and the subject header will stay in the recipient’s inbox).

However, if your contact relies on a different email service, then they won’t be able to view your message normally. Instead, Gmail will send them an email containing a link, and a separate email or text message with a passcode. They can follow the link and enter the passcode to unlock your message—but this link will stop working after the expiration date.

For now, you can only access the feature through the Gmail website, not the mobile apps. When you're ready to send a self-destructing message, head to the site, log in, and start creating an email as usual—click Compose on the top left of the page and then write your message. Next, click the Confidential Mode button, which looks like a padlock icon, at the bottom of the Compose window. After that, choose when your email should expire and erase itself: A day, week, month, three months, or five years from now. If you're sending to a non-Gmail user, this is the point when you decide whether to send the passcode via email or text message. For the latter option, you'll need to enter a cell phone number. Finally, click Send.

Even before the expiration date hits, the sender can delete the message at any time: Finding the email in your Sent folder and click Remove access to instantly wipe the body text or disable the link to the message.

2. Telegram Messenger

The free communications app Telegram Messenger (for Android, iOS, and the web) emphasizes security and simplicity. As part of that focus, it lets users send and receive self-destructing messages by giving them expiration dates.

To set these limits, you need to create a new chat in "secret" mode. Telegram Messenger protects its secret chats with end-to-end encryption. Recipients cannot forward them—and senders can set them to self-destruct. Just be aware that, unlike standard Telegram messages, secret chats won’t sync between different devices, so they will disappear if you switch phones or uninstall the app. This solution is ideal if you're having ongoing discussions with a contact, but don't want traces of those chats sticking around.

Start by establishing a secret chat, which you can do within the mobile apps, but not on the website. Tap the New message icon—in Android, it appears in the bottom-right corner, and in iOS, in the top-right one. Next, choose New Secret Chat from the list. Pick the contact you want to message, and the conversation will begin.

Because Telegram Messenger doesn't apply the self-destruction option by default, you have to take a few more steps. Once you've created the secret chat, tap the Timer icon, which appears on the top left in Android and the bottom right in iOS. Then, determine how long messages should remain visible—you can keep them for any period from a second to a week.

As soon as the recipient checks a message in that chat, the timer starts ticking. After that set period passes, everything, including photos and voice memos, will disappear. You can also turn off the feature by tapping the Timer icon once more. Remember to do this if you're about to send something important that you'll want to revisit later.

3. Confide

Confide (for Windows, macOS, Android, and iOS) offers not-so-rare chat-app features like end-to-end encryption and the ability to share different types of media (including text, photos, videos, documents, and voice messages). Unlike the other options on this list, however, developers built this program specifically for sending and receiving self-destructing messages. Because of this is Confide's speciality, it offers more comprehensive protection.

For example, instead of letting you set an expiration time, this app erases messages forever as soon as the recipient reads them. . On top of that, it disables screenshots on mobile devices while the app is open. And for the really paranoid, the app only reveals one line of a message at a time, so even if someone were to snap the screen with a separate camera, each picture would just show part of the message.

Both sender and recipient must use the Confide app—if you send a message to someone who hasn’t installed it yet, they’ll receive an email with a link to download it. The app interfaces vary slightly depending on the platform, but you follow the same basic process across all of them: Create a new message, pick a contact or provide an unlisted email address, and then compose your text and attach whatever media you want to include. When a new message arrives in Confide, you can open it to read text and view attachments. Once you close the message, switch to another app, or exit the conversation window, the message erases itself.

Although the app is free, you can upgrade to the Plus plan for $5 per month to access extra features, such as unlimited attachments and the ability to un-send messages.

4. Facebook Messenger

The popular chat app Facebook Messenger (for Android and iOS) also has a self-destructing messages feature. Its greatest advantage is its ubiquity—pick this one if you already use the app regularly to stay in touch with your contacts.

As with Telegram Messenger, you must first start a secret conversation—one protected by end-to-end encryption. Although you can add multimedia attachments inside secret chats, as usual, you can't include a group of people—it has to be a one-to-one conversation. And you can’t view them on the web client, although you can on the apps.

On iOS, tap the New message button on the top right, select Secret, and pick a contact. On Android, tap the New message button on the bottom right, toggle on the Secret conversation switch on the top right, and pick a contact. Finally, tap the timer icon inside the message field to set an expiration time—it can be anywhere from five seconds to a day—on your next communication.

As soon as anyone has viewed the message for that period of time, they will no longer be able to view the text. (That also means your own message might become invisible to you before it disappears for your recipient.) The time limit will stay in place for all subsequent messages, until you change it or switch it off.

5. Snapchat

Snapchat (for Androidand iOS) originally made its name with disappearing photos and videos, bringing a new ephemerality to social media. These days, the app extends that practice to instant messages as well.

If you send text, photos, or videos directly to a contact, these notes will self-destruct by default after they’ve been viewed. However, anyone in a Snapchat conversation can save a line of text, picture, or video with a long press on it. They can also preserve a conversation with screenshots. You cannot disable this feature, which means that if someone wants to save something you've said in Snapchat, then they can do so very easily. Because of this flaw, Snapchat is best suited for self-destructing messages when you trust the contacts at the other end of the conversation.

To send a temporary message, open the app and swipe right from the camera screen to find your friends list. Tap the New message button in the top right corner, enter the name of one or more contacts, and tap Chat. In the next window, either type out a message or hit the circular Camera button to send a picture or video. Once the recipient checks your message, it will vanish, and the conversation thread will start again from the beginning.