Deleting Files on a Mac – Empty Trash or Secure Empty Trash?

Deleting files in Mac OS isn’t a difficult thing to do by any means, yet it can be confusing. Everyone knows how to drag files into the trash can in the dock, yet to actually delete them, there are two choices in the Finder Menu – Empty Trash and Secure Empty Trash. Which one should you use? Is there a difference?

While the appearance of the trash can in Mac OS has greatly changed over the years, from a crudely drawn trash can to a vibrant wire mesh can filled with crumpled paper, the actual function hasn’t changed at all. It’s still simply a vessel that’s used to transport the files from your hard drive to being deleted.

To understand which trash option you should choose takes a basic understanding of how files are stored on the Mac. Files are stored in chunks throughout the hard drive. Many times people delete files simply to free up more space on the hard drive. It improves performance, because if you’re running out of room, the files sometimes need to be saved in pieces just to get it to fit. Even if the files are sitting in the trash can, they’re still occupying those chunks of your hard drive; just moving them into the trash can doesn’t free up space at all.


If you choose the “Empty Trash” option, the files still don’t really go anywhere. They’re just hidden from view. What you are really doing is telling the Mac that if it needs free space to save a file, it can write over those files that were deleted before. The benefit of this is that if you change your mind and want the file back, you can use a file recovery program to get it back. However, if it’s been too long or you’ve saved too many things since you deleted it, it maybe have already been written over.

If you choose to “Secure Empty Trash,” there is no backing out. This option completely erases those chunks off your hard drive. No file recovery program will be able to get it back for you. However, it’s a great option for keeping sensitive information private. If you delete something you don’t want others to see, or if you are changing ownership of the computer, it’s a good idea to to completely wipe the hard drive, and to follow it with “Secure Empty Trash.” Either option you choose will still ask you if you are sure you want to empty the trash, just as a safeguard.


Before you choose either option, take a few seconds to peruse what you have in the trash before you select either option. The Trash Can acts every bit like a folder. If you click on it, it will bring up a window in the finder that shows a listing of all the files you have in the Trash Can. If you change your mind about one of the files, you can simply drag the file out of the trash and to somewhere else on your hard drive. While a file can sometimes be opened when it’s in the trash, if you want to make a change to it, it has to be outside of the trash.


Knowing how the file system works, as well as the process of deleting files in the trash, can greatly improve the way you use your Mac. It will lead to less lost data, as well as more security for sensitive data.

Laura Tucker
Laura Tucker

Laura has spent nearly 20 years writing news, reviews, and op-eds, with more than 10 of those years as an editor as well. She has exclusively used Apple products for the past three decades. In addition to writing and editing at MTE, she also runs the site's sponsored review program.

Subscribe to our newsletter!

Our latest tutorials delivered straight to your inbox