WordPress Safe Mode

By Bernie FitzGerald •  Updated: 12/11/22 •  7 min read

Unfortunately, there is no safe mode built into WordPress. There is, however, a WordPress plugin called WP Safe Mode that can put your WordPress site into a safe mode like  Microsoft Windows Safe Mode.

WP safe mode allows you to change your theme or enable or disable certain plugins so that you can see if those plugins are what is affecting your site. This is particularly useful if you need clarification on what the problem is.

How do I turn on safe mode in WordPress?

To turn on safe mode in WordPress will need to go to the plugins page on WordPress.org or through your site if you still have access to your wp-admin page. 

If you go through your site, you can go to the plugin section, click the Add New button and search for WP Safe Mode. The one that is written by the company Pixelite is the plugin that you’re looking for.

If your site is down and you’re going to install the plugin manually, you need to go to wordpress.org/plugins and then search for the plugin in the search box. Once you download it, you can upload the zip file to your WordPress installation and put it in the plugins directory. You should check the WordPress documentation on the exact steps to manually install a plugin.

You may need to remove the other plugins and back them up in another folder, as one of them may be the cause of your site not working.

Once you download the plugin, you need to activate it like any other plugin, and you’re good to go.  When you’ve installed the plugin, you’ll be able to see the WP safe mode menu item on the left-hand side of your WP admin page. 

When you click on this you will then see the WP safe mode settings screen, and you’ll be able to personalise what you want to happen once it starts putting your site into safe mode.

WP Safe Mode Settings

Enable Safe Mode

At the top of the page, you will find a section containing two blue buttons. These blue buttons turn on safe mode for different audiences. The box that enables safe mode for Only Me means that any visitors to your site will see the normal site, but you will see the safe mode enabled version.

The box with the option Site will turn on safe mode for all visitors (including yourself).

Safe Mode Settings

The second section of the WP Safe Mode Settings screen is the safe mode settings themselves. 

Themes

The first part of Safe Mode Settings relates to the theme being used on the website. You can set a checkbox to swap your current theme to a theme you know is safe when you are in safe mode. 

This might be a theme that you’ve previously used on your site, or one of the WordPress-supplied themes, like Twenty Twenty Two, for example. My suggestion is to use a basic theme like the WordPress-supplied themes as they are the least likely themes to have any issues.

Plugins

This part of the second section relates to how plugins will be handled when you put your site in safe mode.

Firstly, there is a checkbox that allows you to enable/disable specific plugins when your site is in safe mode. The default plugin that is left enabled is the WP Safe Mode plugin itself. I would suggest leaving every plugin off initially and then adding back, plugin by plugin, all of your currently used plugins until you get to the point where the site breaks again.

You could do this incrementally or turn each plugin on and then back off again once you’ve determined that that plugin isn’t causing your site any issues.

You may be unlucky enough to end up in a situation where two plugins affect each other. If you’ve ruled out any individual plugin as the culprit for your issues, then this is probably the case for you.

If two plugins work together properly, it is worth reading the plugin notes on the WordPress.org site. There may be hints or warnings about using their plugin with other specific plugins.

Common situations when two plugins might not work well together are when you have installed two plugins trying to do the same work. For example, if you have two SEO focussed plugins, they may interrupt each other. 

Two visual editors like Elementor or Visual Composer would be another example where you may end up with weird results. Also, caching plugins and speed optimisers could result in undesired results.

What does safe mode look like on my site?

When you’ve enabled WP Safe Mode and set a theme and plugins to be displayed in safe mode, your site will look different to visitors.

Here is an example screenshot of a test site I built with safe mode enabled:

Here is the same site with safe mode disabled:

Is safe mode the same as debug mode?

No, in WordPress, there is a configuration setting that you can set true that will show debugging statements. This is a more advanced topic that IT professionals or WordPress experts will use to flesh out hard-to-find problems in your site.

To turn debug mode on, you need to edit the wp-config.php file that lives in the root directory of your WordPress site and then find the following line:

define(‘WP_DEBUG’, false);

And set the parameter to true like this:

define(‘WP_DEBUG’, true);

It is wise to note that setting this variable to true is not recommended for live sites. It is meant to be used for local testing and staging installs.

Once debug mode is turned on, you will see various PHP messages written to your site. This may be helpful, but it also may show you issues that aren’t affecting your site or causing the problem you are trying to diagnose.

If you combine WP_DEBUG with another global variable, WP_DEBUG_LOG, then you will see a file written in the base directory of your site called debug.log. This is especially helpful when dealing with AJAX requests on your site. This is because an AJAX request might cause a page load, and that page load will hide the error message that might have been printed on the screen. The debug.log file will capture all these occurrences for you.

Another related variable that can be set in the wp-config.php file is WP_DEBUG_DISPLAY. If you set this variable to false, then the on-screen error messages won’t be printed, but the log file from WP_DEBUG_LOG will still be written.

Conclusion

WordPress sites do not have a safe mode built in. They only have a debug mode that can help to track down issues. This debug mode is not ideal for live sites but more for staging installs or local testing.

Several plugins can help debug or put your site into a faux-safe mode. One of these plugins is WP Safe Mode. This plugin can turn on/off plugins and also swap themes to help identify the cause of your issues.

Bernie FitzGerald