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How to Clean Your Headphones and Earbuds

A pair of clean white headphones sitting near a laptop on a table.
Evgeny Karandaev/Shutterstock

So, you’ve cleaned your phone, keyboard, and mouse, but what about your headphones? Cleaning out any ear wax and disinfecting your headphones isn’t only good for your hygiene, it may even improve the sound quality.

Why Clean Your Headphones?

Whether you have over-the-ear or in-ear headphones, you should clean them regularly for both hygiene and maintenance reasons. This is especially true if you use your headphones while you exercise, as so many of us do.

Sweat can build up and make the ear cups smell bad. Ear wax can clog drivers and reduce not only volume, but also sound clarity. Then there’s all the dirt you can’t see like bacteria and other microbes that might make you sick. Clean headphones are just more sanitary.

A man inserting an earbud into his ear.
Cicero Castro/Shutterstock

If you adjust your headphones while you’re at the gym, you can transfer anything you’ve touched to them. Viruses, like SARS-Cov-2, which causes COVID-19, have been shown to live for up to three days on plastic and other hard surfaces. If you touch a contaminated earbud, you could spread the virus to other surfaces, or become infected with it if you touch your mouth, nose, or eyes.

Studies have shown that headphones increase bacterial growth inside the ear, and it can be passed from one person to another if the headphones are shared. Even if you don’t share yours, think about what your earphones have touched and whether you want to put that inside your ear.

A variety of staphylococcus is one of the most common bacteria that can be transferred from your ear to your earbuds. An overgrowth of this sort of bacteria could also cause an ear infection. Cleaning your earbuds will help you reduce this risk.

RELATED: How to Disinfect Your Smartphone

Cleaning Over-the-Ear Headphones

How you can clean your over-the-ear headphones will vary. Many brands are designed with easy cleaning in mind, and have removable ear cups and cables that you can unplug on both ends.

A pair of black Beats headphones.
Beats by Dre

Other brands aren’t as easy to clean, so you’ll need to take care not to damage them while you do so. If possible, consult the manufacturer’s cleaning instructions. Apple, Beats, and Bose are just a few of the brands that offer basic cleaning instructions.

To clean your headphones effectively, you’ll need the following supplies:

  • A soft damp cloth
  • Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol that contains 70 percent alcohol or higher
  • Cotton balls or Q-tips
  • A paper towel, tissue, or clean cloth

If you’re concerned about damaging any fabric on your headphones, perform a test on an inconspicuous area first. Rubbing alcohol is unlikely to permanently damage leather or PVC (faux-leather) in the amount you’ll be using. If your headphones are all-plastic or metal, you don’t need to worry.

Follow these steps to clean your over-the-ear headphones:

  1. If possible, remove the ear cups from the headphones to more easily access the mesh below.
  2. With your soft damp cloth, wipe away any stuck-on grime or dirt from both the ear cups and the main headphone unit. Get as much off as you can as bacteria and other nasties will cling to dirt.
  3. Dampen a paper towel or clean cloth with rubbing alcohol. Clean the entire surface of the ear cups and the rest of the headphones.
  4. Dampen a cotton ball or Q-tip with rubbing alcohol and clean any nooks and crannies. Do this on both the ear cups (in areas like fabric folds) and the main headphone unit.
  5. Extend the headphones to their maximum size, and then clean them thoroughly with a towel or cloth and some rubbing alcohol. Clean any buttons, volume dials, or remotes you might use. Spend some extra time on the area where you grip the headphones when you put them on and take them off.
  6. Dab a paper towel or Q-tip in some alcohol and wipe the mesh on the main speakers. Make sure you don’t miss any spots.
  7. If your headphones have a microphone (like a gaming headset, for example), don’t forget to clean the mesh and adjustable arm with alcohol, too.
  8. Finally, wipe down any cables, including the rubber grip near the jack, with a paper towel and some alcohol.

Let the alcohol dry completely (it should evaporate quickly) before you reassemble and use your headphones again. If you let the isopropyl alcohol evaporate, it shouldn’t leave any streaky marks or residue.

Cleaning In-Ear Headphones

In-ear headphones are, arguably, even less hygienic than the over-the-ear kind because you actually put them inside your ear. Some earphones sit quite deep in your ear canal and form a seal, thanks to silicon tips. While the sound is unbeatable, the risk of getting an ear infection is greater.

A hand holding a pair of Apple AirPods in their open case.
Tim Brookes

We’ve covered how to clean AirPods before, and that advice also applies to most other in-ear models.

To clean in-ear headphones effectively, you’ll need the following supplies:

  • A soft damp cloth
  • Isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol that contains 70 percent or greater alcohol
  • A paper towel, tissue, or clean cloth
  • Cotton balls or Q-tips
  • A wooden toothpick
  • Blu-Tack or similar adhesive (optional)
  • Warm water and soap (for silicon tips)

If your in-ear headphones have removable silicone ear-tips, remove and clean them separately. The best way to do this is with warm water and some soap. Take care not to tear the silicon while you do so. Afterward, set them somewhere safe where they air-dry while you clean the drivers.

If your earphones have foam covers, you can also remove and clean those with warm water and soap. Alternatively, apply some isopropyl alcohol to the foam and let it evaporate. This will kill any bacteria or microbes that may be present.

Follow these steps to clean your in-ear headphones:

  1. Wipe down the entirety of the drivers with a soft damp cloth. Remove any stuck-on grime, wax, or dirt.
  2. Gently remove any ear wax or other dirt from the speaker mesh with your wooden toothpick. Be careful not to damage the mesh while you do so.
  3. Warm up some Blu-Tack (or a similar adhesive) in your hands, and then gently press it into the speaker mesh. Pull it out quickly to remove any dirt or wax, and then repeat until the speaker mesh is clean. Clean speaker mesh will also likely improve the sound quality!
  4. Dampen a paper towel or clean cloth with rubbing alcohol. Clean the entirety of the driver, and also take care to clean any sensors (like the ear-detection sensors on Apple AirPods).
  5. Dip a Q-tip in some rubbing alcohol and use it to thoroughly disinfect the speaker mesh. This should help loosen any remaining stubborn grime.
  6. Dampen a paper towel or clean cloth with alcohol once again, and wipe down any cables, in-line remotes, or the rubber grip near the jack.
  7. Let the alcohol completely evaporate before you put the headphones in your ears or their case.

Cleaning the Case

Some wireless in-ear headphones come with charging cases. It’s important that you clean these thoroughly, as well; Otherwise, your now-spotless headphones will just get dirty again as soon as you put them away.

For AirPods or similar, a soft-bristled toothbrush will help you dislodge any built-up grime around the hinge. You can use rubbing alcohol and a paper towel to disinfect the inside of the case. Use an alcohol-dampened Q-tip to clean any hard-to-reach charging bays.

A hand holding an Apple AirPods case and cleaning it with a toothbrush.
Tim Brookes

Just remember to remove dirt and grime before you disinfect. Bacteria and other harmful microbes may cling to the grime, even after you clean the case with alcohol.

For over-the-ear headphone cases, you can use some soap and warm water to spot-clean without saturating it entirely. Rubbing alcohol will disinfect fabric, but you might want to spot-test before you do so, just to make sure the alcohol won’t damage it.

Lastly, some people recommend leaving silica gel in your headphone case to keep it fresh. The theory is that reducing the level of moisture in the case allows fewer bacteria to grow. This may be a particularly good idea if you often put your headphones away right after a sweaty gym session.

RELATED: The Ultimate Guide to Cleaning Your Icky AirPods

Hygiene Tips You Need to Hear

To keep your headphones in tip-top condition, clean them regularly. Don’t let ear wax or other dirt build up. If possible, give them a wipe down with alcohol-based disinfectant wipes after each use.

Sharing headphones (especially the in-ear kind) can introduce new bacteria into your ears and upset their natural balance. An overgrowth of a certain type of bacteria can cause a painful ear infection. So, if possible, don’t share your headphones or earbuds with others.

Finally, consider cleaning your ears, too. Medical professionals recommend that you don’t use Q-tips or any small, sharp objects to do so, as these may injure your eardrum. If it’s smaller than your elbow, don’t put it in your ear.

Instead, you can wipe the outside of your ear canal with a clean damp cloth. For earwax buildup, you can purchase over-the-counter eardrops to soften it. Always follow the instructions on the package. You can also buy over-the-counter ear syringe kits, which use warm saline to flush the ear canal.

Now that you’ve cleaned your headphones (and your ears), why not disinfect the rest of your gadgets?

RELATED: How to Clean and Disinfect All Your Gadgets

Tim Brookes Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes is a technology writer with more than a decade of experience. He's invested in the Apple ecosystem, with experience covering Macs, iPhones, and iPads for publications like Zapier and MakeUseOf.
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