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How to clean headphones and earbuds

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Even without a global pandemic, there’s plenty of reasons to give your headphones a good thorough cleaning. That’s especially true if you use them everyday while sitting at your desk or running errands. Whether you have a pair of over-ear cans or true wireless earbuds, clean headphones are happy headphones—and ones that are less infested with microbes.

Why you should clean your headphones

Of course, we’re not going to advocate taking your headphones apart for no good reason, there’s actually a few things that merit consideration.

A picture of the Etymotic ER2SE wired earbuds and the filter removal tool.

Etymotic gives you two replacement filters.

For example, a 2008 study has shown that while dirty headphones won’t cause infections, they can be an important vector in transferring them. This means that if you share headphones with someone who does have an ear infection you increase your risk in getting it. Or vice versa, you increase the risk of passing your own ear infection to a friend by sharing headphones. On top of that, the increased use of headphones can increase humidity in your ears making them more hospitable to bacteria. Another reason you might want to disinfect your headphones and earbuds is that sometimes they fall on the floor, and as much as we like to say it, there’s no such thing as a five second rule when it comes to bacteria. As soon as they hit the floor, you can assume there’s more bacteria on it than you can count. Not something you want to put directly on your ears.

What you need to clean headphones:

Close-up of dirty Sony MDR-7506 headphones with specs of dust in it, before they become clean headphones.

If you look closely at your cans, you might also come to the conclusion that it’s about time you had clean headphones.

Before we get into the specifics of each type of headphones, you’re going to need some basic items. While you might not use everything on this list, it’s still good to have and a solid baseline for doing this in a safe way. Not that this cleaning your headphones is super dangerous, but you still don’t want to be careless.

  • Towel or paper towels
  • Toothbrush
  • Tweezers
  • Q-Tips
  • Rubbing alcohol (greater than 63%), Diluted bleach, or Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Hand soap
  • Gloves
  • Goggles (at least glasses)

Whether you’re looking to clean over-ears, on-ears, or earbuds the main tools remain the same. You’ll need to make sure that you have the right tools to properly clean them and kill whatever bacteria or viruses or living on them while at the same time keeping yourself safe. While rubbing alcohol or diluted bleach is easily washed off of your hands, getting even a rogue drop in your eyes can cause some damage, or at least some serious pain. So please use your judgement and be safe while spiffing up your cans. Once you’re done, you should have a pair of impressively clean headphones.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way let’s move on to the fun stuff. We’ll start with regular over and on-ear headphones.

How to clean over-ear or on-ear headphones

Pictured are Sony headphones on a wooden stool with cleaning supplies in the sun. All tools meant to clean headphones.

Making sure to gather what you need beforehand is always a good idea before starting a project.

Depending on the make or model or your headphones, you’re going to want to remove the ear pads if you can and extend the headband as much as possible so you can get every little nook and cranny. “Clean headphones” means no dirt or grime inside them as well. Once the ear pads are removed grab your toothbrush and go to town. Brush off as much of the larger dirt and specks as you can. Be mindful once you get to the drivers though as you don’t want to accidentally push anything where it shouldn’t be. Once you’ve done that then you want to remove any hairs or debris that may be stuck. The tweezers are your best friend here as it allows for precision.

A photo of clean headphones, the Sony MDR-7506, fitting nicely into a backpack.

The MDR-7506 headphones have a plastic build with a are over-ear cans meant for production.

Now that all of the big pieces of debris are taken care of, we can move on to the disinfecting part.

For this, place your headphones on the towel and grab your cleaning liquid of choice. Hydrogen peroxide will work, but you can also use diluted bleach or alcohol that’s at least 63% which is what is widely recommended to kill any viruses. Try not to go overboard though, as alcohol is no friend to leather and plastic. Just use enough for a nice cleaning—no need to give your headphones a shower. Dip the paper towel or cotton ball to get it adequately wet without making a mess and having it drip everywhere.

We’ll save the inside of the earcups for last since that takes a little more finesse. I’d recommend starting with the padding that you removed, and then starting with the headband so that you can get a feel for how much pressure you have to apply to remove some of the spots and dirt without getting drips of liquid. Work your way down to the earcups and make sure that you’ve got your technique down, because now it gets interesting.

Most headphones don’t play well with liquids, so getting any of your cleaning liquid inside the drivers is a bad idea. I’d recommend holding your headphones at a 90 degree angle so that the open drivers are facing down to the floor. That way, you can swab them gently without worrying about gravity taking your cleaner for a trip into your headphones. At this angle, any dripping liquids will fall to the floor. Feel free to use Q-Tips to get to any hard to reach areas. Once you’re happy with how new your old headphones look, pat them down with a towel or paper towel to dry them off and put it all back together.

How to clean earbuds

As you’d imagine, earbuds are a little bit different than giant over-ears. Due to the smaller size you need a slightly steadier hand. The first thing you’ll want to do is the same step as before, remove the ear tips. In this case, they’re a lot smaller and way easier to lose, so try not to drop them. From here you can use a Q-Tip to clean the eartips thoroughly, removing any earwax and dirt that may be built up in there. Once you’re done, you can turn your attention to the actual earbuds.

Man holding Q-tip to white ear tip, illustrating how to clean headphones.

Cleaning the ear tips with alcohol or washing them with warm, soapy water (or both) should clean them sufficiently.

If your earbuds came with a cleaning tool, use the metal tip to remove any built-up earwax taking care not to push it further in. If you don’t have a cleaning tool, this would be a good time to use those Q-Tips. Gently dab at the nozzle to clean out any remaining earwax, but be careful not to push too hard or cause any of the fibers to get caught. If your foam eartips are a little too far gone, it might be worth the investment to just get a new pair. If you’re rocking silicon eartips just some warm, soapy water can work wonders against bacteria and germs.

How to clean your true wireless earbuds

Man cleaning AirPods Pro earbud with Q-Tip dipped in alcohol. Showing an example of how to clean headphones.

Make sure not to soak the earbuds with alcohol, but a light buff should get the job done.

For true wireless earbuds, the process is basically the exact same as for regular earbuds. The only difference is that you’ll also have a charging case. So once you clean the earbuds, you can set them aside and move on to the charging case. Here, you’ll go through pretty much the exact same process with the Q-Tips. The only difference is that once you’re done, you shouldn’t place the earbuds directly into the case straight away. Leave them out until there is no moisture left before placing them back in the case.

How to clean Apple AirPods

If you’re after the new AirPods Pro in particular, don’t worry we have an entire article explaining the whole thing. The process isn’t different than what we’ve already explained, but if you’re anything like me, you probably want all the little details before putting any of your electronics near liquids. And hey, I can’t blame you.

That’s all there is to it

Congratulations, you’re done! Wash your hands with some soap and water and sit back and let your headphones dry up. It shouldn’t take too long as the goal wasn’t to drown them in cleaning liquids, just to spruce them up a bit. Now just sit back and enjoy your favorite new album or podcast.

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