Earbuds and headphones are a hot accessory in the modern world of streaming music and smart devices. Whether escaping the clamor of the daily commute or enjoying audio at home or in the office, these devices often enjoy heavy use. But just as the other items you wear need periodic cleaning, so do your earbuds and headphones. Bacteria, sweat, dandruff, dead skin cells, oil, dust, grime, and ear wax can all build up over time on these devices. How do you clean up your earpieces and keep them in healthy and pristine condition? Here’s how!
Tools and supplies
- Isopropyl alcohol 91%
- Distilled water
- Mild dish detergent
- Hydrogen peroxide 3%
- Soft cotton or microfiber cleaning cloths
- Cotton swabs (e.g. Q-tips)
Plastic, silicone and foam
Many headphones and earbuds are made mostly of hard plastic for the body and casing with soft silicone for the cables, ear tips and cushioning.
Isopropyl alcohol diluted with a little distilled water is a great solution for cleaning these materials. The alcohol will help to disinfect germs and dissolve oil and grime while evaporating quickly and not reacting with most plastics or silicones. (Note: do not use bleach for cleaning headphones as it may harm the materials.)
Apply a small amount of the solution to a clean cloth (or a cotton swab for hard to reach spots), and wipe down all of the plastic and silicone surfaces. Reapply the solution as needed. Don’t forget to remove any silicone ear tips and thoroughly clean them inside and out using a cotton swab dipped in the solution.
For cleaning bare foam, such as the kind that covers some earbud tips and headphone headbands, use pure distilled water with no alcohol added. Dampen a cleaning cloth with the water, and then gently dab and wipe to clean the foam. Allow the foam to fully dry before using. If you are unable to get the earbud tips clean, it may be time to replace them with new foam coverings.
Metal and wood
Higher-end headphones and earbuds may be made of materials such as exposed metal and even wood.
The same isopropyl alcohol and distilled water solution for cleaning foam is also effective for cleaning metal. If you are able to identify the type of metal present and want to give it a shine, the appropriate metal polish (such as kinds used for jewelry) can be used.
Alcohol solutions should not be used on wood, however, as they may harm wood finishes and stains. Instead, use a wood cleaner or a simple mixture of warm water and mild dish detergent. Apply water sparingly so as not to risk water stains.
Headphone headbands often consist of fabric covering foam or other cushioning. If this fabric is removable, it should be taken off for cleaning.
Pleather (e.g. plastic leather, protein leather, faux leather, synthetic leather) or vinyl can be cleaned with the same alcohol and water solution from the previous steps. Real leather should be cleaned with a mixture of warm water and mild detergent since alcohol may dry out the material. After cleaning, applying leather conditioner such as Leather Honey will help the leather last long and stay soft. For suede leather, it’s best to purchase and use a cleaning kit designed for suede.
If your headphones have removable velour/velvet or mesh/synthetic fabric padding, begin by using a clean brush (such as a toothbrush) or lint remover to take off any exterior debris. Next, fill a bowl with a mix of warm water and mild detergent, then dunk the pads in the solution. Gently scrub the pads by hand before squeezing out the liquid and repeating the process in a separate bowl filled with just distilled water. Hang the pads up to fully dry.
Velour/velvet or mesh/synthetic fabric that is not removable will have to be carefully cleaned on the headphones. Fill two bowls with the same mixtures from above. Use a cloth to carefully apply a sparing amount of the water and soap mixture, and massage the fabric. Repeat the process with the distilled water to finish the cleaning. Pat the padding with a clean cloth and then allow the material to air dry.
Earbuds, earphones and microphone openings
Smaller and more delicate, earbuds, earphones and microphone openings must be cleaned with extra care. If these include any removable tips or covers, take them off first.
Begin by holding each earbud with the opening facing down, and use a clean toothbrush to gently scrub off any debris. If buildup remains, dip a cotton swab in some hydrogen peroxide (good for dissolving ear wax) and lightly touch the swab to the dirty surface so no liquid flows inside. Let the peroxide work for a few minutes, then scrub with the toothbrush again, tapping the back of the downward-facing earbuds.
Resist the temptation to use a toothpick or needle to poke debris out of openings or meshes. You’re more likely to force buildup deeper inside with this technique. Instead, try using an adhesive cleaning putty or gel such as Cyber Clean. Be careful not to press too hard with this cleaning material so none of it gets stuck. A can of compressed air is also effective for clearing out openings, but hold it far enough away that it doesn’t lodge debris deeper inside.
Vacuums are a great tool for cleaning earbuds and microphone openings. A specialized hearing aid vacuum is ideal, but you can also adapt a regular vacuum’s hose to the task. Just poke a hole for a straw in the end of a plastic cup, duct tape the straw in place (inside and out) and then duct tape the cup over the vacuum hose nozzle.
To keep your audio accessories in top condition, follow these maintenance tips:
- Store your headphones or earbuds in a protective case when you’re not using them.
- Keep some silica gel packets in your headphone/earbud cases to absorb moisture and help prevent mold and odors from developing.
- Wipe down your headphones/earbuds with a clean cloth after each use to cut down on buildup.
- Avoid sharing your headphones/earbuds with others to prevent the spread of germs.
With these routines, you can enjoy clean sound and clean headphones and earbuds while protecting your electronics and your health.