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Most earbuds are made to be worn for long stretches throughout the day, especially if you’re working from home right now. But even the best earbuds for working at home get gross, and the buildup of ear gunk can accumulate to the point of discoloration and visible (and invisible) nastiness on your buds. It’s even worse when you look at the earbuds you use for running and working out – all that moisture from sweat and debris from the air outdoors can not only affect the audio quality of your earbuds, but could affect your health as well.
While the risk of catching Covid from using headphones and earbuds isn’t particularly high, the CDC still recommends regular disinfecting of electronics as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. The agency says it’s always a good idea to properly clean any device you take outside the house on a regular basis that could pick up germs, such as your phone and headphones. Besides being sanitary, cleaning your earbuds and headphones can even improve the sound if the speakers are covered with layers of crud. Plus it’s extremely satisfying to compare the before and after.
How to Clean Your Earbuds
Prior to getting started, remember that while most earbuds are water resistant, not all brands not fully waterproof (and in some cases, aren’t built to handle any liquid exposure at all). So try not to completely rinse your buds underwater.
If your earbuds have detachable rubber ear tips, those are okay to rinse though, when removed from the buds. Giving the bud a gentle tap on a hard surface can help shake out any water that may have crept inside if you accidentally got it wet. If the case is not water-resistant and does get exposed to liquid, dry it as best you can, then turn it upside-down with the lid open and let it air-dry before putting the buds back in.
The best way to clean your AirPods, or any earbud really, is to first give everything a good wipe-down with a dry microfiber cloth. (Don’t add any water, cleaning solution or isopropyl alcohol just yet – we’ll get there). This knocks out all the grime that’s loose enough to dislodge on its own. Get into the creases of the case and crevices of the bud, doing the best you can with just the cloth and some muscle behind it.
Next grab a cotton swab, and start digging into the smaller, tighter spaces, like the tiny speaker part of the bud. Twist it, spin it, gently sweep it up and down into the case’s curvatures until you’ve covered everything.
Gently dip the swab cotton tip in some alcohol, and make sure it’s not soaked or dripping – getting any moisture or liquids inside the buds, and especially the case, is a huge no. An alcohol prep pad can also work, but it’s still best to transfer the alcohol onto the swab’s tip rather than use the wet pad to directly clean the buds. Same goes for a Clorox or disinfecting wipe. It’s simply got too much liquid on it, and is too risky to use around the mesh speakers and interior of the case.
Finally, time for the toothbrush. Any unused one should be fine as long as the bristles aren’t too rigid that they’d cause scrapes or damage. The friction of the brush sweeps away remaining grossness that’s still hanging on at this point.
The same steps above can be used for cleaning your headphones as well. If your headphones have removable ear covers or ear pads, you can take them off and wipe them down thoroughly.
Other Tips for Cleaning Your Headphones
An air blower, whether in a can or a squeezable one, is a risk-free method that can be used to remove surface dust on any part of your earbuds or headphones. It doesn’t go deep or dislodge the really sticky goo, but after each step it’s a reliable way to extricate the excess dirt.
Though it’s not recommended by Apple, a small and precise object like a rounded pick can also really get in there and provide an extra level of clean. They’re often included in third-party cleaning kits, but If you’re not careful, this can cause damage to your pods. If you decide to go ahead with it, gently – without pushing – run the pick’s end around the edges of the Pod’s speaker and microphone, scooping up the gunk that still remains.
For stubborn scuffs, a Magic Eraser can buff away marks on the outside of the case, but it’s generally too bulky for the buds and ends up crumbling apart.
For the over-the-ear headphones, such as Apple’s new AirPods Max head-banded headphones, the same cautionary cleaning rules apply. The only difference is with the non-electronic ear cushions and the band, which can be cleaned using a bit of detergent in water, and wiping with a dry cloth. (The official Apple cleaning guidelines can be found here). If your headphones have screens covering the drivers, use a soft brush to gently clean them any superficial dust or dirt. Even if the screens are removable, though, don’t clean the inside drivers, or you might run the risk of damaging the sound quality on your headphones.
Earbuds such as AirPods are devices that get used constantly for long stretches, even remaining in your ears when they’re off. Even if you’re not cleaning your earbuds or headphones regularly, it’s best to give them a wipe-down, and let them fully dry after they’ve been exposed to sweat, rain, sunscreen, or any moisture. Never run them under water, or use bleach to clean or whiten them. But a little maintenance work now can save you from a deep (and disgusting) clean in the future.
1. PhoneSoap 3 UV Sanitizer
Think beyond just earbuds for a second – all our devices get pretty grimy from being touched all day and then stored in warm places that are perfect conditions for a bacteria house party. Instead of having to wipe them down repeatedly, PhoneSoap has a liquid-free solution.
Place your items inside this car, and two UV-C bulbs zap the germs from your phone, buds, watch, or whatever can fit inside. The interior is reflective, meaning that there’s no need to flip your phone or earbuds to get both sides sanitary. This covers all sides, 360º, for a full clean all-around.
It goes beyond electronics too, and can even work for other everyday objects like keys, glasses, cash and credit cards. There are also USB ports in the back to charge up devices while they’re being cleaned.
2. 34-Piece Cleaning Kit for AirPods
This 34-piece kit is loaded with the tools you need to keep your AirPods (and other tech accessories) looking brand new.
Three different types of bristled brushes provide the gentle scrubbing necessary to scrape up dirt and then whisk it away. The company’s strong, alcohol-free cleaning liquid helps get rid of dust, scuffs, sweat and smudges from fingerprints and everyday use, and a soft cloth (as well as wipes and 20 swabs) is included too.
This goes way beyond AirPods, and can clean plenty of your other devices, including phones, keyboards, and even DSLR cameras.
3. ColorCoral Cleaning Gel
A flakey putty-type cleaner can leave sticky residue in the worst of places, like caught within the mesh holes of your bud’s speaker, making it near impossible to remove.
And while it’s still a bit riskier than gently cleaning with wipes and brushes, ColorCoral’s gel is more of a goopy blob that won’t leave crumbling bits of itself behind. This was designed for electronics and vents, getting into the nooks and crannies that are either too small or too awkward to reach with our fingers and hands.
This can be split up into parts to make it last a while, doesn’t leave a “snail trail” behind, and actually smells pretty good too. Plus it’s extremely versatile, and works all over your home and car.
4. Binhai Air Blower, Lens Cloth and Brush Set
Brushes and microfiber cloths are common in cleaning kits, but an air blower is less so. That’s why we like this handy kit, which is a big help for cleaning out small spaces. Simply squeezing some air into your earbuds’ ports and openings can work wonders, blasting out dust and debris. Best of all: it’s perfectly safe.
The goat hair brush is a nice addition and nicely soft, while the other brush is strong enough to whisk any remaining dirt out of its hiding places.
Earbuds are just the beginning though, as this mighty little blower is extremely versatile and can work on all your devices, including cameras, binoculars, telescopes and musical instruments.
5. MagicFiber Microfiber Cleaning Cloth
It can be harder keep the nooks and crannies of your over-the-ear headphones clean. But the good news is that it’s a little easier to wipe down the outer surfaces of headphones, especially the earpads and headband. We love these simple, good-quality microfiber cloths, which can remove and absorb built-up oils and dust without scratching up the surface.
The 6″ x 7″ cloths are the perfect size to really dig in there and swipe away bacteria and dirt, and they’re all washable, so you can reuse them to clean your headphones when they inevitably gunk up again in the future.
It’s delicate fibers can safely clean and wipe down much more than just your headphones—the surface of your smartphone, camera lense, eyewear, and more will come out clean and shiny.