How to Clean Earbuds and Headphones Safely

It’s one thing to wipe your earphones to make them look and feel less dirty. But it’s another thing to clean your earbuds and headphones safely. This guide explains how to clean earbuds and headphones properly to not risk damaging them.

Tip: make sure you clean your headphones after using them to listen to in-flight entertainment.

How to Clean Headphones and Headsets

Headphones and headsets can be daunting to clean, especially with how many parts you think you could accidentally break. But these things can get pretty dirty, and doing a deep clean makes for not just a better sound, but also comfortable wear, whether they sit on or around your ears.

1. Disassemble Your Headphones

With headphones and headsets, you first want to disassemble them. Dirt, gunk, and earwax can accumulate in places that could be too narrow for cotton buds to fit. You’ll also need to clean the cotton and leather parts, just as you’d clean a delicate piece of cloth.

Remove the ear pad on headphones. For circular ear pads, twist them, and they’ll come off. For oval and square pads, carefully pry them away.

Headphones With Ear Pad Removed

Some headphones and headsets have a padded layer underneath the headband. Sometimes this can be removed by unscrewing or prying off the sides.

Headphones With Headband Padding Red Arrows On Where To Remove Them

2. Clean Ear Pads

Most ear pads need some warm water and a light detergent. You’ll need this to remove all the accumulated sweat, wax, and dead skin cells on the soft cloth parts. Use a soft-bristled brush to scrub the dirt away.

Note: you can also machine-wash your ear pads, but this may make your ear pads wear out much sooner.

3. Clean All Plastic Parts

Plastic implements usually don’t need more than a simple wipe with a clean cloth and some sanitizing alcohol (ideally 90% alcohol). Avoid using water, as the microphone will quickly get worse with water damage. The microphone holes are usually too small for alcohol to pass through and damage the microphone diaphragm inside.

Headset Microphone

4. Use Compressed Air

For headsets with movable microphones, use a compressed air duster on the joint to dislodge dust and solid debris. Moving the joint around helps dislocate debris that may have gotten stuck between the plastic parts.

Compressed Air Duster For Cleaning Headphone And Headset Joints
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

You can do the same on the fit adjusters. Pull them back to their maximum length before spraying them with canned air. Basically, use the canned air anywhere that a cotton swab or clean cloth won’t fit.

5. Don’t Forget the Audio Connector Jack

To clean the audio connector jack, use a cotton swab to wipe around the area. Do not push the swab straight inside, or you’ll push the dirt deeper into the jack.

Cotton Swab On Headphone Audio Jack

6. Putting the Ear Pads Back

This is an obvious step, but there are proper ways to put your ear pads back so that you won’t have to struggle, jamming cloth between plastic parts.

For rounded ear pads, there’s a hook that lets you secure the ear pads with a “screwing” motion.

Ear Pad Hook On Circular Ear Pad Headphone

Non-rounded ear pads usually come with a detachable skeleton-like frame. You can pull these off, then secure the ear pad over them before putting the frame back in place.

Ear Pad Frame On Oval Headphones

Also helpful: if you notice you still can’t hear after cleaning your headphones, follow our suggestions to fix headphones that aren’t working on Windows.

How to Clean Earbuds and Earphones

Generally, earbuds and earphones should be cleaned more often than headsets and headphones. They get dirty much faster and have more contact with ear wax. But they are also so much easier to clean.

1. Remove Ear Tips to Clean Them

If your earbuds or earphones come with silicone ear tips, take those out and wash them with alcohol. Either dip them in a small cup or rinse them.

Earbuds With Silicone Tips
Image source: Unsplash

If yours have thick foam or cloth covers, you will need to use a light detergent. You can air dry them, but avoid getting them too hot, as the fibers might break down and form holes over the covering.

Black Earphones Pastic Covering

But if your earphones come with a non-removable plastic mesh or covering, you can wipe this part with some alcohol.

2. Clean Ear Hooks

On some wireless earbuds, there are ear hooks that keep them in place on your ear without falling off. Some let you remove this part to clean or replace them when broken.

Bluetooth Headset With Black Ear Hook

You can clean plastic and silicone ear hooks in water. But if you can’t remove them, a gentle swipe with a clean cloth and some alcohol should do just as well.

3. Clean Cables

For cables, you can gently wipe them clean with a cloth and some alcohol. But don’t pull too hard while wiping, as you could rip the wiring off the microphone. This usually happens with poor-quality earphones and older ones with wiring that gets brittle over time.

Wiping Earphone Cable With Pink Cloth

Good to know: there’s a difference between wireless earbuds and wire-free earbuds.

How to Clean Apple Earbuds and Headphones

Apple devices are special, as they work a bit differently than normal earbuds and headphones. Part of what makes them sound so good is that they are a little harder to clean than most other devices. But these features can also make them a bit easier to clean in some parts. They usually have different cleaning methods.

1. Disassemble the AirPods Max Ear Cups

The AirPods Max, with its removable ear cups, tends to add more steps to cleaning than you would with standard headphones. But these extra steps make cleaning much easier in the end.

Airpods Max Detachable Audio Connector
Image source: Unsplash

Remove the ear cushions to show a hole that lets you unlock a pin to keep the ear cups connected to the headband. Insert a SIM card tray pin in this hole to open it, and the ear cups will come off easily.

2. Clean the Headband

The headband can be cleaned with a mild, non-abrasive liquid detergent and a soft-bristled brush. You can dip it in water as long as you don’t get the metal bits wet.

Doing it this way lets you clean the cloth headband cover without disassembling anything else.

3. Never Use Cotton Swab on AirPods and EarPods

Meanwhile, AirPods and EarPods must never be cleaned with alcohol and cotton swabs. Unlike many other earphones, the Apple AirPods and EarPods have a paper-like layer over their speaker membrane. Water and alcohol can damage this layer and ruin the sound quality.

4. Blu-Tack Putty Cleans AirPods Mesh

Hardened wax over the mesh of the AirPods can be removed with some Blu-tack putty. Grab a tiny bunch – just enough to hold between your fingers that would completely cover the mesh – then stick it in. Instead of getting pushed deeper, the wax will stick to the putty, leaving a clean, wax-free mesh.

5. Hydrogen Peroxide Melts Wax

If you’re dexterous enough, you can add a tiny drop of hydrogen peroxide over the frames and soften the ear wax. Leaving it for one or two minutes softens the hardened wax enough to scoop it out with an earwax cleaner or any other tiny scooping tool.

However, this can be pretty risky, as the hydrogen peroxide can ruin the paint finish on the mesh.

There’s more to cleaning your Apple AirPods. Check out our AirPods cleaning guide to learn more!

Also helpful: update the firmware on your AirPods, but ensure that you follow the correct steps.

Dealing with Water Damage

Suppose you made a mistake and dropped your headphones in water. If you’re lucky, you can save them.

With many high-quality headphones, is that the parts that make them sound so well tend to break more easily when exposed to water. This could be an extra membrane layer made of a fibrous material.

At other times, it’s electricity passing through places where it shouldn’t, which tends to be the case with battery-powered wireless earbuds and headsets that run on Bluetooth.

Either way, getting your stuff out of the water and removing it from power are the most important steps to reducing water damage in wet earphones. This could be unplugging them from your phone or doing a long press on the touch sensor. Then, it’ll be a matter of waiting for it to dry fully for five to seven days.

To further decrease the chances of getting your devices water-damaged, place your headphones in a bag filled with dry, uncooked rice. Rice absorbs moisture so well that it may even be dry enough in two or three days.

Bag Of Rice
Image source: Unsplash

This works so well that you can even use it on your smartphone and other electronic devices.

However, if you submerge your earphones while at the beach, you’ll need to rinse off the saltwater before drying them. Saltwater leaves solid salt upon drying, letting electricity pass through places it was never meant to be.

Knowing how to clean your earphones is one thing, but there are also other things you can do to make them sound even better! Find out how to fix a Bluetooth audio delay on a Windows PC, or get more control over your wireless earphones by disabling absolute Bluetooth volume.

Image credit: Unsplash. Photos by Terenz Jomar Dela Cruz.

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