Answer honestly: when was the last time you legitimately cleaned your earbuds? If you can’t remember (or if you’re looking away from the screen in shame because you’ve never cleaned yours), don’t fret: here’s everything you need to clean your buds properly.
The process is simple, so even if you’ve never done this before, you’ll be able to follow each step until your earbuds look nice and shiny again, just like they did when you first took them out of the box! All of the cleaning materials are things you probably already have lying around the house, though you can easily pick them up at your local grocery store. We also included some tips for keeping your earbuds clean longer, so you won’t have to deep clean them as often!
Why Should You Clean Your Earbuds?
How Often Do You Need to Clean Them?
How to Clean Your Earbuds
How to Clean Gel Earbud Tips
How to Clean Foam Earbud Tips
How to Clean an Earbud's Speaker Grill
How to Clean an Earbud's Body
Don't Forget to Clean The Case, Too
Cleaning Supplies to Avoid
How to Keep Your Earbuds Clean Longer
Cleaning your earbuds serves two purposes: hygiene and maintenance. Yes, earbuds make it easy to listen to your favorite tunes every day, but they’re also tiny vectors for bacteria. Ear wax, oil, skin cells, lotion, makeup, dust, and other crud often collect on these earbuds while you wear them. This can cause your earbuds to get dirty, look gross, and even potentially cause your ears to clog up with ear wax, which can distort your hearing.
If you don’t regularly clean your earbuds, any buildup present can damage an earbud’s driver, protective speaker mesh grill, and electronic components. It can also distort your music, which no one wants. Think about it this way: you wouldn’t put on dirty clothes or use dirty kitchen utensils (we hope); your earbuds should be no different. Clean electronics are happy electronics.
There aren’t any standardized rules for this, but common sense dictates to clean them based on your usage. Those earbuds you wear every day while you’re at work? Give ’em a thorough cleaning about once a week. The earbuds you wear while you’re exercising? Those should be cleaned more often, like after each workout (especially if you sweat a lot). It probably also wouldn’t hurt to clean them more during hot months, as you’ll be sweating more often.
Beyond that, we recommend just inspecting your earbuds now and then. Be ready to clean them immediately if you see any dust or ear wax collecting; don’t wait till later to tackle this job, as it’ll only make it easier for other gunk to build up.
Alright, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty here. Go ahead and grab your earbuds and let’s get started. You will need the following supplies:
- A new toothbrush
- A soft, lint-free cloth
- Cotton swabs
- Some toothpicks
- Isopropyl alcohol
- Paper towel
- Gentle dish soap
- Alcohol wipes (optional)
- Canned air (optional)
- Cleaning putty/gel (optional)
- Disposable gloves (optional)
When cleaning earbuds, you should always try to keep the process simple. Less is more here, and there’s no need to tag in any heavy-duty equipment or chemicals. Furthermore, don’t get invasive unless you absolutely need to, and always be gentle. If you don’t want to touch any of the gunk on your earbuds, feel free to also put on a pair of disposable gloves before starting.
These are the easiest parts to clean. If your earbuds have gel or silicone tips (which the Apple AirPods Pro and many inexpensive earbuds do, by default), go ahead and pop them off. You can literally just rinse these off in water; if there’s persistent gunk, however, dampen a cotton swab with water and lightly dab each tip. Do so delicately to prevent them from tearing.
Set them on a paper towel and let them dry fully before re-attaching them. You shouldn’t need to use any harsh cleaning agents or other tools. And if you really don’t want to deal with this, you can always replace your gel earbud tips or foam earbud tips (we won’t’ tell).
Foam earbud tips are also pretty simple to clean. You’ll pop them off each earbud, which you can do by gently pinching and pulling them off the stem. Start by rinsing them in warm water, then use a mild detergent like dish soap. Use a cotton swab to clean the interior, then let them air dry on a paper towel. Do not reattach the earbuds until they’re completely dry.
Cleaning the grill is the trickiest part of the cleaning process. Gunk buildup here looks disgusting and can also potentially get lodged in the grill’s tiny holes or pass through and disrupt the internal components. This can degrade their performance capacity, causing issues like a decreased volume or the earbuds failing outright.
Keeping the grill clean is important for any earbuds, but especially AirPods as they don’t have gel or foam tips that can act as a buffer for earwax and other muck. Speaker grills are especially delicate, so be extra gentle here as you clean. Also, keep in mind that cleaning is a little bit tougher because they have holes in them. You can’t just dunk them in water and call it a day—you’ll need to spend some time here and ensure you have the right equipment.
If you do use earbuds with gel or foam tips, go ahead and remove them before cleaning their grill. First, take a soft, lint-free cloth and gently wipe the grill off; this should get most of the mess off, but it probably won’t get everything. If that’s the case, grab a dry toothbrush and lightly move it over the grill’s surface, ensuring that you go around the edge as well as the center. We also recommend tilting the earbud (or holding it upside down) as you clean, to encourage any debris to fall onto your counter or table instead of dropping into the bud.
There are a few additional steps you can take if the gunk you’re fighting is extra challenging. First, take a cotton swab, wet it with some isopropyl alcohol, squeeze any excess out, and dab at any stubborn muck. Second, grab a toothpick or wooden skewer (or anything similar, preferably not metal), and lightly prod the gunk. Third, get some cleaning gel or putty and lightly press it; just be sure not to go too hard with this; otherwise, you risk leaving some behind the grill. You can also try your luck with a pipe cleaner or canned air, though these are riskier options.
The last part you’ll need to clean is the body of the earbud and, fortunately, it’s pretty easy and won’t take much time. Remove any crud on the body with a dry toothbrush or soft cloth. If you need to be a little more thorough, wet a cotton swab with water, ring out any excess, and lightly dab at any affected areas. However, avoid getting moisture anywhere near the speaker grill, charging connector points, or gaps around any physical buttons.
While the earbuds are the main focus here, keeping their charging case clean is also essential. Believe it or not, cases can get just as dirty as earbuds do. After all, they not only house your buds in between uses but also protect them against the dirty evils of the world around them. If you’re regularly putting the case in your pocket, on tables, or taking them with you all day every day, they’re dirty—trust us.
So how do you clean your earbuds’ charging case? Simple. The first thing to do is take a dry cloth or toothbrush and remove any big chunks of dirt or gunk on the exterior and around the hinge for the lid. That’s where most dirt hangs out on cases. You can also use canned air or some fast-drying alcohol wipes to wipe the case down, but avoid the charging port and any charging connectors if you do use these. If your earbuds aren’t charging correctly (or at all), dirt buildup could be the reason why.
You’ll need to ensure the interior is free from ear wax, as well. It’s easy for it to transfer from the earbuds onto the case and collect there. Start with a soft dry cloth and see if that does the trick. If it doesn’t, grab a cotton swab, lightly wet it with water or isopropyl alcohol (squeeze it before you start cleaning), then dab at the affected areas until everything’s clean.
If the ports or charging connectors are dirty, use a dry toothbrush to dislodge any dust or ear wax. If there’s any dirt lodged far into the charging port, you can use a toothpick to reach a little further and snag the culprit.
While earbuds (and their charging cases) are designed to withstand a three-foot drop or a little bit of sweat, they aren’t designed to survive being dunked in bleach or other harsh cleaning agents. We recommend following the steps we outlined above for cleaning your earbuds; if you choose to use other chemicals or products, you’ll be doing so at your own risk (and at the risk of your poor earbuds).
Look—the very nature of earbuds implies that they’re going to get dirty, and you’ll need to clean them occasionally. If you don’t want to clean them quite as often as we’re recommending, there are a few things you do that can help keep them cleaner for a longer period.
First, keep them in their case whenever you’re not using them. Don’t put them in your pocket or hoodie over lunch, and stop leaving them sitting on your desk or nightstand because you totally plan on listening to that podcast later. Do your best to always put them back in their case, and if you can, also put that case back in your bag or drawer.
Second, limit using them in particularly dirty, wet, hot, or cold circumstances. And if you must, at least wipe them down with a soft towel after each workout—just like you would with any other piece of gym equipment—and allow them to dry completely before putting them away.
Third, get in the habit of taking a quick pass every time you finish using them. Before you sling them in the case, peep to see if there’s any gunk and wipe it off real quick. Regular preventative cleaning, however simple, goes a long way to keep your earbuds cleaner longer and you less disgusted the next time you need to do a deep clean.