The widespread adoption of in-ear headphones and/or earbuds was something of a game changer for music lovers. Suddenly, you didn’t need an oppressive pair of monster cans to enjoy your favorite tunes privately while out in public.
With that innovation came a new set of challenges. Apart from tangled wires (“But how? They were only in my pocket for 30 seconds!”) and the fear of losing them, the most prominent of these is keeping your earbuds clean. Gunky earbuds can be gross, and enough accumulation on the mesh grilles (see “filter mesh” in this diagram) can actually muffle the sound.
Whether you’ve got some aggressive earwax buildup or you’re just germ-conscious, here’s our comprehensive guide on keeping your buds pristine.
Disconnect the earbuds
Earbuds typically draw power from the phone or device they’re connected to. Before trying to clean them, make sure they’re unplugged. The chances of getting electrocuted here are infinitesimal, but better safe than sorry. Plus, if you somehow short out the earbuds themselves, at least your device won’t get zapped.
Assess the damage
Your method of cleaning may depend upon just how dirty those earbuds are — and where that dirt (or gunk, etc.) resides. More often than not, you’ll be dealing with a buildup of earwax (and other gross stuff) on the grilles from which sound is emitted. With most earbuds, you can remove the eartip (the little silicone or foam part that actually goes into your ear canal) to get a better view.
If most of the nasty stuff is on the mesh grille, you’ll need to be very careful here. If that part is mostly clean, you can pretty much scrub the rest with impunity.
Below are several different methods for cleaning earbuds. None of these solutions are going to be expensive, but you might need to spend a few dollars if you’re worried about damaging some pricier earbuds.
Note: Don’t submerge your earbuds in any liquid, ever. It could work, but even if they’re waterproof, there are safer and more effective options.
Soap & water
Your first instinct is probably just to create a solution with soap and warm water, then use a soft cloth to wipe down your earbuds. Guess what? That’s a great idea! Soap and water will work wonders on the earbuds’ outer casings and wires for a pittance. Fill a bowl with warm water and add a few drops of hand soap or liquid detergent. Dip a soft cotton or microfleece cloth into the solution, wring it out until it’s not dripping, then get to work.
You don’t want to use such a method to clean gunk off the grilles, though. If water gets inside the earbuds, nothing good can come of it. Best case scenario, your buds survive a scare. Worst case, they die. If you clean this way, make sure to avoid the input jack, and be careful at the spot where the wire emerges from the earbud itself (as water can sneak in here).
Once the earbuds look clean enough, set them down somewhere to dry for an hour or two, making sure they’re not in a position where water could drip into the buds’ innards.
Rubbing alcohol, aka isopropyl alcohol, is a common cleaning solution. As with soap and water, it’s a fine choice to clean the less fragile components of your earbuds, like the casings and wires. As rubbing alcohol is a little more potent than soapy water, you’ll just need to dip a Q-tip (a store-brand cotton swab is fine) into the bottle, shake it out until it’s almost dry, then start wiping at any dirt or wax on the earbuds.
As with soap and water, you don’t want to use this method to clean the actual grilles, for two reasons. First, you don’t want alcohol dripping into the earbud. Second, cotton swabs are prone to leaving little bits of cotton on anything they touch. Metal filters can trap strands of cotton, making them much more difficult to clean in the long term and even muffling audio.
Again, once finished, set the earbuds somewhere to dry.
Using a toothbrush
For this solution you’ll want to get a spare toothbrush with nylon bristles — luckily, that’s pretty much every toothbrush these days, and definitely every dollar store toothbrush — because nylon bristles won’t break off and get stuck in your buds. Also, nylon is anti-static, so it won’t conduct electricity.
Toothbrushes are good choices to clean mesh grilles, as there’s no danger of unwanted moisture finding its way inside, but you’ll need to be extra careful, brushing gently in circular motions and not pressing too hard, else the dirt you’re trying to remove might get smashed down into the grille, making the process much more difficult. Once you’re done, throw the toothbrush away or drop it in the dishwasher to sanitize it. We wouldn’t recommend using it on your teeth.
Credit to Geek Detour for this idea. While toothbrushes can prove too powerful and liquid-based solutions bring other concerns, using a dry adhesive putty like is a nearly foolproof method for cleaning even the most sensitive parts of your earbuds.
You’ll want to shape the putty so you can press one end onto the mesh grille of the earbud. The putty should grab any dirt or wax and pull it off, though you might need to mess with it a little to make sure it gets in all the little nooks and crannies.
If you find none of the above methods work well enough, you can always employ more than one of these methods in your quest for clean earbuds. Perhaps you can use adhesive putty to get wax off the grille, then tape over the opening and use a soapy cloth to shine up the other areas of the earbuds. If you’re careful, you can even use a needle or pushpin to pull dirt out of hard-to-reach areas (though you don’t want to go too hard here, as you can scratch the buds’ finish).
Most earbuds come with silicone eartips. Some (typically more expensive models) come with memory foam eartips, or an accessory pack with different sizes. Cleaning silicone eartips is easy. Just remove the eartip carefully, create a solution of warm, soapy water, and wipe them down with a cloth. As silicone eartips are difficult to damage, the only time you’ll need to be particularly ginger here is when removing them, as some tend to stick. The same goes for silicone ear wings or any other removable silicone parts. Just don’t lose them!
Foam tips, on the other hand, are tough to clean. You can try, but most manufacturers will tell you that foam eartips are disposable and not meant for cleaning. Earwax and gunk will embed itself into the foam, and trying to pick it out can tear the foam, rendering the eartips unusable. We suggest switching to silicone or splurging for a new pair of foam eartips (they’re not that expensive).
Cleaning wireless earbuds
Fully wireless earbuds are becoming more and more commonplace. Apart from Apple’s ultra-popular Airpods, Bragi’s The Headphone and Jabra’s Elite 65t are both excellent pairs of earbuds with audio quality comparable to quality wired sets. We don’t recommend using any liquids to clean wireless earbuds, as they tend to have more holes and buttons that just doesn’t play well with water. Instead, use a toothbrush or adhesive putty to clean them.