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How to clean headphones and earbuds without damaging them

Our daily-use consumer tech devices can go through more wear and tear than the car you drive to work every day. But in particular, because of their regular proximity to gross human body bits like our ears, hair, and skin, our Headphones and earbuds take a beating when it comes to nasty stuff like earwax, oils, sweat, and mean ol’ bacteria sticking to them. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to clean these wearable products, but you’ll want to be extra careful when doing so.

While modern headphones and earbuds are pretty tough, with many offering some kind of water, dirt, and dust protection, cleaning them can be a delicate operation, and one wrong move could send your audio to an early grave. Don’t fret though! As experts in all things AV, we’ve put together this guide to teach you how to properly clean your headphones and earbuds without damaging them.




15 minutes

What You Need

  • Headphones or earbuds

  • Isopropyl alcohol

  • Antibacterial wipes and cotton swabs

  • Toothpicks and a soft-bristled toothbrush

  • Compressed air or rocket blower

  • Tweezers

How to clean your headphones

Like any good piece of consumer tech, your daily headphones will require some TLC to feel and operate as good as they did right out of the box. Cleaning your headphones — and by that we mean the over- or on-ear variety — will also help to cut down on any skin oils, dust, and bacteria that’s been thriving on your earpads and headband. So let’s grab our tools and get to work!

Step 1: Many headphones from the big companies such as Bose and Sony have removable earpads. If yours fall into that category, go ahead and carefully remove each pad, then fully extend the headphones. Doing so will ensure you’ll be able to dab at every part of the device.

A pair of headphones with one ear pad removed.
Michael Bizzaco / Digital Trends

Step 2: Now that the drivers are exposed, use a soft-bristled toothbrush to work away any dirt and debris that’s built up on top of the speakers and around them. If you’ve got a rocket blower or can of compressed air handy, you can also use either of these products to blast away dirt and gunk.

Step 3: If there are any unruly hairs stuck to the body of the drivers, use a set of tweezers to pull them out.

Step 4: Dip a Q-tip in isopropyl alcohol and carefully dab at the many nooks and crannies of your headphones, being extra careful around the drivers. If you’re worried about getting any liquid in the speakers, you can hold the headphones at a 90-degree angle (with the drivers facing down). That way any excess alcohol will drip off of the headphones.

Step 5: A lot of headphone earpads are made of some kind of leather- or vinyl-covered cushioning. To clean these, we recommend wiping them down with a bacterial wipe, while using a cotton swab dipped in alcohol to get into any seams or crevices. Alternatively, you can also use a washcloth dipped in warm, soapy water instead of bacterial wipes.

Cleaning headphones with a bacterial wipe.
Michael Bizzaco / Digital Trends

Step 6: Before reattaching the earpads, use a dry cloth to remove any excess moisture.

How to clean your earbuds

Cleaning your earbuds can be a little more complicated than wiping down your over-ear headphones, but that mainly depends on what type of earbuds you’re using. Many earbuds feature removable silicone eartips that can get clogged with earwax, dirt, pocket lint, and other yucky stuff. For this guide, we’ll be cleaning the AirPods Pro 2 (we also have a more thorough post on cleaning all of Apple's AirPods), although most of the following steps can be applied to any set of wired or wireless earbuds.

Step 1: Start by gently removing the silicone eartips. The AirPods Pro eartips only require a little tug to unseat them from the main body, and most earbuds are similar.

A set of AirPods Pro with the ear tips removed.
Michael Bizzaco / Digital Trends

Step 2: To get those eartips clean, you can either soak them in warm soapy water, or dab a Q-tip in some isopropyl alcohol and use the cotton swab to clean both the interior and exterior portions of the eartips.

Step 3: The toughest part of earbud cleaning is getting at the built-up gunk in your speaker grilles and air vents. To get started, try using a rocket blower or can of compressed air to break away some of the worst grime.

Step 4: Your next cleaning tool should be a wooden toothpick. As gently as possible, use the pick to work around the edges of the grilles and venting.

Cleaning around AirPod Pro drivers with a toothpick.
Michael Bizzaco / Digital Trends

Step 5: Use a Q-tip dipped in a little alcohol to lift up whatever debris is left over on the grille and venting surfaces.

Step 6: Load up another Q-tip with alcohol and dab down the body of each earbud.

Step 7: Your earbuds' charging case can also get packed with nasty things. If you’ve still got that rocket blower or compressed air handy, use them to blow out all the nooks and crannies of the case interior.

Step 8: It’s Q-tip time again! Grab an alcohol-dipped cotton swab and dab away at the interior of the case. Do use some extra caution around the metal-pinned contacts that allow your earbuds to charge inside the case.

Cleaning the inside of an AirPods Pro case with a cotton swab.
Michael Bizzaco / Digital Trends

How often should you clean your headphones or earbuds?

It doesn’t take much for your headphones and earbuds to collect grime, but regular upkeep can help to improve both comfort and performance. We suggest cleaning your headphones and earbuds once per week, especially if you’re using them at the gym or as part of your daily commute or workflow.

Help! My headphones or earbuds are beyond cleaning

Sometimes you do all you can and your headphones and earbuds still look and feel filthy. Not to worry though, because most manufacturers offer replacement earpads and eartips. If you’re in a position where you need to replace them, it’s probably a good idea to grab more than one replacement set at a time, just in case you find yourself needing another earpad or eartip down the line.

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Michael Bizzaco
Michael Bizzaco has been writing about and working with consumer tech for well over a decade, writing about everything from…
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