Earbuds are one of the most significant developments in personal audio of the last few decades, but they have a rather large downside: they get filthy. They do go in your ears, after all. But this gradual build-up of earwax, grime and goodness knows what else isn't just bad hygienically; it's also bad for sound quality.
So you should clean your earbuds pretty regularly to prevent your AirPods and wireless earbuds from sounding worse than they should or stopping charging or working completely. But how? With what? And what should you most definitely avoid? We're here to run you through the do's and don't's of how to clean your AirPods and earbuds safely, hygienically, and using tools you'll most probably find in your bathroom cabinet or toolbox.
Ready? Let's get those earbuds spick and span...
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Why cleaning AirPods and earbuds is important
Firstly, hygiene. Have you ever had someone offer you an earbud, only for it to be so caked in earwax that it could remodel most of Madame Tussauds? If so, you'll know just how ick earbuds can become. Some people naturally have more wax build-up than others in their ears, but some degree of crud is inevitable. Think about it – you wouldn't insert anything into any other bodily orifice without giving it at least a good wipe afterwards. At best, it'll gross out anyone unfortunate enough to see what's gathered on your eartip; and at worse, it could lead to an ear infection. So from a basic personal cleanliness perspective, regular cleaning is a must.
But this build-up of wax, fluff, hairs and general detritus isn't just off-putting; it can seriously impact sound quality. A speaker grille clogged with a combination of the above isn't going to sound its best, as some of the holes the sound passes through will be blocked, meaning distortion, and maybe even entire parts of the frequency range being eliminated (we can't imagine higher notes will pass seamlessly through a wall of wax). So you owe your earbuds a good clean purely from a sound perspective.
And then there's a third thing at risk: their operation. If the metal contact points on your wireless earbuds and/or supplied charging case get grimy (they should be gold in colour, not black!) and therefore cannot make contact and connect properly, one or both of your earbuds might stop charging. And that's arguably even worse than muffled high frequencies.
Best tools to clean AirPods and earbuds
It might be tempting to reach for the bleach and be done with it, but hold on there, Mrs Hinch. You definitely don't want to go all in on the cleaning products, as you could damage your precious earbuds. Instead, always follow the manufacturer's recommendations.
For example, Apple advises not to use any chemicals – including alcohol wipes – on the AirPods speaker mesh, and to never submerge your headphones in any cleaning agent (pretty obvious when you consider AirPods aren't waterproof anyway).
Even if you're laying off the chemicals, some over-eager poking about could still do some damage, so it's best to use tools that are towards the more gentle end of your toolbox (don't use a screwdriver to chisel earwax out of the speaker grille). You don't want to poke about in there unless you absolutely have to. The general rule is to start easy and if that doesn't work – and only if – to then progress to the next level of invasiveness.
The least invasive tools are those that don't come into direct contact with your earbuds, like a spray can of air or a dust blower with a fine tip. But there's a limit to what these can achieve.
The next step up is tools for scraping and poking around. A lot of these you'll probably have lying around the house – cotton buds, toothpicks, pipe cleaners and an old toothbrush. But you can also buy specialist tools like a plastic spudger, which is a wedge-shaped doohickey used to separate certain components without damaging them.
Metal tools are a no-no, as they could scratch or otherwise damage your earbud.
You can use other tools like low-tack painting tape, mounting putty and even a mini vacuum cleaner (some are even USB-powered for plugging into your computer) to clean hard-to-reach areas. And a soft, lint-free cloth and/or alcohol wipe can be useful for wiping off any surface debris from the earbuds' plastic shell.
9 steps to cleaning AirPods and earbuds
So you've got your tools at the ready, and you've locked the padlock on the cupboard of hazardous cleaning products. It's time to de-you your earbuds. But how? Follow these steps and they'll look shiny like new in no time.
1. Put the Air in AirPods
Start your cleaning with the least invasive method: air. Use your air canister or dust blower to blow air onto the earbud speaker grille. Hold the earbud face down so gravity can help, and away from your face so no debris gets in your eyes. If your earbuds have silicon eartips, take these off and blow air into them as well.
2. Tips for the eartips
You can use liquid to clean your silicone eartips, but leave them to dry out completely before attaching and using them.
3. Go gently
If more thorough cleaning is required to get rid of a stubborn build-up of gunk, start with a cotton bud and don't rub too hard. If that doesn't do it, try one of the other tools mentioned above – like a toothpick or old toothbrush. But again, go easy – you don't want to damage the speaker grille or any other part of the earbud, for that matter. Then use your air blower again to get rid of any grime you've managed to dislodge.
4. Get those hard-to-reach areas
Crafting putty and the painter's tape mentioned above can be used to pick up dust, dirt and debris in hard-to-reach areas without being so sticky that they become part of the problem. They're especially useful in recesses that you're struggling to clean using other methods.
5. Wipe them down
Once you're done dislodging dirt and poking around in any cavities, you can give the earbuds a wipe down with a dry microfibre cloth. Apple also says you can use certain cleaning products on the exterior of the AirPods, so it's safe to assume these are safe for other earbuds too – Apple specifies "a 70 per cent isopropyl alcohol wipe, 75 per cent ethyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes" is okay. But you shouldn't use these on the speaker grille or any other internal parts of the earbud.
6. Let them dry
Whether you've just cleaned them, or they're a bit sweaty after a run (in which case, you should at least give them a quick wipe), you should let your earbuds dry before putting them back in their charging case. Warmth and moisture make the ideal breeding ground for all kinds of bacteria, and you don't want that going in your ears.
7. Prevention is better than cure
When it comes to cleaning your AirPods or earbuds, little and often is the rule. The more infrequently you clean them, the more dirt will build up, and the higher risk of it impacting sound quality or even damaging your earbuds. Leaving it a long time will also require a more vigorous clean to dislodge any build-up of grime, which will also make it more likely you'll damage your buds.
8. Remember the case
Show the earbuds' case some love too. Just because it doesn't go in your ears, it can still get pretty manky just from housing your earbuds. So use the same techniques outlined above on the case too, and be careful around those contact points, which should be clean and gold-coloured. And definitely don't submerge it in any cleaning fluid or you'll be shopping for a new case, stat.
9. Cleaner earbuds start at home
One of the most effective ways to keep your earbuds clean is to keep your ears clean. They can't get clogged with earwax if there's no wax to come into contact with in the first place. Not only will this help keep your earbuds clean, but it might also improve the sound quality too. It's not just speaker grilles that wax will clog up...
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