How To Clean Headphones And Earbuds

A woman wearing green sunglasses and headphones splashing around in a bathtub
While a fun thought, cleaning your headphones while in the bath is probably not the best idea. Peter Cade / Getty Images
Was this page helpful?

Regular maintenance is part and parcel when it comes to the longevity of belongings. Whether vehicles, clothing, gadgets, books, toys, furniture, or even your own well-being (e.g. body, mind, soul), it’s important to make effort towards routine upkeep. With that being said, when was the last time you bothered to clean your headphones or (especially) earbuds?

If you’re the type to wear headphones or earbuds for brief periods only after a shower, maybe it’s not that big a deal. As for the rest of us, we enjoy audio wherever and whenever. But either way, one shouldn’t overlook the hygienic details that build up over time: bacteria, sweat, dandruff, dead skin cells, oil, dust, grime, and ear wax.

Headphones and earbuds are manufactured from a variety of materials. So when cleaning, you want to choose safe solutions and techniques. Ready to disinfect and sanitize? Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Isopropyl alcohol (91%)

  • Distilled water

  • Mild detergent (e.g. Dawn dish soap)

  • Hydrogen peroxide (3%)

  • Soft cotton or microfiber cleaning cloths

  • Cotton swabs (e.g. Q-tips)

  • Toothbrush

Plastic, Silicone, and Foam

Three pairs of Itis Silicone Eartips for Jaybird earbuds
Itis Silicone Eartips for Jaybird earbuds. Courtesy of Amazon

Most headphones and earbuds are predominantly made of plastic (e.g. exterior body/casing) and silicone (e.g. cables, ear tips, headband cushioning). The best way to clean these materials is by using a solution of isopropyl alcohol slightly diluted with distilled water.

Apply a sparing amount of the liquid to a clean cloth (or cotton swab for small crevices) before running it over all plastic and silicone surfaces. Add more when you need to. Remember to remove and thoroughly clean (inside and out) silicone earbud tips with a cotton swab dipped in the solution.

Isopropyl alcohol is choice because it is a disinfectant (kills germs), dissolves oil/grime/stickiness, evaporates quickly without residue/odor, and is generally non-reactive with most types of plastic and silicone. Don’t use bleach, as bleach can cause a negative reactions (e.g. corrode, affect/degrade physical properties, fade color) with some plastics and non-plastic matter.

Many earbud tips and bare (i.e. there is no fabric covering) headband padding are made of foam (e.g. Comply Foam). To clean, use only a cloth dampened with distilled water – no alcohol solution – and let it all air dry before use. If earbud tips are still noticeably dirty, then it’s probably time to replace them with a new set (foam tips aren’t meant to last forever).

Metal and Wood

The Master & Dynamic MW60 over-ear Bluetooth headphones in navy blue
The Master & Dynamic MW60 features an all-metal frame wrapped in real leather. Master & Dynamic

More expensive headphones and earbuds frequently incorporate finer and more robust materials in construction. Headbands can expose steel, aluminum, or titanium when adjusting the length of ear cups. Ear cups themselves can also be made with wood (e.g. House of Marley Smile Jamaica earbuds) and/or solid metal (e.g. Master & Dynamic MW50 on-ear headphones).

Earbud casings can be cast from aluminum; Master & Dynamic also offers earbuds machined from actual brass or palladium. V-Moda offers custom 3D-printed earbud caps made of bronze, silver, gold, or platinum.

With any of these metals, stick with the solution of isopropyl alcohol and distilled water. Want to add a glorious shine? Whatever polish you would apply to jewelry is also safe to use on your headphones/earbuds (of the appropriate material type).

As for wood, alcohol will dissolve finishes/stains and quickly ruin appearances. So it’s best to use a wood-specific cleaner (e.g. Howard Orange Oil Wood Polish, Murphy’s Oil Soap). If you don’t have wood cleaner, you can substitute a mixture of warm water and mild detergent instead – also effective for cleaning most stereo speaker cabinets.

Fabrics

The Libratone Q Adapt on-ear headphones in white
The Libratone Q Adapt on-ear headphones feature a padded headband wrapped in mesh fabric. Libratone

Headbands and ear cups – if they’re removable, do so for easier cleaning – typically consist of fabric wrapped around some kind of foam/cushioning. If the fabric is pleather (a.k.a. plastic leather, protein leather, faux leather, synthetic leather) or vinyl, go ahead and use the solution of isopropyl alcohol and distilled water.

If the headphone padding is made with real leather, use the mixture of warm water and mild detergent. The alcohol solution may be too harsh and/or end up drying out the leather. If you want your leather to last long and stay soft, you can apply some leather conditioner (e.g. Leather Honey) afterwards. If the headphone padding is made with suede leather (e.g. Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 On-Ear) or alcantara (i.e. synthetic suede), don’t use either the alcohol solution or water mixture. Your best option is to buy a cleaning kit meant specifically for suede.

If the headphone padding is removable and made with velour/velvet (e.g. Shure SRH1440) or mesh/synthetic fabric (e.g. Urbanears Hellas), use a clean brush (toothbrush can work) or lint roller to remove all exterior debris. Next, dunk the pads in a bowl filled with a mixture of warm water and mild detergent. Scrub gently by hand before squeezing out all the liquid. Repeat this process in a separate bowl filled only with distilled water (i.e. rinse cycle). Squeeze out all the liquid one last time before hanging the pads up to air dry.

If the headphone padding is non-removable and made with velour/velvet (probably imitation if non-removable) or mesh/synthetic fabric (e.g. Libratone Q Adapt On-Ear), you’ll need to perform a manual dry cleaning of sorts. Have one bowl filled with a mixture of warm water and mild detergent (wash), the other with only distilled water (rinse). But instead of dunking the parts, use a cloth to very carefully apply a sufficient amount of liquid only to the fabrics. Massage by hand to wash, and then repeat the process with the distilled water to rinse. Pat with a clean cloth and allow to air dry.

Cleaning Earbud and Microphone Openings

A closeup of the Denon AH-C820 earbuds
Earbuds can get quite dirty from ears, so regular cleaning is a must. Denon

Earbuds (i.e. they rest outside the ear canal), earphones/IEMs (i.e. they insert into the ear canal), and microphone openings require extra care when cleaning – always be sure to remove tips first. Hold each earbud so that the opening is facing down – you want dislodged particles to fall out instead of being pushed in – and use a clean, dry toothbrush to gently scrub the area.

For tougher buildup, dip a cotton swab in a bit of hydrogen peroxide (it works to dissolve ear wax) and just barely touch it – you don’t want excess liquid to flow inside – against the surfaces. Give the peroxide a minute or so to loosen the buildup. Tap the back of the earbuds (still facing down) as you scrub with the toothbrush again.

Although you might be tempted to use a toothpick or needle to poke debris out of mesh screens or openings, it’s generally not a good idea. You’re more likely to force particles deeper inside. Instead, you can try using some non-toxic adhesive cleaning putty or gel (e.g. Blu Tack, Super/Cyber Clean). Don’t push too hard, lest the putty/gel itself gets stuck. You can also use cans of compressed air (don’t blow with your mouth, because of moisture/spit) to clear out openings – hold it far enough away so you don’t blast particles deeper inside.

A hearing aid vacuum can work wonders in cleaning out earbuds and microphone openings. You can also try using a standard-sized vacuum with the hose attachment. Nozzle too big, you say? All you need is a small paper cup, plastic drinking straw, and some duct tape (caulk could also work, but you have to wait for it to cure). Poke a hole in the bottom of the cup large enough to fit the straw. Push the straw in so that it’s halfway through the bottom of the cup, and then duct tape (both inside and out) where the straw touches the cup to make a complete seal. Now you have a tiny, straw-sized attachment for your vacuum!

Maintenance Tips

The V-Moda Crossfade 2 Wireless on-ear headphones inside its protective case
A headphone case helps to protect against outside dirt or elements as well as physical impact. V-Moda
  • Keep your headphones/earbuds stored in a protective case when not in use.

  • Throw some silica gel packets inside of headphone/earbud cases. These will absorb moisture and help prevent the growth of mold (and accompanying odors).

  • Use a clean cloth to wipe down headphone/earbud exteriors before and after use; this will help prevent any buildup.

  • Try not to share your headphones/earbuds with others (because germs).

  • Don’t substitute hand sanitizer for mild soap. It can leave unwanted residue that can make future cleaning more difficult.