This post has been updated. It was originally published on August 3, 2021.
Your friends might be too nice to tell you, so I’m going to say it for them: your earbuds are gross. They can obviously accumulate earwax over time, but sweat and dirt can also build up in the silicone tips. This means your case is grimy, too—between housing your earbuds and being tossed around in the bottom of your bag, they can collect a ton of crud. Read on for how to clean AirPods and other headphones.
Keeping your tech clean is an afterthought for many people, but because you’re using these items on an everyday basis, they can accumulate microbes and bacteria that can be harmful to your health. Even if you’re not worried about getting sick, that dirt can harm the quality and durability of your gadgets. Luckily, cleaning earbuds and headphones is relatively simple, and if you keep up with it on a weekly basis, you’ll never again feel the need to quickly snap your case shut out of embarrassment. All you need are a few common household items.
Why you should clean your earbuds or headphones
I know what you’re thinking—a little earwax never hurt anyone, right? Unfortunately, no. When you let grime build up in your AirPods, you risk ear pain, fungal infections, excess earwax, and more. This is because even though earwax helps protect your ears in general, it can help foster bacterial growth when it gets stuck in your earbuds. Plus, if you use your AirPods or other wireless earbuds when you work out, moisture from your sweat can also potentially cause health issues in addition to general grossness.
[Related: Your smartphone is gross. Learn how to clean it properly.]
Keeping your earbuds or headphones clean is important for the actual audio quality they provide, too. Obviously, a buildup of anything is going to muffle the sound. It can also affect the microphone, making phone calls and voice memos more difficult. Sweat can also negatively affect your headphones, as it’s acidic and can damage the internal tech.
How to clean any type of AirPods
When cleaning your AirPods, AirPods Pro, or other earbuds and their case, Apple recommends using cotton swabs and a soft, lint-free cloth. I just used the lens cloth that came with my glasses. You should absolutely avoid using sharp objects to clean the gunk that might have made its way into the mesh on your AirPods or any other tiny crevices. Doing so, can potentially permanently damage the delicate electronic components.
You’ll also want to avoid submerging your buds in water, as they’re water-resistant but not waterproof—that means they can take a couple of drops here and there, but they’ll die on you if you dive into a pool with them on. This is especially important to keep in mind if you have a first or second-generation set of AirPods, as they are neither waterproof nor sweatproof, and the same goes for all the charging casings of Apple’s earpieces. If your AirPods case is really nasty you can dab a small amount of 70 percent isopropyl alcohol onto the soft cloth to wipe germs away.
If you’re dealing with a pair of AirPods Pro, start by removing the silicone bit and using a cotton swab to gently clean the inside and outside. Then, use the soft cloth to wipe down the earbud, and finish by snapping the tips back onto the stem. You can also rinse the silicone bits with water if need be—just make sure to not use any abrasive cleaners. Wipe them dry afterward, and only snap them back on once they’re completely moisture-free.
If you’ve got stains on your earbuds, Apple says you can slightly dampen a cloth with water, wipe them down, and then dry them with a soft cloth. Again, wait for them to fully dry before using or putting them back into their case.
When cleaning the case, first take a cotton swab and gently dislodge any gunk from the crevices. Then, dab a bit of 70 percent isopropyl alcohol onto a clean cloth and wipe the outside of the case. When cleaning the inside, be sure to not insert anything into the charging ports. If there’s anything in the Lightning connector, Apple recommends removing it with a clean, dry, soft-bristled brush. Once you’re done cleaning the case, wait until it’s completely dry before placing your AirPods back in.
If you happen to overdo it with the isopropyl alcohol, and liquid gets inside the charging case of your AirPods, let it dry upside down with the lid open. Make completely sure the case is free of moisture before charging or placing your earbuds back in.
How to clean your AirPods Max and other over-ear headphones
Cleaning your AirPods Max or other over-ear headphones isn’t an entirely different beast, but you will want to be more delicate with the various parts. Apple recommends starting by removing the cushions from the earcups. Dampen a cloth with a mixture of 1 teaspoon of laundry detergent per cup of water, and gently rub the cushions. Use the same mix to clean the headband, holding your headphones upside down—in case there are any droplets, this will prevent them from flowing into the electric components in the cups. Finish by wiping the headband and cushions with a new cloth dampened with fresh water, and then dry them with a soft cloth.
You can also use a cloth dampened with 70-percent isopropyl alcohol to wipe the exterior of the cushions, allowing them to dry completely before reattaching to the headphones. Use a cotton swab to dislodge any debris in small crevices, and then dampen a new one with isopropyl alcohol to clean any other small areas. Allow all the parts to dry completely (preferably overnight) before reattaching.
Final thoughts on how to clean AirPods and other audio gear
There’s no getting around it—if you want your earbuds or headphones to last, you need to clean them regularly. Some experts recommend cleaning them after every use, while others recommend doing so about once a week. Regardless of frequency, it’s crucial that you keep your audio gear clean for your own hygiene and for the audio quality. After all, grabbing a pair of headphones you’ve been eyeing for months is useless if you’ll have to eventually toss them out because you didn’t take care of them.