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.

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 AirPods or other earbuds

how to clean airpods and other headphones
Simple tips on how to keep your AirPods and other audio gear clean. Natasha Roy

When cleaning your AirPods Pro or other earbuds and the 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, as they can potentially permanently damage the delicate components. You’ll also want to avoid completely submerging them in water, as they’re water-resistant but not waterproof. If your AirPods case is really nasty you can dab a little isopropyl alcohol onto the soft cloth to wipe away germs.

First, remove the silicone earbud tips and use a Q-tip to gently swab the inside and outside. Use the soft cloth to wipe down the earbud, and then snap the earbud tips back onto the stem. You can also rinse them with water if need be—just make sure to not use any cleaners, wipe them dry after, and only snap them back on once they’re 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 dry before using.

When cleaning the case, first take a Q-tip and gently dislodge any gunk from the crevices. Then, dab a bit of 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 you’ve got 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.

How to clean over-ear headphones

Cleaning over-ear headphones isn’t an entirely different beast, but you will want to be more delicate with the various parts. Start by removing the cushions from the earcups. Dampen a cloth with a mixture of water and soap (laundry detergent will do just fine), and gently rub the cushions and headband. Wipe each with a new cloth dampened with fresh water, and then dry them with a soft cloth. 

You can also use a cloth dampened with isopropyl alcohol to wipe the exterior of the cushions, allowing them to dry completely before reattaching to the headphones. To get into the small crevices, use a Q-tip to dislodge any debris, and then dampen a new one with isopropyl alcohol to clean the 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.