Even without a global pandemic, there’s plenty of reasons to give your headphones a good thorough cleaning. That’s especially true if you use them regularly. Whether you have a pair of over-ear cans or true wireless earbuds, clean headphones are happy headphones—and ones that are less infested with microbes.

Editor’s note: this article was updated on September 28, 2021, to include information about preventing infection with earbuds.

Why you should clean your headphones

Of course, we’re not going to advocate taking your headphones apart for no good reason, there are actually a few things that merit consideration.

A picture of the Etymotic ER2SE wired earbuds and the filter removal tool.

Etymotic gives you two replacement filters.

For example, a 2008 study found that dirty headphones can be a vector for disease transfer. If you share headphones with someone who has an ear infection, you increase your risk of getting it and vice versa. On top of that, the frequent use of headphones can increase humidity in your ears making them more hospitable to bacteria. Sometimes they just fall on the floor, and despite our wishful thinking, there’s no such thing as a five-second rule when it comes to bacteria. As soon as the buds hit the floor, there are more bacteria on it than you can count—not something you want to put directly on your ears.

What you need to clean headphones:

Close-up of Sony MDR-7506 headphones with specs of dust in it

If you look closely at your cans, you might also come to the conclusion that it’s about time you had clean headphones.

Before we get into the specifics of each type of headphones, you’re going to need some basic items. While you might not use everything on this list, it’s still good to have and a solid baseline for doing this carefully.

  • Towel or paper towels
  • Toothbrush
  • Tweezers
  • Q-Tips
  • Rubbing alcohol (greater than 63%), Diluted bleach, or Hydrogen Peroxide
  • Hand soap
  • Gloves
  • Goggles (at least glasses)

Whether you’re looking to clean over-ears, on-ears, or earbuds the main tools remain the same. The right tools will properly clean your headphones and kill whatever bacteria or viruses or live on them. Rubbing alcohol or diluted bleach is easily washed off of your hands, but a rogue drop in your eyes can cause some damage, or at least some serious pain. Please use your judgment and be safe while spiffing up your cans. Once you’re done, you should have a pair of impressively clean headphones.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way let’s move on to the fun stuff. We’ll start with regular over and on-ear headphones.

How to clean over-ear or on-ear headphones

Sony headphones on a wooden stool with cleaning supplies in the sun

Make sure to gather what you need before you begin cleaning.

Depending on the model or your headphones, you should remove the ear pads and extend the headband as much as possible, that way you can get every nook and cranny. “Clean headphones” means no dirt or grime inside them as well. Once you remove the ear pads, grab your toothbrush and go to town. Brush off as much of the larger dirt and specks as you can. Be mindful around the drivers: you don’t want to accidentally push the dirt around. After that, go ahead and use the tweezers to remove any hairs or debris that may be stuck.

Now that all of the big pieces of debris are taken care of, we can move on to the disinfecting part.

For this, place your headphones on the towel and grab your cleaning liquid of choice. Hydrogen peroxide will work, but you can also use diluted bleach or alcohol (63%), which is widely recommended to kill viruses. Try not to soak the paper towel or cotton ball, since alcohol is no friend to leather and plastic. Just use enough for a nice cleaning—no need to give your headphones a shower.

A photo of clean headphones, the Sony MDR-7506, fitting nicely into a backpack.

The MDR-7506 headphones have a plastic build with a are over-ear cans meant for production.

Start disinfecting the ear pads and then work your way over to the headband, so you can get a feel for how much pressure you have to apply to remove dirt. Work your way down to the ear cups and make sure that you’ve got your technique down because you have to be more precise once you approach the drivers.

Most headphones don’t play well with liquids, so don’t get any liquid mucked up inside the drivers. To make this easy, hold your headphones at a 90° angle and make sure the open drivers are parallel to the floor. Now you can swab them gently and gravity will push the liquid away from the internal components. Feel free to use Q-Tips to get to any hard-to-reach areas. Once you’re happy with how new your old headphones look, pat them down with a towel or paper towel to dry them off. Just like Humpty Dumpty, you need to put it all back together.

How to clean earbuds

Earbuds are a little bit different than giant over-ears; their smaller size requires a steadier hand than headphones. The payout is well worth it though, as wearing earbuds has a greater risk of causing inner ear pain and infection than over-ear headphones.

First, remove the ear tips, and try not to drop them. Then, use a Q-Tip to clean the ear tips thoroughly which removes any earwax and dirt that may be built up in there. Once you’re done, turn your attention to the actual earbuds.

Man holding Q-tip to white ear tip, illustrating how to clean headphones.

Cleaning the ear tips with alcohol or washing them with warm, soapy water (or both) should clean them sufficiently.

If your earbuds came with a cleaning tool, use the metal tip to remove any built-up earwax, taking care not to push it further in. If you don’t have a cleaning tool—Q-Tips. Gently dab at the nozzle to clean out any remaining earwax, but don’t push too hard: this can cause the fibers to get caught. If your foam ear tips are a little too far gone, it might be worth the investment to just get a new pair. If you’re rocking rubberized ear tips, warm and soapy water works wonders against bacteria and germs.

How to clean your true wireless earbuds

Man cleaning AirPods Pro earbud with Q-Tip dipped in alcohol. Showing an example of how to clean headphones.

Make sure not to soak the earbuds with alcohol, but a light buff should get the job done.

For true wireless earbuds, the process is basically the exact same as for regular earbuds. The only difference between the earbud types is that you also have to sanitize a charging case.

See: How to care for wireless headphones

Once you clean the earbuds, set them aside and move on to the case. Here, you’ll go through pretty much the exact same process with the Q-Tips. Once you’re done, leave the earbuds out of the case long enough for everything to dry. Once you’re sure all the moisture evaporated, place the buds back in the case.

How to clean Apple AirPods

If you’re after the AirPods Pro, in particular, don’t worry we have an entire article explaining the whole thing. The process is very similar to what we just explained, but if you’re anything like me, you probably want all the little details before putting any of your electronics near liquids. And hey, I can’t blame you.

That’s all there is to it

Congratulations, you’re done! Wash your hands with some soap and water and sit back and let your headphones dry up. It shouldn’t take too long as the goal wasn’t to drown them in cleaning liquids, just to spruce them up a bit. Now just sit back and enjoy your favorite new album or podcast.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I clean earwax out of the metal covers that go over the earbuds' nozzles?

Yes, some IEMs include a specific cleaning tool just for cleaning the ear tips and grills: it usually looks like a thin, pointed object on the opposite end of a miniature brush. If your buds don't include this, you can always use a toothpick, just be careful to dust off any debris, as you don't want to push the wax further into the grill and toward the driver. Once you mine all of the earwax and debris from each earbud grill, dab the pointed object in isopropyl alcohol and lightly clean the grills. Flip the earbuds face down so gravity lets the remaining droplets fall away from the earbuds' internals, and wait for it to completely dry. Then, you can replace the ear tips and start listening.