Your Dirty AirPods Are Grosser Than You Think

Here’s what lives on your grimy earbuds — and how to clean them

In Microprocessing, columnist Angela Lashbrook aims to improve your relationship with technology every week. Microprocessing goes deep on the little things that define your online life today, to give you a better tomorrow.

TTake a good look at your earbuds. Is the mesh clogged with earwax? Is there a strip of dirt or lint lining the plastic seams? Maybe there’s even an oddly intense and dark dust clinging to the interior edges of your AirPods case.

If your earbuds are disgusting, know this first: no shame. This is an obscenely common issue, an element of high-tech hygiene that is, oddly, overlooked, given how ubiquitous buds have become since the introduction of the iPod in 2001. But these little hunks of plastic, mesh, and rubber collect particles of dust, lint, earwax, metal, dirt, and pollution, all of which is in turn infested with bacteria and even fungi, which we then insert into our ears, sometimes for hours at a time. You wouldn’t stick something so filthy up your nose, but somehow into the ear doesn’t seem quite as gross.

I received at least 50 images of people’s gunked-up earbuds, and while I have no intention to shame anyone, I have to admit that some of the pictures were alarming.

How dangerous is all that crap on your earbuds? The answer is complicated, but at the very least, you’re unlikely to get ill from the months-old gunk left to build on the plastic and mesh. But there are certain circumstances in which you could be at some risk, so while there’s no need to panic — or, God forbid, remove the buds from your ears, which might mean you have to talk to someone — it’s never too late to start a healthy earbud-cleaning regimen.

It’s obvious a lot of us could benefit from such direction. I received at least 50 images this week of people’s gunked-up earbuds, and while I have truly no intention to shame anyone, I have to admit that some of the pictures were alarming.

Image courtesy of Austin Flack

One woman’s third-grader brought home his earbuds looking like this:

Image courtesy of Sarah Ewy

And, of course, there were plenty of photos of earwax left to collect on the amplifier mesh and surrounding plastic.

Image courtesy of anonymous

Most of the people I talked to never cleaned their earbuds—or only occasionally did, using items lying around, such as pens or tissues. And while the above images are on the more intense end of the scale, most of them looked a bit like Tori’s (last name withheld for privacy), who says she typically uses a staple or paper clip, along with a Clorox wipe, to clean them when it occurs to her. Even still, she says, it isn’t enough. “Are you going to help keep this from happening? I don’t want to live like this,” Tori says. “Please send help.”

Image courtesy of Tori

While the wax and dust buildup in the above images isn’t deadly, it’s also not totally harmless. “Bacteria such as staph aureus or pseudomonas, as well as fungus such as aspergillus, can cause outer ear infections if these germs are on the earbud and then the earbud is placed into the ear,” says Erich Voigt, an otolaryngologist at New York University Langone Health. Swimmer’s ear, which, contrary to its name, does not only afflict swimmers, is one such infection that can be caused by earbud use. It occurs when broken or inflamed skin in the ear comes into contact with bacteria or fungus — and if you rarely clean your earbuds, there’s a chance such bacteria could be present on its surface, particularly the more porous areas like the mesh or the rubber tip.

Sarah Mowry, assistant professor of otolaryngology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, says that people with skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis should exercise a little more caution when it comes to earbud use. That’s because those disorders can irritate the ear’s thin, delicate skin, making it more prone to infection caused by bacteria or fungi found on an earbud. Mowry add that if you already have an ear infection, you should definitely lay off the earbud use until it’s been treated.

Luckily for all of us whose earbuds are in a foul state, if you’re not already at heightened risk of infections, you probably aren’t going to get sick from your nasty earbud.

Voigt notes that diabetics and those with immune deficiency should also be more careful with their earbuds, but even if your ears aren’t in bad health, using earbuds can push earwax farther down into the ear canal. This can cause (temporary) hearing problems, and the impacted wax will need to be professionally removed. Sticking a cotton swab in your ear isn’t a great method for avoiding this, either, according to Voigt, who says that overusing Q-tips and removing the protective wax can leave you more prone to infection.

Luckily for all of us whose earbuds are in a foul state, however, if you’re not already at heightened risk of infections, you probably aren’t going to get sick from your nasty earbud. Mowry says she has rarely seen patients come in with ear infections caused by earbud use. But studies directly on the earbud–ear infection relationship are sorely lacking. I was able to find just one, from 2008, which found bacterial growth on 68% of subjects’ earbuds. So, yes, it appears that the hazards posed by dropping your earbud on the bathroom floor only to put it back in are low but present, though it’s hard to say for sure.

Like leaving a sink full of used dishes or piling your dirty clothes in a big heap on the floor, while the health risks of nasty earbuds are minor, keeping them clean is nevertheless common courtesy — if only to yourself. But unlike laundry, which has a clear directive for cleanliness — clean clothes in drawer, dirty clothes in hamper — it isn’t especially obvious how to clean earbuds.

Apple recommends using a “dry, lint-free cloth” to clean AirPods and a Q-tip to clean out the wire mesh, although in my experience that isn’t a particularly great method for removing the wax. Several people on Twitter told me that sucking the gunk out of AirPods with their mouths is an effective method of clearing them out, which is so absolutely disgusting that I refuse to try. I will look at pictures of waxy AirPods all day long, but I won’t do that. Still, it comes highly recommended, so go with God.

More reasonable are the suggestions to use a brush to gently scrub at the mesh to loosen the wax from the surface. The OXO Electronics Cleaning Brush has a brush on one end and a silicone sponge on the other, although the brush is soft and might not be ideal for more stubborn bits of wax; a medium- or firm-bristled toothbrush would work even better. Kyle Wiens, founder of tech repair site iFixit, recommends scrubbing the AirPods with a sponge. For even more thorough cleaning, lightly spritz the brush or sponge with alcohol or vinegar, but don’t get it too wet, as Apple’s AirPods aren’t waterproof. If you have earbuds with a removable rubber tip, you can wash the tip with soap and water and gently rub the inner speaker with a cleaning brush or toothbrush. Make sure the rubber tip is totally dry before returning it to the earbud.

Blu-Tack, the slightly sticky wall adhesive popular in elementary school art shows, is a Reddit favorite for cleaning earbuds. Soften it up a bit between your hands and gently press it to the earbud mesh. The wax should lift right out. Be careful with this method, though, since pushing the putty too firmly against the metal mesh can potentially push the wax farther into the bud.

A Q-tip lightly sprayed with alcohol will work at removing dust and lint from the case, but you can also get colorful dust guards that will help prevent buildup. An exterior case can also help prevent the staining that can occur when dye on denim or leather transfers to the plastic.

All this said, there’s no really perfect way to clean earbuds, especially those with the exterior mesh like AirPods. Eventually, a small amount of wax will build up in the mesh, dampening the sound and making them look vaguely sticky. (Although chances are that by then you’ll have already lost them.) But with diligence, care, and the right tools, you can ensure that your earbuds are cleaner than those of your friends — and less likely to give you swimmer’s ear.

I’m a columnist for OneZero, where I write about the intersection of health & tech. Also seen at Elemental, The Atlantic, VICE, and Vox. Brooklyn, NY.

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