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How to Clean Apple EarPods

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Ear pods laying on a pink background

Picture this: You’re gearing up for a jog around the block, psyched to listen to that latest pop album, when you peer down at the sad state of your headphones. They’re grungy and grimy, with visible flecks of dirt and an unsettling amount of earwax.

We use our Apple earbuds all the time. They deliver us podcasts while we’re vacuuming the house, allow us to watch Netflix on our evening commute, and – of course – help motivate us with music when we work out. With all that use, it’s no wonder that Apple EarPods, AirPods and other earbud headphones can get dirty pretty quickly.

It can be embarrassing to pull a waxy, grubby pair of headphones out of your pocket in public. Luckily, fixing the problem is a relative breeze if you know how to clean AirPods (or how to clean earbuds of any kind, for that matter).

You don’t need the best jewelry cleaner to get the job done, either – just a few household items, a few minutes, and a measure of elbow grease. Let’s take a closer look!

How Do EarPods Get Dirty in the First Place?

Before we tackle how to clean earbuds, it’s helpful to explore how they get dirty in the first place. That way, you can try to avoid making them dirty next time.

Essentially, earbud headphones pick up two types of grime: bodily excretions (we know, it’s gross to think about) and surface detritus.

In the former case, the main culprit is earwax. This should come as no surprise to anyone who uses Apple EarPods regularly. The continual action of securing and removing earbud headphones can jostle earwax loose, causing it to adhere to the earbuds. Apple EarPods also have a few holes for acoustics, airflow and vacuum suction, in which the wax gets trapped.

Similarly, your earbud headphones might trap natural oils and dead skin (again, we apologize for the gross imagery). Especially if you use your Apple EarPods for exercise, you may find that they catch and trap sweat easily.

Finally, your Apple earbuds can attract surface and ambient detritus. This can be dirt, dust, crumbs or any other particulate matter. If you’ve ever lost your earbud headphones between the couch cushions or watched as your robot vacuum accidently sucked them up, you know how easily they can pick up grime. Earwax only exacerbates the problem too, as it’s a notoriously “clingy” substance.

After you learn how to clean earbud headphones, take some proactive steps to keep them free of dirt in the future. Store them in their case when not in use, and consider cleaning your ears before using the headphones.

Image of a phone on hardwood floor with ear pods plugged in and blue shoes to the side.

Telltale Signs to Watch for – When to Clean Your EarPods

Deciding when to clean earbud headphones is a matter of preference and tolerance. Some people can’t handle even a little wax, whereas others are joyfully oblivious until the problem becomes really apparent.

Here at Fresh Home Guide, we err on the side of cleanliness (it’s our brand, after all!). If you notice that the speaker or air holes are obstructed in any way, we believe it’s time for a cleaning. Likewise, if you notice diminished audio quality, it’s probably time to clear some obstructions.

Finally, you may wish to clean Apple EarPods after someone else uses them. With COVID still lingering in most communities, you can’t be too careful with sanitizing communal items. We also have a guide on the best cell phone sanitizer if you wish to kill two germs with one stone!

To recap, clean your earbuds if:

  • You notice visible obstructions in any of the holes, including dirt and/or earwax
  • You detect diminished audio quality from obstructions
  • The exterior of the earbuds is dirty
  • Someone else has used the earbuds
  • You just want a fun, fast cleaning task this evening

Now, let’s dive into the nitty gritty. Here’s how to clean earbuds and iPhone EarPods so they look and function like new!

Cleaning the Exterior

Let’s begin with the easy part: cleaning the exterior of the headphones. For this, you will need the following:

  • A Microfiber cloth
  • Alcohol-based sanitizer
  • And a small bowl of water

Start by removing any dust and surface wax with a microfiber cloth spritzed with alcohol-based sanitizer. Alternately, you can use a silicone sponge or dish sponge, provided they are unused. (Basically, you want to avoid scratches by using a soft material free of micro-abrasives). Repeat the process for each earbud, and give the cord a wipe for good measure.

If you have the AirPods Pro or another noise-cancelling earbud headphone, you will also need to clean the silicone buds. They are those soft little tips that conform to the inside of your ear. Remove the silicone buds and submerge them in water. Apple advises you to skip using soap, but our tests show no noticeable reason for the omission. That said, we’ll skip the soap here as well to stay on the safe side. Using your fingers, gently clean the silicone buds and then dry them with your microfiber cloth. Let them air dry completely before re-attaching them to the headphones.

Close up of an ear pod in a person's ear

Cleaning the Speaker and Air Holes

There are a few methods you can try for how to clean earbuds and how to clean AirPods Pro. We have listed the methods in order of personal preference (the first being our favorite, etc.). That said, if you only have the materials for the last method on the list, you will still see good results.

The Toothpick Method

In our testing, we found this method to work best. Plus, it uses materials most of us have lying around anyways.

Simply take a toothpick to the speaker hole and air holes, scraping the perimeter of the holes before angling the toothpick slightly to sweep the surface of the speaker.

Some people use a needle or pin for this, but, in our testing, we found that metal can potentially damage the mesh surface of the speaker. By contrast, wood is lower on the hardness scale, so will not damage or scratch the mesh.  

For extra credits, follow this preliminary cleaning with a second toothpick cleaning. This time, wrap the tip of a toothpick with a bit of cotton ball and repeat the method above. This second cleaning should clear any remaining dirt from the speakers.

The Mounting Putty Method

This next method for how to clean apple earbuds works like a charm. The only reason it appears second on our list is because – well – how many people readily have mounting putty on hand?

Still, if you do have mounting putty in the house – perhaps to hang some non-framed artwork you got for Christmas – break it out to clean your earbud headphones. Basically, the mounting putty works because it’s “tacky” without being “sticky”; it grabs dust and wax, leaving no trace materials behind.

Simply rip off a pea-sized tab of mounting putty and dab each hole of your headphones. You may need to use multiple putty tabs, depending on how dirty the EarPods are.

While this certainly works as a standalone process, we found that you get the best results by combing this method with the toothpick method above. After you pick at the large obstructions with a toothpick, apply the mounting putty to dab away any lingering dirt.

The Toothbrush Method

Don’t have toothpicks or mounting putty on hand? No problem. Everyone has a spare toothbrush at home, right?

As you might guess, this method involves taking a clean toothbrush to the speaker and air holes of the Apple earbuds. We stress that the toothbrush should be clean. (The last thing you want is for old flecks of toothpaste to end up in your ears!). Work the bristles back and forth, before clearing away the dirt with a clean sponge or microfiber cloth.

Do not use an electric toothbrush or drill brush, as they may damage the more fragile parts of the Apple earbuds. Drill brushes are fantastic for many things, but cleaning Apple EarPods isn’t one of them!

The Q-Tip Method

Last but not least is the good old-fashioned Q-Tip method. It works in a pinch if you don’t have any of the materials above, but it produces relatively inadequate results. Still: Better than nothing, right?

Work the perimeters of each earbud hole with one side of the Q-Tip, reserving the second side for final touch-ups. You may have to pinch the cotton ends of the Q-Tip to make it small enough to fit inside the holes, and, even then, you may not be able to clear the thin air hole. This method is good for when you’re about to fly out the door and need to apply a quick clean to your AirPods, EarPods or other earbuds.

Girl smiling holding a water bottle at the beach and wearing ear pods.

Cleaning the EarPods Case and Phone

Think of the EarPods case and your phone as the headphones’ house and garage. You want to keep its environment tidy and clean to see the most mileage from your cleaning efforts.

Clean the inside of the case following the same method outlined in our “Cleaning the Exterior” section. With a microfiber cloth or small, clean sponge, wipe each depression thoroughly. If necessary, wet the cloth or sponge to pick up any stuck-on grime. Repeat this process for the case’s exterior (cleaning the case’s exterior is more of an aesthetic concern, having no real impact on the overall cleanliness of the earbuds). When you dust your home as part of a regular cleaning schedule, give the EarPods case some love. You can read our guide to the best dusters if you want to find a microfiber duster that suits your needs here.  

Next, clean your phone. If your iPhone earpods have a cord (i.e., they aren’t AirPods), it’s best practice to clean the headphone jack, which can easily attract lint and dust. Take a toothpick to the headphone jack to jostle loose any lint, followed by a short burst of air – you can use a blow gun or simply blow into the jack.

All that’s left to do now is clean the surface of your phone. Does this impact the cleanliness of your earbud headphones? No. But does it contribute to the overall cleanliness and sanitation of this oft-used tool? Definitely. And we believe you can never be too clean!

What to Expect with Newly Cleaned EarPods

With your freshly cleaned EarPods, you can expect to enjoy better audio quality due to limited obstructions. You can also expect to feel less embarrassed when you pull out your headphones on public transit. Finally, you can expect to rid your Apple earbuds of germs; bacteria in the ear canal can cause middle ear infections, which you definitely want to avoid.

That just about sums up how clean earbuds and how to clean AirPods. Hopefully, you give these methods a try soon. Let us know what you think: which method was your favorite, and what results did you see from cleaning your headphones? Lastly, if you have a secret method for cleaning earbuds that we didn’t cover, feel free to contact us. We’re always on the lookout for a new cleaning method!

About Joseph D. Nielson

Former journalist and editor for various press groups, I now dedicate my time to reviewing products for the home and family life. When I get time to myself, I enjoy rock climbing, taking my dirt bike for a rip, and most importantly providing my family with the best home possible!