Excessive buildup isn’t just gross — it can be detrimental to sound quality
Earbuds have been the listening choice of many for ages, and sales of wireless earbuds took off when Apple removed the headphone jack of the iPhone 7 and released AirPods. Since then, seemingly every brand under the sun, and even some resurrected from the depths, have released true wireless earbuds. Some are small and cheap. Some are big and expensive. Some have one-size-fits-most hard plastic designs. Some have user-replaceable rubber tips that accommodate different size ears. But one thing that unites all earbuds is that, eventually, they get disgustingly gross, with a buildup of earwax and debris that can hinder sound quality and reduce overall volume output. As a result, you should take the time to clean them once in a while.
Here we go over some of the various ways you can clean your earbuds — encompassing hard plastic and soft rubber-tipped earbuds — using basic tools and methods that anyone can feel comfortable using. Our goal is to get your earbuds nice and clean with minimal risk of damage.
A small word of caution
It’s important to keep in mind that most manufacturers advise cleaning earbuds with only a clean microfiber cloth or dry cotton swab. Instructions from major manufacturers like Samsung and Apple advise refraining from using rubbing alcohol or other liquids. A simple alcohol wipe might be fine for some surfaces if kept away from any speaker grills, mic holes, or charging ports — but it does present some dangers. If you try using any wet processes or cleaners, you do so at your own risk. And it may sound obvious, but it bears emphasizing: never submerge earbuds or charging cases in any type of liquid to clean them.
Starting with the basics
A “less is more” approach is always the way to go when cleaning electronics. So let’s begin by going over the simplest and least risky ways of cleaning the buildup from most earbuds. Begin with the most basic cleaning tools and work your way up until the earbuds are adequately clean. There’s no need to get invasive with a toothpick if a puff of air takes care of it, right? Always start small before jumping to extremes, and use only what the job calls for.
Many of the tools mentioned here are common household items. You can buy cleaning kits for earbuds that have a lot of similar tools, but you may already have what you need.
While blowing air from your mouth into your earbuds might knock away some dust or flakey earwax, it will most likely be inadequate, and you could inadvertently deposit tiny bits of saliva onto something that goes in your ears — not exactly sanitary. Try the following tools:
- A bulb / rocket blower
- Canned air
For hard plastic earbuds, point the dirty speaker grills away from you and toward the floor. Try pointing the blower up and into the earbud speaker grills, away from your face. You want to prevent any debris from potentially flying towards your eyes (it doesn’t hurt to wear glasses or basic protective eyewear — nobody is going to judge you), and you also want gravity on your side.
For earbuds with removable soft rubber tips, carefully slip them off and hold the tip toward the floor. Blow air into and through the opening in the earbud tip, pointing downward and away from you. Then flip them around and blow air through the other side before moving to the earbud itself and blowing out any debris that made it to the speaker grills. Once the rubber tips are removed, they become the only part of earbuds that you can safely clean with liquids. If you choose to clean the detached tips with water, let them dry overnight to ensure there is no remaining moisture before you put them back on the earbuds.
If this basic process is enough to blow away the debris and leave your earbuds looking clean enough, take a clean and dry microfiber cloth to all surfaces and polish away any remaining dirt. If the buildup is hardened and not budging, then keep your canned air or blower nearby while we get more invasive to try and break up the gunk.
Don’t forget the charging case: Forced air and a microfiber cloth will often be enough to clean out any dirt that gets transferred from wireless earbuds to its charging case.
Toothpicks, cotton swabs, and more scraping and brushing tools
A puff of air is rarely enough for stuck buildup, especially if you have overly waxy ears (I’m here for you; and lordy, do I commiserate). The next stage is to use a small tool to break up the earwax or buildup of debris without risking damage. You are about to take a pick or probe to a piece of electronics, so practice some care and caution. Consider the following tools:
- Cotton swab
- Basic wood or plastic toothpick
- Plastic spudger tool (akin to the ones iFixit includes with many DIY repair kits)
- Wood skewer (typically used for food / cooking)
- Dry brush (toothbrushes are good, but never take any chances using them for dental care after this)
- Pipe cleaner (the arts and crafts kind)
Note that we are choosing tools here that are soft (cotton, brushes) or firm but not too hard (wood, plastic), as metal might cause scratches or damage to the speaker grills or plastic shell of an earbud. As usual, we want to start with the least invasive and work our way up if it’s needed.
For hard plastic earbuds, start with the cotton swab and try to break up and wipe away debris or wax in the speaker grills. Angle them downward to let gravity help your cause. If the swab is not strong enough, step up to a toothpick, spudger, or wood skewer and carefully break up the buildup embedded at the corners and edges of the speaker’s cavity.
For soft rubber tips, the toothpick might be one of the best tools — it can fit through the hole of a detached earbud tip and scrape the inner wall. Be sure to also clean the exposed speaker with the cotton swab, brush, or toothpick if wax has been deposited on it. If your earbuds have a rubberized fin or comb to help secure their fit in your ear, these might be best cleaned with the toothbrush. A pipe cleaner can be very helpful for these soft rubber bits as well, but due to its metal rod core, it should not be used on much else.
Once you break up the stubborn buildup, blow more air from a can or blower and see if that finally removes the debris. Take a polishing cloth to all the surfaces, and hopefully, you now have some adequately clean earbuds.
Bonus tip: Keep a water-dampened paper towel or sponge handy, and you can neatly wipe away all the gross stuff as it collects on your toothpick while minimizing the mess. Be prepared to clean your workspace after you’re all done, as you might be surprised how much debris comes out when doing a deep clean on long-neglected earbuds.
The final tools for some hard-to-reach cleaning
If you broke up some of the dirt, but getting it out with forced air or a brush is proving tricky, there are a couple more tools to try. The following can be used in tandem with all the previously mentioned tools:
- Masking tape or painter’s tape
- Mounting putty or cleaning gel
- Vacuum with a small nozzle attachment
Using tape or putty to help pull out debris from deeper crevices can hopefully be all that you need to fully clean all the nooks and crannies of your earbuds. The adhesive of masking or painter’s tape is sticky enough to pick up dirt but light enough to not leave any residue on the surface like stronger tapes might.
If dirt is really deep in an earbud tip and hard to reach, the tape may not get to it. That’s where putty (the kind used in arts and crafts for safely mounting things to the wall) or a cleaning gel can come in. Warm up the putty by kneading a small amount of it in your hands, and roll it over the affected area.
At this point, the combination of all these tools should clean away most earbud gunk. Some especially dirty buds might require repeated and alternating use from a combination of air, scraper, and putty. The key is to work at it, little by little, until the earbuds are clean.
The more frequently you clean your earbuds, the less dirt and buildup there is and the fewer tools and elbow grease you need. If you prevent earbuds from getting too dirty, you ensure that they will last longer and hopefully be less prone to reduced sound quality or breakage.
As often the case, a little preventative care can help save you from costly repairs or replacements down the road. So be sure to store your wireless earbuds in their charging case when not in use, shielding them from further buildup like pocket lint, and don’t forget to give them the occasional check and clean.
All Rights Reserved for Antonio G. Di Benedetto