Headphones have become something of an essential item in recent years, whether it's trying to keep the audio on your Zoom calls under control, watching TV late at night, gaming or just finding some oasis away from the constant presence of members of your family or household during lockdown.

But all that use can mean your headphones become dirtier even quicker. The question is what's the right way to clean them? Allow us to explain.

Sadly, you can’t just throw your headphones in with the laundry or give them a quick dip in some soapy water, so here are a few things you can use to clean them up.

  • Cotton wool balls or ear buds
  • A dry, lint-free cloth
  • A damp, lint-free cloth
  • Cleaning fluid (usually isopropyl alcohol that has a high alcohol content)
  • Rubber gloves (not essential, but good if you have them already in the house)

These are just general tips that should get any pair of headphones clean, but it’s worth (especially for more expensive sets) checking the manufacturers website to see if it offers and specific cleaning advice. Apple AirPod and EarPod owners should read the dedicated cleaning instructions, while the same is true for those with Bose, Sennheiser, Sony and other brands.

Cleaning over-ear headphones

The main area to clean in over-ear headphones are the fabric cups that sit on your ears, as that direct contact will cause the most likely build-up of grease from the skin as well as other human detritus (aren’t we wonderful creatures?).

If the pads are removable, then obviously it's a good idea to take them off so you get easier access to the inner sections and don’t have to worry about damaging the headphones themselves.

If they're made from leather, you can get dedicated leather cleaning wipes or cream, but if not, just take a dry cloth and rub the pad coverings to remove surface oils and any dirt. If you want to disinfect the pads, then add a small amount of isopropyl alcohol to the cloth and wipe it again, but only use this sparingly as some materials can react to cleaning products and be discoloured.

How to clean headphones: Cleaning the pads

For the inner edge of the pads (where they join the speaker mesh), you’ll want to use cotton buds (or Q-Tips in the USA) that has a light covering of cleaning fluid. Not enough to drip, but just enough to actually clean. As you don’t want moisture draining down into the speaker area, we always like to hold the earphones up and at an angle so that any liquids will flow away from the mesh.

Use the cotton bud to clean out the rims under the pads that sit next to the speaker mesh, working slowly and carefully so you don’t damage anything. You can also use a cloth with a very light spray of cleaning fluid to wipe the mesh itself, but once again be careful and gentle so that moisture doesn't drip through into the speaker area.

Clean the headband, outer cups and any other hard surfaces with the damp cloth or isopropyl alcohol to clear off any germs or dirt. If using any soap on the cloth, make sure that wipe everything down so that you leave it dry. Those taking the alcohol route, just leave the surfaces to dry naturally.

How to clean earbuds

Earbuds are a little more fiddly, as they’re smaller and can pick up more dirt due to being jammed into your ears for hours on end.

If your earbuds have removable silicon covers, gently take them off and give them a good clean in some warm water with a dash of detergent. You can use an old toothbrush if you want to get into all the areas, but we find simply turning the covers inside out will usually mean you can clean them efficiently by hand.

Dry and leave them until there is no moisture at all left on the surfaces or in any of the folds.

With the covers removed you can use a dry cloth to clean the speaker stalks. Remove any debris that may have built up on the stalks and surrounding areas. To clean the speaker grill, you’ll need a very light touch so that you don’t force any of the wax or dirt into the speaker itself. Take a cloth, dampen it with water, then squeeze it out so there’s no liquid left inside. Then, gently dab the speaker grill to remove any wax that may have been deposited. Pay particular attention to the edges, as this is where you’ll find the most debris.

Again, make sure the surfaces are completely dry before you replace the silicon covers. Then your earbuds should be clean once more.

For the Apple EarPod/AirPod style of buds, you won’t want to use any moisture on these, so take a dry cotton bud and gently work to remove any substances from the speaker grill area. You can also use a soft bristle brush (painting one or make-up) to dislodge any materials that build up on the inner edges of the cavities. Give the casing a rub down with a soft, dry cloth, and you should be good to go once more.

Related articles for further reading