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How to Clean Headphones, Headsets & Earpads: Remove Dirt & Smell

Last updated: 1 month ago
9 min read

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Here are the best ways how to clean your headphones, headsets, and earpads to remove bad smells and sticky surfaces.

And learn how to keep them fresh so you don’t have to clean them all the time.

Cleaning headphones

Key Points of Cleaning Headphones

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • To clean headphones, wipe the outside frame and ear pads and disinfect the parts where the dirt accumulates.
  • To clean earpads, wipe them with a dampened cloth or wash them in a water/detergent mix.
  • To clean a headband, wipe it with a dampened cloth and some warm water and detergent.
  • Cleaning headphones is important for preventing bad stench and potential bacterial infections.
  • To clean out the dirt and pieces of fabric collected in a headphone jack, use a straightened paper clip.
  • Protect your headphones from getting dirty by wiping them with a dry cloth after every use, keeping them in a protective case, and storing them with a Silica gel pack.
CONTENTS (show more)

    How To Clean Headphones

    Here’s how to clean your over-ear and on-ear headphones if they’re smelly and sticky.

    If you have dirty earbuds, here are detailed instructions on how to clean earbuds.

    But first, here are all the tools and techniques you need to make your headphones like new.

    • Clean towel
    • Detergent
    • Warm water
    • Q-tips (cotton swabs)
    • Lint roller or a sticking tape (optional)
    Headphone cleaning accessories

    Headphones need to be cleaned from the outside and inside (although you don’t need to completely take them apart).

    • The outside portion requires extensive wiping with a dampened towel, while you might even want to wash velour or fabric earpads underwater. See how to clean earpads and a headband.
    • The inside portion requires a more meticulous cleaning with an alcohol solution and Q-tips. See how to clean the inside of headphones.

    How to clean the inside of headphones?

    Removing earpads often reveals a dirt buildup inside of headphones. The dirt can be stuck around the earcups, and some might even be in a driver chamber.

    When cleaning, don’t touch or moist the drivers. You might damage electric components or puncture a membrane.

    Let us go step by step.

    1. If dirt forms a ring around your earcups, use a toothbrush to scrape it down by pushing it away from the driver.
    Brush dirt off earcups
    An old toothbrush is a great tool for cleaning headphones.
    1. Otherwise, use a bowl of warm, soapy water that you used for earpads, and slightly dampen a towel.

    If you’re afraid of dripping water inside earcups, face them downwards so that potential water droplets will fall on a table and not onto the driver.

    Turn earcups downwards
    Use a damp, soapy cloth to carefully clean off the frame.
    1. Rub around the earcups to moisten up the dirt so it can be wiped with a towel.
    Using damp cloth to clean eacups frame
    A quality microfibre cloth does a better job than a regular cloth.

    You can also use tweezers to pick up any hair that might slip inside the earcups.

    Picking hair from earpads
    Tweezers are great for removing tiny hairs that don’t go away with a mere cloth.

    How to disinfect headphones

    When you’re done brushing your headphones with a dampened towel, here’s how you disinfect them:

    Make sure you use alcohol for cleaning surfaces and not for disinfecting hands. The latter has additives to protect your skin but make headphones look greasy.

    1. Grab a Q-tip and dip it into alcohol (70% dilution is strong enough) or hydrogen peroxide (3% dilution). Use it to rub around hard-to-reach areas like hinges and corners that are inaccessible with a towel.
    Disinfecting earcups
    Use Q-tips with alcohol for hard-to-reach spots.
    1. Fully extend the headband and use a Q-tip with alcohol to clean it thoroughly.

    Using (high percentage) alcohol kills bacteria and is safer to use for cleaning electronics as it quickly evaporates, thus preventing liquid damage or short circuits.

    How to Clean Headphone Earpads

    Clean the earpads first since they need more time to dry. Earpads come in different materials:

    While you can clean velour and fabric earpads in the same fashion, faux and genuine leather earpads require slightly different treatments. Genuine leather pads require more patience and care to keep them nice and soft.

    It’s worth noting that it’s better to prevent large amounts of dirt from building up in the first place. To do that, use a fabric or paper towel or your shirt to brush your earpads after every use.

    What are the best headphones with detachable earpads?

    How to clean VELOUR and FABRIC earpads

    Velour is a type of fabric that feels soft to the touch. It has a lot of fabric “hairs” sticking out, which makes it plusher. However, those sticking hairs collect more dirt compared to a smoother surface, like leather.

    Meaning, that all the sweat and grease stays on your earpads. If you don’t clean velour regularly, the grease will harden up and start looking nasty.

    Thankfully, even at that stage, you can rescue your earpads by washing them. Follow these steps:

    1. First, you have to detach the earpads from the headphones.
    Dirty velour earpads
    Remove the earpads from the headphones for easier cleaning.
    1. Use a lint roller to collect any dust or hair stuck on the velour.
    Brushing velour earpads
    A lint roller is fantastic for getting rid of small dirt, like dust and hair.
    1. Place some detergent in warm water.
    Hand soap
    Hand soap works, too, and warm water helps dissolve dirt more quickly.
    1. You can either brush them with a dampened cloth or soak them in water with detergent (if pads are detachable).
    2. While in water, scrub the earpads with your fingers to soften up the dirt and push it off your earpads.
    Rub water over earpads
    Soft physical brushing helps remove dirt.
    1. Squeeze all the water out and place them into another bowl with clean, room-temperature water. Make sure not to squeeze them too hard since you might crack them.
    Squeeze water out of earpads
    Squeezing too hard can result in more damage, so use appropriate force.
    1. Squeeze them again to let out all the water and let them dry for a day or two or until they’re no longer wet. Don’t leave them in the sun to speed up drying to avoid damaging the velour.
    Dry your earpads
    Dry them at room temperature without sun exposure for at least a day.

    How to clean FAUX LEATHER earpads

    Faux leather (or pleather or leatherette) is the most common material to dress earpads.

    It varies from plasticky to more premium, soft pleather, or vegan leather. While you still have to take care of it, it doesn’t require special ointments to keep it fresh and flexible.

    However, regular cleaning is necessary. Otherwise, the dirt starts hardening up and can crack up the pleather, exposing foam underneath.

    1. If possible, detach the earpads from the headphones.
    Dirt behind earpads
    Detaching the earpads makes everything easier.
    1. Fill a bowl with warm water and a small amount of washing detergent or liquid soap. Slightly dampen a towel and rub it all over the earpads.
    Stir the water
    Warm water improves the effectiveness of soaps.
    1. Dip the other end of the towel in clean water and brush off the earpads again. By doing that, you remove excess detergent from the surface.
    2. Let your earpads air dry completely before attaching them back to the headphones.
    3. If you want to make your earpads extra clean and kill off any bacteria, use alcohol or hydrogen peroxide.
    Rubbing Alcohol
    Alcohol will disinfect your earpads and get rid of 99% of bacteria.

    NOTE: Before you start cleaning, do a test:

    1. Grab a cotton swab that is lightly soaked in alcohol (70% dilution is enough) or hydrogen peroxide (3% dilution) and rub it in an inconspicuous place.
    2. Observe if that caused any discoloration to the pleather. Colored leather is especially susceptible to strong solutions like alcohol. It would be a shame if you accidentally discolor an entire earpad.
    Discoloration on earpads

    If your Q-tip becomes grey, the color is probably coming off. Don’t use alcohol any further.

    1. If your earpads haven’t discolored, dampen a small piece of towel with alcohol and rub it gently all over the earpads.
    2. Use Q-tips with alcohol to clean tight creases and around stitching.
    Disinfecting faux leather earpads
    Q-tips are great for proper cleaning of hard-to-reach spots.

    Note that much like your skin, alcohol can dry out pleather. Don’t clean your earpads too often with alcohol since it can cause pleather to crack.

    How to clean REAL LEATHER earpads

    Genuine leather feels luxurious and has a unique smell. However, all of that can quickly go away if you don’t take care of it.

    Apart from regular cleaning, genuine leather requires you to use special conditioners to moisturize the surface and make it more resistant to cracking.

    To clean genuine leather, don’t use aggressive solutions like alcohol. But the rest of the steps are similar:

    1. First, remove earpads from headphones if possible.
    2. Use some warm water and a little bit of detergent.
    3. Gently mix the water and slightly dampen a cloth. Squeeze excess water so that it doesn’t drip.
    4. Rub the cloth all over your earpads.
    5. Repeat the same process but with clean water.
    6. If the dirt is visibly embedded into the leather, you’ll have to resort to special leather cleaners. They usually come in the form of foam that you rub onto the leather.
    7. Bubbles will help soften up the dirt and lift it. After that, you simply wipe the remaining foam with a damp cloth.
    8. After you’re done cleaning, leave earpads to dry.

    How to Clean Headphone Headband?

    Headband is often an overlooked area. However, your scalp and hair get greasy, which transfers over to a headband. Here’s how you clean it up.

    1. Regardless of what material is made of, clean it with warm soapy water. Since it’s probably non-detachable, be extra cautious not to drip water on drivers or other electronic components.
    2. Do a second cleaning with just water to remove the remains of soap.
    3. Let it dry.
    Brushing headband
    Carefully apply soapy water to the headband to lift up dirt.

    Why Clean Your Headphones?

    You should clean your headphones to prevent bad odor and potential infections.

    All the dirt and grease on your headphones can accumulate bacteria and mold. An Indian study in 2008 found high levels of bacteria growth when wearing headphones.

    Very greasy headphones
    Skin oils, especially when you’re sweating, easily transfer over to your ear pads.

    That said, there’s no strong evidence of serious infections due to headphone use. Also, most bacteria found in the study was Staphylococcus, which is naturally present on your skin.

    On the other hand, bad odor is very much a real thing. Headphones drenched in sweat will start smelling really bad. A quick wash-up once in a while should keep them fresh.

    How to Clean a Headphone Jack?

    AUX ports attract dirt and fabric particles over time and prevent your headphones from connecting to your portable music device.

    Cleaning AUX port
    AUX port might seem clean, but you’ll be surprised how much dirt accumulates inside.

    Thankfully, all you have to do is:

    1. Grab a clip that you usually use to open a SIM tray. Or unbend a paper clip.
    Cleaning AUX with paper clip
    A paper clip can be used for cleaning a headphone jack port.
    1. Gently and carefully reach inside the AUX port and scrape out as much gunk and other debris as possible.
    Fibres inside AUX port
    Hopefully, it doesn’t look like this in your case.

    People usually keep their smartphones or other portable music players in their pockets. In there, you can find lots of fabric, dust, and dirt.

    The latter can slowly accumulate inside a headphone jack. At some point, the layer becomes so thick that your headphones can’t get a connection.

    If you’ve used your device for more than 2 years, both charging and headphone ports are already filled with junk.

    How To Protect Them from Getting Dirty?

    While it’s inevitable that your headphones will eventually get dirty, you can at least slow down the process by doing these things:

    Wipe the earpads and headband after every use

    It doesn’t take much time to wipe over earpads with a towel or your shirt (unless it’s sweaty).

    That is especially advisable if you sweat during listening sessions. That sweat is visible on earpads when you take them off.

    Don’t forget to wipe the headband as well.

    Wiping headphones headband

    Use a carrying case to store headphones

    After you stop using headphones, place them in a closed case for protection against damage and dust.

    First, leaving them outside on your desk means they’ll get dusty over time. Especially if you own headphones with velour earpads.

    Second, you don’t want to expose headphones to extreme conditions like direct sunlight. Sun can dry up the earpad’s fabric, which eventually starts cracking.

    Sony WH-1000XM4 folded in case
    Use the carrying case you get in the package to improve longevity.

    Sucking moisture with Silica gel

    Apart from dirt and warmth, bacteria and mold also like moisture. If you had a sweaty listening session, chances are some humidity got inside the headphones.

    When you store them in a carrying case, especially if you plan to store them for a long time, put silica gel pockets inside ear cups.

    The silica gel will absorb all the moisture and keep your headphones dry.

    Or get the best waterproof Bluetooth headphones and not worry about it.

    Silica gel in headphones
    Silica gel is great for protecting against moisture and mold.

    Don’t damage your headphones when cleaning

    • Electronic components don’t mix well with liquids.
    • To prevent accidental damage, use liquid cleaners such as soaped water and alcohol only on the outside.
    • Don’t be curious and poke around an exposed driver. The ones on the headphones are particularly fragile. You can easily bend a driver’s cone or puncture it.
    • Before using strong alcohol or hydrogen peroxide dilutions to clean your headphones, always try rubbing some on a small surface. Don’t proceed with cleaning with alcohol if you notice discoloration.
    • If you have luxurious headphones with genuine leather, don’t use aggressive cleaning solutions. Use gentle soaps or, if the dirt is stuck in there, opt for special leather cleaners.

    FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

    What can I use to clean headphones?

    For regular maintenance, use warm, soapy water and brush over your headphones with a damp towel.

    If you also want to disinfect, use Q-tips and cleaning alcohol (70% solution or above). Be careful since it may cause discoloration on some headphones.

    How often should I clean my headphones?

    When they get dirty. Could be every couple of weeks or wiping them off after every use.

    If you’re a heavy user, consider cleaning them once a week. Otherwise, clean them every couple of months.

    Can headphones cause earwax buildup?

    The only types of headphones that can cause earwax buildup are in-ear monitors, earbuds, and earphones.

    When you place them in your ears, earbuds push the wax back inside. That isn’t ideal since it can cause ear infections.

    Can you disinfect headphones?

    Sure, you can disinfect your headphones, and it’s advisable to do so every once in a while.

    To disinfect, use cleaning alcohol (70% or above) or hydrogen peroxide (3% dilution). Be aware of possible material discoloration, so perform a test before disinfecting headphones entirely.

    How long are headphones supposed to last?

    Headphones are supposed to last around 2.7 years (or 2 years and 8 months) on average. Wired headphones and earbuds’ lifespan is longer than wireless ones since the latter use batteries, which are susceptible to quick degradation.

    Conclusion

    On-ear and over-ear eadphones inevitably get dirty. Now that you know how to clean them, you can keep them smelling fresh and prevent potential ear or skin infections.

    • Remember to gently wipe them outside, brush or wash the earpads, and disinfect areas where gunk and dead skin accumulate.

    If you have in-ear headphones, learn how to clean earbuds here.