How The Hell Do I Clean A Pair Of Headphones?

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Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Check the Squalor Archive for assistance. Are you still dirty? Email her.

I love my headphones! They're Bose—not the expensive noise-canceling ones, as I'm not a wannabe DJ, and definitely don't have that kind of money to spend on headphones— but they're the over-the-ear ones with the leather(y) cover. The thing is, I've had them for over a year, and when I accidentally got a whiff of them recently, they smell kind of nasty. I was gonna just Febreze them, but that seemed like a terribly dumb idea. Any tips?

I mean, it's not the worst idea in the world to hit the headphones with some Febreze. Longtime readers of this column will know that I generally hate Febreze, but even my dislike of the product doesn't extend into "the use of it is terribly dumb" territory. I think you're just being hard on yourself. Pfft! Be kinder to yourself. It's fine not to know how to clean your headphones. That's what I'm here for.

Speaking of which! I have somehow never written about cleaning headphones. That is INSANE to me. How could I have overlooked this important topic? I've left you wandering alone in the desert with filthy headphones. Will you ever forgive me? You will, because you're lovers, every last one of you.


The weird thing is that this is a topic I've discussed during interviews; I can't fathom why that never translated into a column on the subject. Before I remediate that, though, allow me to link to the Soundcheck segment I did with John Schaefer on the cleaning conundrums of the musically inclined. I'll leave that there in the event you want to listen to the dulcet tones of my voice explaining how to get beer out of sneakers and my lifelong struggle with ear infections.

But perhaps you prefer the text version, and so, without further ado, the text version you shall get.


The exceedingly simple answer is one I alluded to when we talked about how to clean your computers:

Oh, well, as long as I'm here, I might as well add this, on the subject of ports: If you plug earbuds into one of those ports and would like to clean them (you should!), the alcohol wipes will be just grand at that task.


Yup, good old rubbing alcohol is just grand when it comes to cleaning all kinds of headphones, including but not limited to earbuds. (If you have the Bose earbuds, remove the clear ear tips and clean those separately from the buds, making sure to dry them well before replacing them over the buds.) You can use the wipes, or wet a paper towel with the stuff, on foam and cushioned headphones as well as on hard plastic. The alcohol will kill whatever bacteria is causing the odor, and will also help to wipe away any built-up dirt and grime. And ear wax. That too.

If you don't have isopropyl alcohol around, you can substitute hand sanitizer (which contains alcohol), or just use a soft cloth that's been dampened, and to which a small amount of a mild liquid soap has been applied. That'll do you just fine, too. The same goes for the use of an all-purpose spray or hydrogen peroxide. The main thing to remember is that you want to be sparing with the use of any liquid cleaner, whether it be rubbing alcohol, water, an all-purpose spray or hydrogen peroxide—you want to apply just enough to dampen a rag or paper towel, but not to soak it.


If the screens have blockages, wipe them with a dry, soft cloth or use an electronics cleaning brush to gently dislodge any debris, being careful not to push any clogs into the port. If there's earwax buildup, hydrogen peroxide will be the best bet in terms of dissolving it. Sorry that this has turned into a discussion of earwax dissolution. I'm not really even sure what to say for myself right now. Maybe it's just time to end this column? Yeah. Let's go dissolve some earwax!

Jolie Kerr is the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume); more of her cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found onTwitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.


Illustration by Sam Woolley.

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