Why Do AirPods Get So Dirty? How to Really Clean Them

Why Do AirPods Get So Dirty and How Can You Clean Them?

AirPods are not your normal run of the mill cheap earbuds. They will set you back at least a hundred dollars, and if you’re not careful, they can get dirty fast. Not only does the dirtiness of the AirPods severely cramp their style, but it can also impact the actual device. 

So why do AirPods get so dirty? AirPods are susceptible to getting dirty because of the wax in your ears. Also, their case is always in your pocket, backpack, or touching other dirty surfaces. You can use a microfiber cloth and cotton swabs to clean them. Cleaning the case is also important. Being proactive can help keep them clean.  

Here, you’ll learn why your AirPods always seem to get so dirty and why that might be worse than it sounds. You’ll also learn different, safe ways to clean them, and what you can do to keep them from getting dirty again once they’ve been cleaned. You certainly didn’t spend over a hundred dollars on AirPods just to have them look as if Pigpen from Peanuts has been carrying them around.

Why Do AirPods Get So Dirty?

There are two parts to this question: the actual AirPods, which are what go in your ears, and the AirPods case, which is what charges them when you’re not using them. Both of them are equally at risk of getting dirty, and you need to pay attention to both to make sure they stay clean.

The AirPods

Unlike the case they sit in, the AirPods themselves aren’t as likely to get dirty by sitting in your pocket or at the bottom of your bag. Instead, you are the main culprit of them getting dirty over time. 

What do I mean by this? Well, they sit in your ears, which means that they can and do collect ear wax as you use them. The main place on the AirPods you need to worry about keeping clean is the oval-shaped speaker at the front. It’s not only the part with the deepest cavity but also the part that sits closest to the inside of your ear. Over time, if you don’t clean them and your ears regularly, you will definitely notice a buildup of wax. 

Of course, since the earpieces do spend a lot of time in the case, they can attract dirt from there. That’s what makes it so important to clean both your device and the case.  Not doing so just means dirty AirPods again.

The Case

AirPods wireless case inside charge contacts clean

The case for your AirPods is most likely going to get dirty as you continue to use them over time, too. That’s because it’s the catch-all for everything, whether it’s at the bottom of your pocket, your bag, or sitting in your car.

The AirPods case has a few nooks and crannies that can get dirty. Specifically, there’s the USB-C (or lightning depending on the generation) charge port on the bottom, the hinge on the back, and the inside of the case. The lid flips up and reveals empty space, which is a hotbed for lint and crumbs to gather.  Often the edges of the case, where the edge rises to meet the platform with the holes for the AirPods to go into, are another source of dirt. Then, there are the spaces for the AirPods themselves.

Why Is That a Bad Thing?

Dirty AirPods (including AirPods Pro and Pro 2) can definitely cramp your style, especially if you need to share them. As the owner of a pair of AirPods myself, I can tell you that the thing I fear most in life is going to share an AirPod with a friend and having them comment on how dirty and waxy they are. In addition, if yours are unclean and you do decide to share—nobody likes an ear infection, which there is a chance as germs potentially build on them.

The Health Dangers of Sharing AirPods

Sharing your AirPods, or any other type of earpiece is usually a bad idea to begin with. You’re putting something in your ear that you don’t own.  You don’t know how many other people it’s been in contact with, what the state of their ears is, and so on.

Though it doesn’t happen very often, it is possible for you to contract an ear infection or ear fungus from sharing earbuds. Even if their AirPods don’t really look dirty, there are bacteria living on the AirPod itself that do not exist in your ear. If you have been lucky enough to avoid ear infections so far, they are quite painful. If you have, you know that treatment and antibiotics can be costly.

Unfortunately, sometimes, sharing AirPods and other types of earbuds is just unavoidable, especially among younger people. I know that I’m certainly guilty of being in class or in public and just offering a friend one of my AirPods to watch a quick video.

Does The Grime Hurt The AirPods?

Maybe you don’t share your AirPods with anybody, and their being a little dusty-looking doesn’t really bother you. That’s a valid point; the point of having the AirPods is not to show them off to your friends. However, having dirty AirPods will actually be bad for the product’s performance as well as its looks. Every part of the device will be impacted by letting them become unclean, from the sound quality to their charging capabilities.

The Sound

Cleaning AirPods Pro speaker sound driver mesh rubber tip

As we mentioned before, the actual AirPod earpieces will experience a buildup of ear wax as they sit in your ear. While it might seem like you can just keep letting it build up with no significant impacts, that’s just not true.

As more and more ear wax builds up, the old ear wax burrows deeper into the earpiece. If you look at your AirPods, you can see that the main speaker is almost mesh-like. So, being that things can actually pass through there, you might also notice that the earwax has built up through the mesh and is now touching the actual speaker portion.

If enough ear wax gets under that mesh protection and presses up against the speaker, it will muffle the sound coming from it and ruin the AirPods audio quality.

A good way to gauge whether or not this is something that’s happening to you for sure is to clean out the mesh part of the speaker and look underneath. It might sound a little too simple, but you’ll definitely be able to see a significant buildup.

Some people have naturally wet ear wax. Wet substances and AirPods do not mix. If your ear wax is wet and making prolonged contact with your AirPods, you could actually risk shorting out the device and ruining it. Replacement pods can set you back about $90 if they’re out-of-warranty, or about $60 and up with an AppleCare warranty claim.

The Mechanics

AirPods wireless case and usb-c charge port

The other thing that will ruin your AirPod experience is wrecking the mechanical pieces of the device. A buildup of dirt, lint, or crumbs in the holes for the earpieces will block off the charge conductors at the bottom of the stem, rendering your charging case useless.

Unlike your standard wired headphones, AirPods run on a wirelessly charged battery, so not being able to make proper contact with the charge nodes inside the case can impact charge performance, and make them nothing more than a decoration.

The Airpods case has a charge it needs to hold, too, and the case charges in one of two ways:

  1. Wirelessly, which is when you set it on a charging pad without plugging it in, or
  2. The traditional way, is where your lightning cable plugs into the bottom port. The wireless charging case is capable of doing both.

Having your AirPods case shoved into your pocket or bag is the perfect opportunity for pocket and purse gunk to find its way into the charging port. While you’re able to see grime build up in the earpieces and their charging holes, you’re not easily going to be able to see anything lurking in the case charging port. That means you might be pushing some of that dirt deeper into the port every time you charge it, which can end up short-circuiting your device.

What Can You Do To Fix It?

You can clean the AirPods and the charging case without damaging them. If done correctly, you can restore your earpieces’ sound quality, and your case’s charging capabilities in no time. Thankfully, Apple has your back, and they have come out with a guide to cleaning your AirPods to get them looking good as new. As a seasoned AirPods Pro owner, there are some hacks that can be shared from one user to another, too.

Cleaning Your AirPods

By now, you’re probably a little freaked out and wanting to clean your AirPods. When you’re going to do this, you will want to have a few things ready before you start.

There are a few things that Apple recommends you have when you’re going to clean your AirPods:

  • a dry microfiber cloth (that way, there’s no chance of lint), 
  • an ever-so-slightly damp microfiber cloth, 
  • and a cotton swab. 

Apple does not recommend using sharp pointy stuff to clean your AirPods, and neither do I. One slip of the hand, and you’ve pierced the speaker and essentially burned $90.

That’s all well and good, but mostly just for cleaning the inside of the earpieces, also known as the speaker meshes. However, sometimes, your AirPods get stained. Suddenly, you’ve dyed your hair and your AirPods at the same time. In this case, you can take a little bit of rubbing alcohol on a cotton swab and lightly scrub the stained area until clean.

Cleaning the Earpieces

recommended tech friendly cleaning putty

Cleaning the earpieces is actually way easier than it sounds. If you don’t notice any significant ear wax buildup, then you can just quickly wipe down the speaker meshes with a dry cotton swab. That will catch any ear wax that is there, even if you don’t see it.

When you do see a lot of ear wax in and under the speaker mesh, especially in the main compartment, you can use a toothpick around the edges to gently get it out. As long as you don’t push too hard or apply the toothpick directly to the speaker meshes, you won’t risk any damage.

Another thing you can do if that makes you uncomfortable is to use a Q-tip, or some sort of cleaning putty like this one that I keep near my gadgets around my office, which is tech-friendly, will stick to the ear wax, and pull it up and away from the Pods.

Never run the earpieces underwater for any reason, and don’t apply any alcohol to the speaker meshes, either. If you do that, you’re definitely going to have lost a pod by the end. You can use a very small amount of rubbing alcohol on the other parts, but never use bleach, even if you think it might make them look whiter.

Can You Disinfect Your AirPods?

recommended tech friendly lens and screen cleaning wipes

Disinfecting AirPods is essential these days, especially before and after you’ve shared them, which is not something a lot of people think of. While your ears will be at risk after you’ve shared them, it’s important to remember that other people’s ears will be at risk while you share them. Foreign ear bacteria goes both ways.

While you can disinfect the AirPods themselves with up to 70% isopropyl alcohol, you can’t use that on the speaker meshes, as it will penetrate into the speakers and short the device. Don’t be disheartened, though. Some companies make lens wipes, like these that I use regularly from Care Touch, which will disinfect the speaker meshes without getting them wet. The same disinfecting method applies to the case of the AirPods, too.

Cleaning The AirPods Case

Apple recommends having the same things handy if you’re getting ready to clean the actual case: a microfiber cloth, another one you can dampen, and a cotton swab. Apple also recommends that you have a soft-bristled brush ready.

For the outside of the case, you can just wipe it down with a damp cloth first, which you can dampen with water or isopropyl alcohol. You should never use bleach or any other harsh cleaners, though. Make sure not to wipe down the USB-C charging port on the bottom; doing so will ruin the port. When you get there, take that soft-bristled brush you have ready and gently brush out the port.

Do not wet the brush at all, or you’ll be in a whole heap of trouble.

Don’t Forget the Inside of the Case

Odds are, the inside of the case isn’t looking so hot, either. Depending on what order you’ve decided to do this in, either take the dirty AirPods out or set the clean AirPods aside. Put them in a container, and thank us later, when you don’t have to search for them high and low.

First, you can take a damp cotton swab and wipe out the inside of the lid. Come behind that with your dry cloth and wipe it off immediately. Next, look down. The place where the AirPods rest is slightly raised, and there’s a lip around the edge.

 You can take a toothpick and run it along that edge, which will get rid of stuck-on debris. Then, wet cotton swab and dry cotton swab that and the platform.  Make sure you dry every single piece off as soon as you get it to prevent any possible shortages if the water comes in contact with any of the metal contact points. Do not put anything in those charging holes except a cotton swab.

Is Cleaning Different For AirPods Pro?

AirPods Pro earbud rubber eartip and wireless charge contact clean

There are not very many differences in cleaning the AirPods Pro, and they mainly lie with the ear tips. Unlike your standard first and second-generation AirPods, you can actually remove the silicone ear tips. Pull them off carefully, or else you could tear them.

When you take these pieces off, you can run them underwater. Dry them off completely before you put them back on, and be sure to put them back on correctly. Forgetting that step could result in an uncomfortable fit.

How To Keep AirPods Clean 

The first thing you should make time for in your routine is cleaning them regularly, just like we described above. The other thing you should definitely consider is getting a case for them, which will keep them cleaner in between cleanings. You can also spot clean with a cotton swab if you see a pressing grime issue.

The one I have is silicone, and it has a flap that goes into the charging port to protect it from crumbs. You can get them in tons of patterns, colors, and designs, but whatever you do, get one with a clip. You might think you don’t need it, but you’ll thank the heavens that it was there the first time you think you lost it.

Tips and Tricks 

As someone who has had a pair of AirPods Pro for a few months now (and almost losing them quite a few times!), there are some things you should know about that will most definitely save you time and money.

  • Clip them to your belt loop or your keys.
  • Have a noticeable keychain on them, so they don’t get lost. 
  • Have a designated charging space for them.
  • Carry wipes for easy disinfecting.
  • If you’re wearing black jeans, never put them in your pockets. 

Following these general guidelines will not only keep your AirPods clean, but it will keep you from losing them. Cleaning the AirPods is essential to make sure you’re introducing as little bacteria as possible into your ears and preventing infection.

John Hammer

Hi i'm John Hammer, Founder and Author of Gizbuyer Guide. Ever since the original Xbox, PlayStation, and iPhone I've purchased and worked on all kinds of consumer tech products, gaming gadgets and operating system softwares. To this day my curiosity has never left, and my aim is to guide and share my knowledge on technology as I continue to experience the latest of the consumer electronics industry.

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