Going outside without music or podcasts to listen to can be a drag. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, you might consider taking some extra precautions so you can jam out safely during your grocery runs.
The CDC recommends properly cleaning personal electronics as necessary. While headphones and earbuds aren’t specifically named in its guidelines, you probably touch them enough to warrant proper disinfection just to be safe. The good news is there are fairly easy ways to do this.
First, the risks
One of the more harrowing aspects of COVID-19 is that we don’t yet know everything we need to know about it. That said, we can still use what information we have to understand the risks of going out in public with headphones right now.
In a phone call with Mashable, infectious disease physician Dr. Anne Liu of Stanford Health Care cleared up some concerns you may have about headphone use during the pandemic. First things first: While there isn’t an abundance of data on the subject, it’s not widely believed that COVID-19 can be transmitted through your ears. Liu explained that the ears don’t connect to respiratory epithelial cells, which the American Lung Association describes as material that catch viruses in the body’s airways.
“It is not transmitted through the skin,” Liu said. “And your ears are covered in skin, there’s no direct passage into your respiratory epithelium.”
Though the virus isn’t known to be transmissible through ears, using your headphones without taking safety measures still has some risk associated with it, even if the risk isn’t major. The coronavirus can live on hard surfaces like plastic, glass, and wood for three to five days, per the Cleveland Clinic. If the virus does find its way onto a pair of headphones, you could conceivably catch it by touching them and then touching your face without washing your hands first.
Still, according to Liu, the risk of catching the coronavirus from headphone use isn’t especially high, depending on the circumstances.
“If you’re outdoors and people are respecting social distancing, then the risk is very low,” Liu said. “A more likely situation for [COVID-19] transmission is when people are not physically distancing, especially in enclosed spaces, but it could also be outdoors when people are packed together enough for a long enough period of time.”
Dr. Mia Lieberman, a clinical veterinarian at Harvard Medical School, once conducted a study on smartphone sterilization. She explained that different devices have different risk factors. Since headphones and earbuds aren’t touched quite as often as a phone (which also touches your face during calls), they don’t necessarily carry the same amount of risk.
“Earbuds, you kind of put in, listen to music, and take out again. It’s not as high of a contact surface compared to your phone, which you’re handling all the time,” Lieberman said.
In terms of the best products to use for disinfecting headphones, Lieberman warned that different materials require different methods. Rigid surfaces like plastic may be able to withstand rubbing alcohol or disinfecting wipes, but Lieberman recommended headphone users find out what the product’s maker recommends for material like fabric.
“Probably an alcohol wipe wouldn’t do too much damage, but there’s obviously a variety of different materials out there so people should consult the manufacturer,” Lieberman said.
As for how often to wash headphones, Liu told us it depends on the environment. Those in densely packed urban areas should probably at least wipe things off when they get home but, otherwise, it varies.
“If you go for a jog outside and … you don’t really encounter a lot of people, I wouldn’t really worry about it,” Liu said. “Unless you’ve been handling shared objects or shared surfaces with your hands, in which case it’s probably a good idea to do it.”
How to clean earbuds
Now, onto the cleaning process. We’ll echo Dr. Lieberman’s advice up front and tell you to Google cleaning instructions for the specific headphones you use. Chances are the company itself has those on its website. Apple and Bose, for example, will tell you what to do and what not to do as you try to clean your headphones.
Earbuds are the smallest and most delicate of headphones, so it should go without saying that you need to be careful while disinfecting them. Before you do anything, make sure they’re powered off (if Bluetooth) or unplugged (if not). After that, you need to clean the rubber tips (if any), plastic casing, and the mesh speaker grill separately, using different materials and methods.
Removable ear tips need to be, well, removed before you attack the waxy buildup on them. Clear out the worst of the wax first, using anything you have on hand that might be useful, a toothpick or paper clip. Now that they’re ready to be really cleaned, Bose and Beats both recommend mild soap and water, preferably with a soft cloth on hand for drying. Be gentle.
For the plastic exterior, a soft cloth or cotton swab will work wonders here, too. Apple doesn’t want you using soap, bleach, or other cleaning solutions of any kind on AirPods, but 70 percent isopropyl rubbing alcohol is apparently fine. Alcohol or Clorox wipes are probably the easiest way to clean off the plastic part of any earbuds. Just don’t go overboard if you don’t want to scuff up the material in any way.
Finally, the speaker grill is where you need to be the most delicate. Soap stains on plastic are one thing, but a speaker that doesn’t work because you cleaned it wrong is cataclysmic in terms of your listening ability. It’s worth reiterating that you should not, under any circumstances, let liquid get into the grill. A tooth brush or cotton swab (with a light amount of rubbing alcohol) can get the residue off the grill without risking its life. Take care not to push anything into the grill.
How to clean over-ear and on-ear headphones
For clarity’s sake, this section pertains to bigger headphones that rest on your head with a headband. On-ear headphones have smaller ear cups that rest on the ear, while over-ear headphones are bigger and their ear cups surround the ear. If you’re tired of dealing with earwax, the good news is cleaning on-ear or over-ear headphones is a little more straightforward.
As usual, try to use liquid only on harder, more durable surfaces. Bose and Beats both suggest using a damp cloth with soap to clean places like the headband and other exterior surfaces. Rubbing alcohol could also work here. Keep softer areas on the headphones dry. Bose says to use a dry cloth on the ear cushions after prolonged use to clear them of oils and such that build up over time.
If your beefy headphones have removable ear cups, it’s probably best to take them off and clean them separately. As always, be sure not to let liquids get into the nooks and crannies. They may be bigger, but they can still die just like earbuds can. If you see any gunk that needs to be removed, do so much like you’d remove earwax from earbuds.
The truth is it’s probably smart to do all of these things periodically when we aren’t dealing with a pandemic. Even so, the coronavirus has made it abundantly clear just how dirty our electronics can get, and the risk associated with touching them without taking any precautions.
So grab those Clorox wipes and get to work.