How to clean your gross, waxy AirPods

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Cleaning your AirPods is easy, and you probably have the tools to do it already.
Cleaning your AirPods is easy, and you probably have the tools to do it already.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

The other day on the metro, I pulled out my AirPods and dropped one on the floor. It bounced over dried and dirty beer stains, and who knows what other filth and bacteria traipsed in on a million passengers’ shoes (and the odd hippie’s bare feet). I gave up on listening to anything on the trip home, and slipped the rescued AirPod back into its case.

Today we’re going to see how to clean AirPods (or any other earbuds). It’s not only hippie toe jam that we have to worry about, either. Because we’re always pushing these things deep into moist holes in our heads, they crust up with earwax and whatever bacteria we have living in our earholes. Happily, cleaning and disinfecting AirPods is not only easy. It’s just about as satisfying as digging a deep-seated booger out of your nose, or picking an almost-healed scab.

How to clean AirPods

Believe it or not, these didn't look so bad from a distance -- check the main photo to see what I mean.
Believe it or not, these didn’t look so bad from a distance — check the main photo to see what I mean.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

First remove the filth

All earbuds will get gunked up in regular use. You might not mind the disgusting crust of wax and dirt on them, but eventually it will build up and block the audio. This obviously depends on the design of the earbuds, so today we’ll look at AirPods, which seem particularly susceptible to beat-blocking buildups.

Maybe it’s because they sit protected in a case when not in use, but my AirPods get waxier than regular EarPods, which jostling in a bag or pocket and get cleaned a little in the process.

How to clean your AirPods

To clean your AirPods, you’ll need four or five tools:

  1. Rubbing alcohol, or any kinds of almost-pure cleaning alcohol.
  2. A rag, or a piece of kitchen paper, or even a few squares of toilet paper.
  3. Cotton buds aka Q-tips.
  4. A scraper.
  5. And maybe a brush.

One of the best tools for scraping is the SIM removal tool that came with your iPhone. It’s stiff, it has a sharp edge for digging into corners, and you already have one. Good alternatives include a tiny flat-head screwdriver, one side of a pair of tweezers, or a lock-pick tool.

Then get to work cleaning AirPods

Pay attention to all the holes.
Pay attention to all the holes.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

First, grab an AirPod and the scraper, and use it to work the dry, crusted wax out of its holes. There are three places where the wax builds up. The end, where’re the sound comes out, and two smaller lozenge-shaped holes.

All of these are covered with a fine mesh grille, and you have to be careful not to a) damage the mesh or b) push the wax into the AirPods thought this mesh, like putting boiled potatoes through a ricer. You should carefully scrape across the mesh, pausing often to brush away the loosened wax using a brush, or the cover of a dry rag.

This may take a little while, because you have to take it slow and easy. There’s no point getting the way off the outside if it’s just getting pushed into the AirPod, where it will be stuck forever.

Disinfect AirPods for ultimate clean

Next, you want to swab both the AirPods and the case with the denatured alcohol. lightly moisten your cloth — you don’t want to get liquid inside — and rub all over the AirPods. This is quick and easy. Then, take a Q-tip and do the same for the inside of the AirPods case. Try not to get the long hole — where the stalks of the buds love — wet. This is where the charging contacts live, so liquid is most definitely not welcome.

Important — after this stage, leave the AirPods out of their case, and leave the case open for a little while to dry out. Alcohol will evaporate much faster than water, but it can’t go anywhere if it’s sealed in a plastic case.

And there you have it. You AirPods are now clean and germ-free, ready to be plugged back into your canals. And maybe they sound better too, after you scraped out all that sound-sapping gunk.