This is one of those things that make you go “ewww.” Headphones, especially the earbud variety that fits inside your ear, can harbor ear wax, dirt, sweat particles and even bacteria, viruses and other microbes which happily hop from the devise into your ear every time you use headphones. According to the National Institute of Health, wearing headphones for just one hour increases the bacteria level in your ear 700 times.
For those who share headphones, the news is even worse. Because colonies of germs lurk inside and on the edge, headphones rank high on the list of things that should never be shared, right up there with tissues, hairbrushes and contact lenses. One study featured in the Online Journal of Health and Allied Services found that sharing headphones is one way to pass potentially illness causing germs from one person to another.
“Frequent and constant use of earphones increases the bacterial growth in the ear and sharing of earphones might be a potential vector of commensals. It is therefore, always better not to share or else to clean the earphones before sharing,” the study, posted on Cogprints.org said.
But anyone who has ever walked through a mall or a park and witnessed groups of teens huddled together, listening to the same music devise with the same set of headphones knows that most kids are not likely to heed the no-sharing rule. Even in my house, we have been known to share headphones from kid-to-kid, parent-to-kid and even (gasp) parent-to-parent. Properly cleaning the headphones regularly is a must for protecting sensitive ears, whether headphones are shared or not.
While you might be tempted to give your headphones a bath in bleach to kill off anything that dares to live on the devise, doing so will only ruin the headphones, and bleach is not an eco-friendly cleanser (it can form toxic byproducts). Hydrogen peroxide, however, is a better choice as it breaks down in a more Earth-friendly manner, as merely water and oxygen.
Hydrogen peroxide is also a powerful cleaner and germ-getter and its main ingredient, oxygen, is well-known for its bleaching ability.
Hydrogen peroxide can be found in solutions of up to 35 percent, but keeping your headphones germ-free, or for other household cleaning tasks, the basic 3 percent version found in most grocery stores and pharmacies will work perfectly fine. These solutions are mostly water with enough hydrogen peroxide to do the job without risking your safety or requiring you to wear gloves, eye goggles or other protective gear.
To clean the headphones, pour hydrogen peroxide from the bottle into a bowl. Dampen a cotton cloth by dipping it into the liquid. Wring the cloth to ensure that it is not too wet. Unplug the headphones then gently wipe the cloth over them, taking care not to saturate the headphones. Too much liquid will destroy the headphones, especially if drops find their way inside the tiny sound holes of the headphones. A cotton cloth should be fine for removing dirt and debris, but if a slightly more abrasive scrubber is desired, use nylon netting or even a toothbrush, just be sure that it is not saturated or dripping when you begin scrubbing.
If the headphones have a protective foam covering (another great hiding spot for germs) remove these if possible and drop them into the bowl of hydrogen peroxide. Allow them to sit there for a few moments, then remove and air dry. Put them back on the headphones only when they are completely dry. Use the cloth to completely wife down the headphones, from the ear pieces, down the cord.
1. National Institute of Health website, 9/8/2010, http://kids.niehs.nih.gov/trivia.htm
2. Cogprints website, 9/8/10 A Comparative Analysis of Bacterial Growth with Earphone Use, Mukhopadhyay, Chiranjay and Basak, Soham and Gupta, Soham and Chawla, Kiran and Bairy, Indira (2008) A Comparative Analysis of Bacterial Growth with Earphone Use. [Journal (On-line/Unpaginated)], http://cogprints.org/6200/