Of all the important things in your life, how far up the list is clean headphones? Chances are it’s not on the list at all as it isn’t something most of us think about. Our headphones tend to be for our own personal use so passing them around doesn’t happen very often. When it does happen, it’s usually to let someone quickly listen to something we’ve just heard.
Would you put on someone else’s headphones and if you did, would you think, “I wonder if they’re clean”? Unless they’re obviously filthy, probably not. Are there health issues sharing them? Do they need cleaning and how do you do it?
Things have changed in recent years with the introduction of in-ear headphones. They’ve been around for a good few years. It’s believed one of the first mentions of them was in an article in Science and Invention magazine way back in May, 1926. They really took off in a big way when Apple launched their earpods for the iPod in 2001 and now there’s another angle on headphone hygiene.
The Workplace and Clean Headphones
Have you ever visited a radio station studio? Although things are a little different these days, there was a time when most broadcasters would share the studio “cans”. The station provided them as part of the equipment needed to broadcast their output. Over ear are best for using in a radio studio to prevent any howl round from the microphone. Most broadcasters joke about going deaf due to having their headphone too loud, but they still crank them up!
Over ear types possibly present less of a hygiene issue than others as the pads just rest against the side of the head. This isn’t seen as so much of a problem, but consider going on air following the previous presenter who was wearing sticky gel in their hair, or worse someone who hadn’t washed their hair for some time!
Maybe not a serious health issue, but a workplace such as a radio station where sharing headphones is common, must bring the question of hygiene into play. It has to be said, many broadcasters now buy their own “cans” and won’t let anyone else near them. Dirt is fine as long as it’s your own dirt?
Telephonists have always shared headsets and there doesn’t seem to have been evidence of health problems. The same can be said for the office telephone. Most companies provide hygiene wipes to clean them, but if you work in an office have you ever looked at the earpiece and seen a clump of grime that must have been present when you last held it to your ear? It’s not a nice thought!
Working in a call center and wearing a headset can present similar issues, not only with hygiene but possibly with health reasons. There is the question on hearing damage, but also on whether infections can be passed on to others when there are many working and sharing in the same office.
There was a study carried out with call center workers in Malaysia in 1999 to see if their headphones might cause ear infection and hearing loss. It found no evidence of hearing loss and only an increased risk to those who already had a chronic middle ear infection. You can see the results of the study at the National Center for Biotechnology Information website.
More recently the UK Health and Safety Executive did say that there may be increased risk of infection where headsets are worn intensively in places such as call centers. It advised all staff should at least be given personal foam ear pads but preferably their own headset.
Keeping them Clean
It isn’t a big task to clean headphones so why don’t more people do it? With the onset of the in-ear type exploding in popularity you might think that a quick wipe would be something that comes naturally. If you have a smartphone and use the headphones supplied, have you ever cleaned them? Have you ever borrowed some else’s and thought about what might be on them?
There’s no getting away from it, if they’re dirty there has to be some risk of infection. Yes, you can say that about many things we handle occasionally or on a day to day basis. For example, if you go to a bowling alley wearing those awful shoes that everyone shares, yuk! Of course they get a quick spray after use but even so! Or, still in a bowling alley, when you put your fingers in the holes of the balls, you have no idea what germs hide in there and they probably never get sprayed with cleaner!
Back to headphones – it’s very easy to keep them clean and germ free. If you collect the free wet wipes you get when you go to some restaurants or fast food outlets, they’re great for cleaning. Buying telephone wet wipes with disinfectant is another option. Pure alcohol (not the sort you drink!) applied with Q-tips can do a good job and should only take seconds.
Ear pads will deteriorate over time and when the plastic begins to crack it’s time to replace them. They should be wiped over every now and then to clean off the dead skin. Foam pads ought to be cleaned more often as dirt and dead skin can easily build up in them. If you’re able, it’s a good idea to remove the pads once in a while to clean underneath them as the dirt will collect there too.
The headband will also need a wipe over from time to time. It sits on the hair and no matter how often it’s washed, it will cause some build-up of dirt and skin. This is also the case if you don’t have hair, the sweat will cause some of the debris to stick!
Using a little water is possible if you’re really careful as you don’t want to cause any damage. Using it with some antibacterial soap might also work, but again, use with caution. Foam pads should be able to handle water. It’s also advisable to replace the ear pads or cups every now and again even if they’re not worn out. Of course it’s not only dirt that can be a problem, be aware of loud music causing ringing in the ear.
Now Go and Clean
If you don’t regularly clean where you can’t see, such as under your bed, it’ll still get dirty. Think of the amount of dust that builds up if you’ve not been there in a while. The same is true of headphones.
In-ear types should really be cleaned often as they sit right in the ear canal and even if you keep yourself clean, your ear will naturally discharge some wax which will get onto the headphones. It might not always show, but it will be there.
This is also the case if you borrow them from someone else, do you really want to push them into your ear when they have deposits on them from the owner? It won’t necessarily spread germs but it has to be unhygienic. You shouldn’t borrow from anyone who has a cold as the chances of infection will be increased.
Cleaning is such a simple task, it can be done very easily and quickly so why do so few people do it, let alone think about it? Of course there’s the old saying that a few germs never hurt anyone and there’s some truth in that as it helps build resistance to them, but are you now encouraged to make sure you have clean headphones?