Are earbuds safe to share?

On a recent flight, I looked around and noticed I was the only passenger who didn’t pack headphones. I had to ask the flight attendant for earbuds, as it seemed everyone else packed their own. I started to wonder if my fellow passengers brought their own earbuds along to avoid sharing or to avoid using the complimentary airline buds? And if most people are bringing their earbuds everywhere, just how clean are they, and can they be safely shared? 

Lugging our earbuds around with us means our headphones are exposed to many different surfaces, increasing the likelihood of picking up bacteria from our desks, our tray tables, even our bags. 

Not only do our earbuds come in contact with contaminated surfaces, studies have shown that simply using earbuds increases the bacteria in our ears 11 fold. That’s because wearing earbuds can trap moisture and heat in the ear canal, creating the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive. 

Bacteria bad, earwax good

Lucky for us, our ears have protection against bacteria. It’s our earwax, and it’s often what you see on your earbuds after wearing them. Every ear has wax, or cerumen. Wax is harmless and actually helpful. Wax helps clean, protect and lubricate our ears. Without it, our ear canals would feel itchy and dry. 

The wax in our ears also helps keep dirt and debris away from our ear drum. Apocrine glands in the outer part of our ears produce wax. These glands are similar to the glands that make us sweat. And just like an increase in stress or fear can make us sweat more, an increase in stress has also been shown to make our ears produce more earwax! 

If your ears produce a lot of wax, you can use a cloth to wipe the outer ear canal or you can put a few drops of over-the-counter ear cleaning drops in your ears to soften and remove the wax. If your ears feel blocked or the wax seems to be affecting your hearing, talk to your doctor or hearing professional about removing it for you. Jaw movements from eating or talking also help move the wax out of our ears. Read here for more ear cleaning tips.

Sharing earbuds with others

The odds of infection are slim, but still…!

Reports vary on whether sharing earbuds is safe. Business Insider tested 22 pairs of in-the-ear style earbuds at Columbia University’s microbiology lab. Most of the samples yielded results that researchers expected, testing positive for bacteria found on our skin, like staphylococcus. There was one surprise though: two of the samples tested positive for yeast. Yeast is a type of fungus that can cause infection, you can even get a yeast infection in your ears. 

Sharing earbuds can introduce new bacteria into your ears, doubling the microbial flora in our ears. And while most of the bacteria is harmless, and the odds of something bad happening are slim, the risk of developing middle ear infections, fungus, and swimmer’s ear does increase when you share earbuds. If there is a cut in your ear canal, sharing can also cause a skin infection. 

(BYOE) Bring your own earbuds 

My advice would be to avoid sharing your earbuds. If you’re in a pinch and need to share, it’s best to disinfect your earbuds first with rubbing alcohol or a disinfecting spray. Use a dampened cotton ball to wipe off any visible waxy residue and any bacteria hiding there that you can’t see. 

You may also want to invest in disposable earbud covers if you have a friend, like me, who always forgets to bring their own. 

 

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By Beth McCormick, Au.D.

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