Oh my earbuds!

As I was in the locker-room at the gym today, one of my earbud things popped off the apparatus.  You know what I’m talking about… the clear part that fits your ear size and attaches to the speaker.  Well, it popped off and landed on the floor.  When I put it back on to the speaker, I was appalled.  I’m a clean person–I really am.  But there was a funk build-up on the speaker and I thought it was a little repulsive.  It made me wonder.. what kinds of germs get on these things and how often should we replace them?  I mean, I clean them off from time to time, but I don’t really recall the last time and I have owned this set for a couple of years now… Gross!  I put my earbuds in, rocked out, and completed my workout, but that’s not to say that from time to time I didn’t think about the germs swelling in my ears.

I decided to do a little research and write a post about it.  Some of you may have inquiring minds that want to know.  Let me shed a little light on the subject.  I got my information from a few sources (but didn’t site them because I’m lazy).

1. You really should wash your hands before handling your earbuds.  Lab field testsfound bacteria on audio devices that are normally only found in urine or fecal matter.  Those germs get transferred from unwashed hands to the earbud and then to the ear.  Then they mutate when outside the ear and introduce those new mutations back into our ears when we reinsert the earbuds.  Common sense, but pretty disgusting.

2. Everyone has bacteria and fungus in their ear canals that are normally in balance, and one generally keeps the other from taking over.  However, a study published in the Online Journal of Health and Allied Sciences found that regularly using earbuds significantly increases bacterial growth in the ear, potentially leading to ear infections. The study also found that 92 percent of shared earbuds tested contained harmful bacteria. The same bacteria was found on only 8 percent of earbuds that were shared less frequently.  Um, who shares earbuds?  Oh yeah–my teenaged students do!  Gross!!

3. In a 1992 study from the medical journal, Laryngoscope, scientists measured bacteria levels found on 20 audio headsets of the type provided by airlines. At the beginning of the experiment, the typical headset had 60 microorganisms on its surface; after an hour’s use, that number went up to 650—roughly 11 times more. This could suggest that headphones make germs procreate like crazy but they say it’s more likely that the heat and humidity created in the ear causes  organisms from the deeper skin layers and the sweat and sebaceous glands to come out an gather in the ear opening.  Again, pretty gross.

4.  Then I found this: Other ear research suggests that pretty much anything you stick in there—stethoscopes, hearing aids, audiological gear—comes out covered in microbes, but those microbes don’t necessarily make you sick. Unless you’re prone to getting ear infections—or you’re one of those germ freaks we all know and love—the headphones-bacteria situation isn’t as bad as we think.

I was really hoping for more scientific studies and images of dirty earbud Petri dishes, but there were none.  I guess things aren’t as bad as they seem.  And truth be told, I’ve been working out with earbuds for a long time and not as diligent as I should about cleaning them.  I have never had a pimple or ear infection come my way.

The moral of the story here is that, yes, earbuds are full of bacteria and germs.  But so is everything else.  I can only imagine what kinds of creepy crawlies are lurking on the machines and benches we all use at the gym.  Oh yeah, and the door handles in public places.  And even my sports bra.  I don’t even want to know!

“Experts” suggest cleaning your earbuds with mild soap and water or hydrogen peroxide on a cotton swab.  If you are really grossed out (or just need an excuse to buy a new pair of Skullcandy), replace them.  That’s usually what I do.

I hope you think of me the next time you insert those little lovelies into your ears.  Maybe not… that might be creepy!

~Marisa

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