Pros and Cons of Sharing Headphones and Earbuds


sharing headphones and earbuds

Sharing headphones and earbuds are a fairly common practice. Families and friends share headphones all the time when traveling and in their homes. We do it without the slightest hesitation.

But is sharing headphones and earbuds really the best idea? There are a few compelling reasons to share headphones and earbuds including financial reasons and convenience, but the negatives are even more compelling. Here are 5 reasons you may want to avoid sharing headphones or earbuds in the future.

  1. Headphones and earbuds can carry bacteria.
  2. They can encourage the development of yeast.
  3. Sharing headphones can spread germs that cause colds and flu.
  4. Someone might break your headphones or earbuds.
  5. Sharing earbuds that don’t fit may cause discomfort.

Sharing earbuds is even worse than sharing headphones because earbuds are set inside the ear cavity, which makes it prime real estate for germs and bacteria. Continue reading to find out why sharing earbuds and headphones probably aren’t the best idea, and also how to go about sharing in the best way.

Pros to Sharing Earbuds and Headphones

We’ve all likely shared headphones or earbuds with a friend or family member at least once, and many people do it regularly without a second thought. It is natural to pass an earbud to a friend so they can listen in to on a video you’re watching or a song you’re listening to.

#1 Sharing Earbuds is Convenient 

Whether you’re on a plane, in a car, riding the bus, or sitting in a public space where blasting sound out your phone would be rude, sharing earbuds is a convenient way to watch a movie, listen to music, or enjoy a video with a friend. 

One person will take one side of the earbud and another person will take the other side of the earbud. The safest way to do this would be to have an earbud designated for each person and to carry a method of cleaning the earbud before and after use.

Without added accessories, there is no way to use 2 sets of headphones or earbuds on the same phone, even if they are wireless. Most people share out of convenience.

#2 Sharing Saves Money in Families and Institutions 

Families can save a little money by having their children share headphones or earbuds when they are using a computer or other device. This is especially important if you prefer to buy high-quality headphones with high-end sound quality.

Institutions like schools may have a headphone for each computer in their computer lab, but not one for each student. This clearly makes financial sense because buying a set for each computer costs far less than buying one for each student, and asking students to bring their own can be a real challenge.

Reasons Not to Share Your Headphones and Earbuds

There are some pretty compelling reasons to share headphones and earbuds. It is both convenient and makes financial sense in many situations, but after reading the next section, you’re sure to think twice.

#1 Headphones and Earbuds Can Carry Bacteria

If you or your friend have any kind of nasty bacteria in your ear, you’re going to be sharing it if you share headphones or earbuds. This is especially true of earbuds since they sit inside the ear.

We often think of wax as protecting our ear from germs and bacteria, but when you share earbuds tiny bits of earwax are likely to be shared as well, and these bits can actually help carry that bacteria from person to person.

#2 Headphones and Earbuds can Encourage Development of Yeast

Earbuds that have been shared have been found to have yeast on them, and yeast grows extremely well in warm dark places making the ears a perfect place for yeast to be found and yet another reason for earbuds not to be shared.

Yeast is actually a fungus and having it in your ear is not good in the least. It can cause Otomycosis, which is a fungal infection of the ear which can be difficult to treat. It is more commonly found in tropical climates that are warm and humid or people who are in wet environments regularly.

Like bacteria, the fungus can be passed from person to person when sharing earbuds or headphones. 

#3 Sharing Headphones Can Spread Germs that Cause Colds and Flu

Just like other articles of clothing a person might wear, headphones can become contaminated with germs that cause colds and the flu. If your friend is sick, you definitely don’t want to be sharing their headphones.

Think about how that person is likely coughing while wearing their headphones and all opportunities for germs to latch on to the headphones themselves or the cord. The changes of you common down with a cold after sharing contaminated headphones are pretty good.

#4 Your Headphones or Earbuds Could Get Damaged

If you own a high-end pair of headphones or earbuds, you may want to think twice before handing them over to a friend to borrow them. If your friend is responsible and careful with their belongings, chances are they will be careful with yours as well, but not all friends are like that.

We’re taught that sharing is caring, but if you’re concerned that someone may not take care of your expensive investment, it might be best to talk it over with your friend. You could always just tell them you don’t share because of the health-related reasons already listed.

#5 Using Earbuds that Don’t Fit Your Ears is Uncomfortable

When people have nice earbuds, they usually are able to shape those earbuds to fit their ear size and shape. When another person shares these earbuds, they are not going to fit very well and in fact may be very uncomfortable to the new user.

The sharing of earbuds when the person has a different ear size is usually not a great idea for common-sense reasons. There are some earbuds that fit some people better than others. When people pick earbuds, they usually pick earbuds that fit them, so when they share, it stands to reason, the earbuds might not fit someone else. 

If the earbuds that do not fit the ears are worn for an extended amount of time, the ear may actually start to hurt and start to get red. Sharing an earbud that is not the correct size can make the ear feel sore. 

How to Keep Headphones and Earbuds Clean

Because bacteria, infections, and yeast may be spread when people share headphones and earbuds, it is, of course, important to keep these devices clean. This is a fairly simple process but should be done on a regular basis if for no other reason than headphones and earbuds collect dust and accumulate dirt after continued use. 

Headphones

  • Remove the ear pads and wipe the exterior of the headphones down with a small cloth dampened with some soap and warm water. Dry with some paper towels and then leave to air dry completely.
  • Wet a small cloth with rubbing alcohol and gently wipe down the exterior of the ear pads. 
  • Use a cotton swab if needed to get any cracks or detail places you cannot get with a cloth. Be careful not to get any liquid into any openings.
  • Put some alcohol over the foam mesh and rub gently the right and left sides together. This will kill the bacteria that are living in the ear pads. The rubbing should also dislodge any leftover dirt or debris. 

Earbuds

  • Take off the silicone tips and keep earbuds with the mesh side facing downward. Use a toothbrush and gently brush the wire mesh to knock off any dirt or stuck ear wax.
  • Gently tap the earbuds from time to time to help knock off loosened debris.
  • Put some blu-tack on a bent paperclip and rub this over the wire mesh of the earbud to make sure the surface is covered. This action will pick up any remaining dirt and dust. The end of the earbud will be completely clean. 
  • Use one of your small alcohol wipes and wipe the earbud one more time over the metal mesh and the wires to make sure everything is clean and sterilized.
  • The silicone ear tips can be soaked in warm soapy water for about 5 minutes.

Use Disposable Covers to Protect Your Ears

You can use disposable covers on both headphones and earbuds to help protect your ears when sharing. These covers are also good at extending the life of your headphones and earbuds. 

Disposable Covers for Headphones

Disposable covers that encase the earpads on headphones are a perfect way to protect both the user’s ear and the headphones themselves. These are very thin, but sanitary and stretchable headphone covers. Headphone covers will protect users from lice, bacteria, ear mites, the common cold, and other infections spread by sharing headphones. 

The headphone covers are hypoallergenic and will allow allergy sufferers to use headphones without the worry of contracting allergies from a previous user in common areas. After you wear the headphones, you can just throw the covers away. This may seem extremely wasteful, but they are made of extremely thin material.

Disposable Covers for Earbuds

Earbuds also have disposable covers as well. Extra foam earpads are used to put over the original earbud. This does not affect the sound quality and might actually help to make the earbud more comfortable. And for a little extra cost, they can come in a variety of colors, but most are basic black.

If someone else wants to use the earbud, just simply put different foam pads over the earpiece. This will give your friend or family member a comfortable and clean earbud set to use. The foam earbud sets should be replaced often due to wear and tear and the fact they will get dirty. The nice thing about the foam pads is they are easy to clean in soap and water. Let the pads air dry. 

An Audiologist Weighs In

Beth McCormick, Au. D. often writes informative articles about information relating to ears and ear care. In her recent article, “Are Earbuds Safe to Share?” she writes:

“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.” 

Beth McCormick, Au. D.

Dr. McCormick goes on to say that our ears produce a natural defense mechanism against much of the invading bacteria. “Lucky for us, our ears have protection against bacteria. It’s our earwax.” Dr. McCormick then went into many details about how earwax protects our ears by forming a barrier of sorts. 

Earwax is Nature’s Defense Against Earbud Bacteria

Often people spend time cleaning their ears to get rid of their ear wax. This, as it turns out, is a mistake. Earwax is nature’s defense against infections that try to enter our bodies through the ear canal. 

Think of earwax as an ear filter. Earwax is there to block other invaders from coming into the inner ear. These other invaders and bacteria can enter the ear by sharing earbuds and headphones. Ear wax helps stave off some of these infections. 

Besides keeping out bacteria to the best of its ability, earwax serves to keep the ear lubricated, so they do not get dry and cracked. Earwax is like a natural antibiotic, and when people have cleared their ears from earwax, they are in a sense, removing this antibiotic from their ears. 

When you do share headphones or earbuds, you can at least be assured the ear wax in your ears is serving to keep infections and bacteria at bay, for the most part. Be careful of course that you don’t pass the earwax itself from ear to ear on the earbuds. 

Break the Ear Cleaning Cycle

Begin to change habits by not cleaning your ears or your children’s ears with cotton swabs. If you have a real problem with earwax build-up, you should see an ENT (ear, nose and throat specialist) to help and to clear out the extra earwax in a safe manner.

It is not best practice to stick a Q tip into your ear or into a child’s ear. You should not use anything smaller than your finger. Remember the earwax is a natural antibiotic and is a protection against harmful bacterial from things such as headphones and earbuds that could enter your body through the ear canal. 

Sharing Headphones and Earbuds in School

In the past (and in many computer labs across the country today), students shared headphones and earbuds that were just used by another student in a previous session without batting an eye.

Many schools provided alcohol wipes to clean the headphones before use, but many teachers and students would not think to use them or would not think it was necessary. The bacteria build-up and wax contaminating these headphones after multiple uses would likely make your stomach turn.

Sharing headphones between classes is also problematic because there is no way for a student to know if the person using the set before them was showing clear signs of having a cold or not. There is no way to know if the headphones should be avoided.

Many schools are also going with the disposable earphone covers and with the idea of students either bring their own earbuds or use the earphones with the disposable covers. Most students will remember their own earbuds rather than use the earphones with the disposable covers.

If your school or your child’s school does not use disposable covers for their headphones, look into getting a pair of headphones to keep in your backpack or your student’s backpack.

Best Practices When Sharing Headphone or Earbuds

There are two pros to sharing headphones and earbuds and five cons to sharing headphones and earbuds. By not sharing these devices, we are able to stay healthier and prevent bacterial or fungal infections from occurring needlessly. We don’t cough in each other’s faces, so we shouldn’t share our listening devices either when we have colds. 

  • If you often find yourself in situations where it becomes necessary to share headphones or earbuds consider buying a headphone splitter and carrying an extra pair of headphones or earbuds. If you use Bluetooth headphones or earbuds, you can also find Bluetooth splitters that allow this.
  • Additionally, it is good practice to clean your headphones regularly whether you share them or not. They pick up dirt and germs sitting around in your pocket or bag. Regular cleaning will help keep your ears healthy, and cleaning between sharing is recommended.
  • Definitely don’t share with anyone who is showing signs of illness like coughing, sneezing, or having a runny nose. It just isn’t worth it!
  • When using headphones in a computer lab, use alcohol wipes to clean them before using them and use the disposable covers provided.

Rune Bearson

As you can see, I love my headphones! I use them every day when commuting, watching YouTube videos, playing guitar/piano and doing chores. I'm a podcast addict and I like all kinds of music from metal to chillout ambient.

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