Sujana Chandrasekhar, MD, an otolaryngology partner at ENT and Allergy Associates, says it’s usually fine as long as you disinfect the earbud with alcohol before and after use. What if you don’t? You run the risk of spreading bacteria and perhaps contracting infections, which is close to what would happen if you share a toothbrush. “If one of you gets an ear canal infection…that infection will be passed from person to person,” she explains. “Also, whether you are rough or deep with the pod insertion, you can cause a superficial scrape of the ear canal tissue, which predisposes it to infection.”
I noticed a tried-and-true rom-com staple when watching the newly released Netflix film Moxie: the sharing of headphones to enjoy listening to a song with a crush. And, though the scene may be typical to mark the early stages of innocent love, seeing it now—after spending more than a year at a social distance from others, and now hyper-aware of germ transmission—made me think about the cleanliness aspect of the operation. Can, for example, sharing earbuds cause ear infections? And, if so, can I delete this once-adorable pass from my flirtation playlist (once it’s safe to do so again)?
If you cringed when reading the last bit, you’re not alone (with me). The thought of using a Q-tip (even the proper way) grosses me out, so you can imagine how the thought of shoving headphones into an ear and subsequently breeding an ear infection gives me the shivers gives me the shivers gives me the shivers gives me the shivers gives me the shivers gives me the shivers gives me the shivers gives me the shivers gives me the shivers gives me the shiver And that’s just the tip of the gross-out iceberg when it comes to communal headphones.
“Because ear canal infections, also known as ‘otitis externa,’ are skin infections, transmitting bacteria, fungi, or ear wax containing certain microbial elements via ear pod will ‘transplant’ the infection to the new ear canal,” explains Dr. Chandraskhar. “Unlike the rest of our membrane, the ear canal skin is located in a dark, warm environment that is a breeding ground for both bacteria and fungus.”
So, if you have the aforementioned scratch or two, the infection transfer is much faster and more possible. And you probably won’t even know if you’ve been scratched. And if you’ve checked for scratches and have velvety smooth ears that are perfectly safe, there’s always the ick factor that can come from mixing ear wax with someone else’s.
“Swapping ear wax is just gross in general,” says Dr. Chandraskhar, “but the other person’s flaky ear wax has no business mingling with your smooth, moist ear wax, and vice versa.” “In addition, if the wax is on the bud and you don’t rinse it until inserting it into your ear, you’re introducing foreign wax deep into your own ear canal. That’s so gross.”
Bottom line: Avoid sharing the pods or sockets. While the mutual wax does not pose a direct threat to your wellbeing, it does, at worst, expose you to bacteria and, at best, is relatively disgusting. And if you really believe that joining in listening to the Shins song would make the difference in capturing your crush’s attention? “Clean the ear piece before handing it over, and then clean it again before inserting it back into your ear,” Dr. Chandraskhar advises.
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