GDC is coming up, and that means loud parties, loud demos, loud expo floor, and loud walking around Union Square in a daze Friday morning. For audio people, that also means that nagging worry that this meetup or mixer or bacchanalia might be doing temporary or permanent damage to the ol' money makers. That's why I bring earplugs, and you should too. One set in my pocket, backup pair in my bag back at the room, and a fresh set to offer people walking around with their fingers in their ears. You might think this is overkill, but...
...actually, let's not look at a graph of my hearing damage. It's fine.
A consequence of wearing fancy, mildly expensive reusable earplugs is they do get dirty. Oils from your skin, ear wax, bits of fluff from that childhood toy you stuffed in your ear, and so on. A little bit of regular cleaning will make them much less terrifying, and hopefully extend their life, so you can spend a bit more money on the next pair!
A note on sizing: Not everybody wears the same size earplugs. For example, those pink "ladies" ear plugs are a slightly smaller size than the standard orange, and fancier models come in a variety of sizes. Find your fit, they'll work better and you'll be much more comfortable.
The ever popular and always fashionable silicone earplugs use two or three flanges to seal the ear and cut the levels you're hearing. They also drag oil and wax in and out of your ears, which isn't great.
Every time you put your earplugs away (yes, every time) wipe them down with a tissue or towel. This will keep them from yellowing and getting gunky, and a bit of twisting action will also dislodge whatever is trapped in the flanges. For most of them, you can be a bit aggressive, as the silicon will flip back into place when you're done. This is the same approach I use with silicon ear bud tips, especially my modded KZ ATE's, but that's another story.
For a more intense cleaning, time to break out the Jolie Special. Noted clean person Jolie Kerr is my go to for all things cleaning, and her magical cure all cleaning product is... dish soap. That's it. Make a small bowl of warmish water and your dish soap of choice (I'm a Dawn Platinum kinda guy), and dip your silicon earplugs in it. You can just drop them in, but soaking isn't great since they can get water inside the center shaft on models like the Etymotics, and drying that is a slow process. Once they're wet, grab a towel and wipe them down. Get inside the flanges. It will be horrifying. Dry the earplugs off, and let them air dry completely before use. Good as new, probably.
A note on tools: Don't use Q-tips! Foam makeup applicators are much better for wiping up grease and dust in hard to reach places (like inside ear buds) or between pins on a cable, and they don't leave fibers behind.
I tried some, ehem, off brand oxygenated non-bleach whitening powder and it didn't seem to do much, but I was quick with it. Not sure if it'll cloud clear silicone or damage the flanges, but if a pair is almost beyond hope...
Those cheap ones? Throw 'em away. Order a 100 pack off Amazon. Fancier foam, like the tips of your Jaybirds or whatnot? If it's sealed foam (smooth and glossy), wipe them down with a tissue or towel. Towels are better, but please don't use anything fancy. Lint free microfiber are always a good bet, and you should have those on hand to wipe down everything else, such as your headphones. Do not get them wet! Alcohol or other cleans will annihilate the foam. The truth is, you'll never get any foam item as clean as a solid surface, and their lifespan is shorter. I buy mixed packs of replacement foam and silicon tips. $5-$10, and you're set for months, and your earbuds will be more comfortable.
So... Should I Buy...
Get the Etymotics. I know, I know, but they're a great place to start if you're looking to upgrade from foam. You won't know your preferred size until you try a few, and they're inexpensive. They also have low profile (love 'em), replaceable tip (also great) and other options (colors!) to help you find the perfect pair.
From the studio to the range* to parties or the neighbors at 0300, good ear plugs have a hundred uses but they only do one thing: earplugs save your hearing, and in this business, that can be your livelihood. Foam and silicone flange aren't the only options, find what works for you, and if anyone can recommend some of those fancy titanium ones, and I do have my eyes on some of those hot water moldable ones...
* If you're around anything as loud as firearms, dragsters, or jets, it pays to use two layers of ear protection. I wear foam or my low profile Etymotics and ear muffs. Don't skimp on ear muffs either, but that's a whole other story, and cheap is better than none.