Saxophone reeds are very porous, they will expand and contract based on the amount of moisture they are exposed to.
And I mean really expand.
Soaking your reeds is one of the crucial ways of keeping them functioning properly.
As saxophonists our reeds can get really gross really quickly.
When your reed is constantly wet, such as when you leave it wet on the instrument, after playing, it gets moldy, and that mold grows down inside the instrument.
Moldy reeds are actually a big problem with beginners and students.
So how do you take care of that problem, how do clean, sanitize or disinfect saxophone reeds so you can play on clean equipment?
The short answer—soak your all saxophone reeds in a tall glass filled in 3% hydrogen peroxide solution for 30 minutes, then dry them with a sterile sponge. This is the concentration of sodium hydroxide you buy in a brown bottle at your local drug store for just a few dollars.
Reed mold stories are far too common with saxophonists.
You either wipe you reed or sanitize it properly with hydrogen peroxide—nothing in between.
Let's expand on this and throw in a couple of crucial tips.
How to Properly Clean, Sanitize and Disinfect a Saxophone Reed
Keeping your reed clean is a good idea for many reasons.
It is one of the best ways to extend the life of your reed, along with proper storage, for one, and playing on clean reeds is necessary to stay healthy.
You've probably heard of one of those heart valve infection horror stories caused by poor oral hygiene. There is never a shortage of infections caused by mold and bacteria festering in your reeds. Really nasty gut-wrenching stuff. The sort of stuff you don't want to take chances with.
So how do you solve clean your reeds?
Method #1 — Soaking Reeds in Hydrogen Peroxide
The first method I have for cleaning reeds is soaking them in hydrogen peroxide. When most of us think of hydrogen peroxide, we envision a brown bottle in the medicine cabinet or first aid kit. You can buy hydrogen peroxide at your local drugstore.
Hydrogen peroxide, as some of you probably know, is what is used to treat small wounds. If you cut yourself, you pour some hydrogen peroxide on it, it foams up and sanitizes the wound.
Hydrogen peroxide solution can also be used as a mouthwash, it is in a lot of brands of toothpaste you can buy. At concentrations of about 3%, the strength you will find in a brown bottle at most drug stores, hydrogen peroxide is safe to be inside your mouth.
Significant health benefits are documented using hydrogen peroxide to treat gingivitis and periodontitis.
In fact, according to both Healthline, you can safely gargle diluted hydrogen peroxide, as long as you never swallow it. You need to combined 3% hydrogen peroxide with soln. with two parts water to do this.
The final solution would be about 1% hydrogen peroxide.
To disinfect your saxophone reed, soak it in 3% strength hydrogen peroxide solution for about ½ an hour. Then use a sterile sponge to dry off the reed, and it is safe to put in your mouth again.
So to disinfect your reeds, all you have to do is pour a nice tall glass of hydrogen peroxide and dump all your reeds in for 30 minutes. You let that foam die down, you pour the hydrogen peroxide out, fill it up with clean water, let them soak a little more, and then rinse them off.
The results are impressive for, what, a two dollar bottle of hydrogen peroxide.
A somewhat quicker way to do this, if you do not have enough time to soak your reed, would be to soak a microfibre cloth with 3% hydrogen peroxide solution, and then gently rub your reed with it.
Although this will not completely sanitize your reed, it will clean your reed enough, until you have time for a proper soak.
Even though hydrogen peroxide is safe to put in your mouth, it does have a bit of a taste.
Method #2 — Soaking Reeds in Mouthwash
I'll be honest. It's hard to find anything backing up this method.
It's even harder to bash it because, apparently, some saxophonists seem to swear by Listerine... something about immersing your reeds in mouthwash and smelling minty afterward.
Here's what I'd personally do.
I'd only defer to using mouthwash if I couldn't get my hands on a sodium hydroxide solution.
Here are a few Tips for Cleaning Saxophone Reeds
Tip #1 — Don't Soak Your Saxophone Reeds in Vinegar
I've seen people recommending cleaning saxophone reeds with vinegar solutions, such as Apple Cider Vinegar or plain old white vinegar.
I DON'T recommend this approach for two reasons:
Remember how I said saxophone reeds are porous...
...porous wood surfaces such as saxophone reeds are susceptible to damage from acidic cleaners like vinegar, especially at full strength.
I know what you're thinking...
...you can just dilute it right?
And according to consumer reports, despite all the touted benefits of vinegar as a green or natural cleaner...
...vinegar is an acid, so it can cut through dirt and can kill bacteria, but only if you use it at full or nearly full strength.
So we've circled back, the potent acid in vinegar in white vinegar and organic raw apple cider vinegar, and most other off-the-shelve vinegar solutions contain about 5% acetic acid, although this can run up to about 20% for pure vinegar.
So no, vinegar is definitely not your long-term week-to-week reed cleaner.
And Here are a few Tips for Keeping Your Saxophone Reeds Clean (How to Prevent Mold on Reeds)
As I mentioned earlier, keeping your reed clean is one of the best ways of extending its life and staying healthy.
Here are a few tips you need to keep in mind if you want your reed to stay clean.
Tip #1 — Oral Hygiene
Make sure you brush your teeth or gargle mouthwash before playing...
...this is basic stuff.
Eating while playing your saxophone, residue from food particles, beverages, lipstick, anything that builds up in your reed... C'mon, how basic can it get?
Tip #2 — Mold and Mildew is Pretty Reticent Stuff
Mold and mildew is pretty reticent stuff, so keep an eye out for when your reeds start to turn grey or black and cut it out instantly.
If you so much as keep your old beloved mildew-ridden reed with some of your new ones, the whole sack will slowly and quietly rot, and everything will catch mildew.
As I explained earlier, go straight for the jugular with a powerful disinfectant such as hydrogen peroxide. No mucking about with sweet mouthwash or organic vinegar, or this, that and the other when you catch a good old case of mold.
And it's a plus for oral health so gargle it too.
Tip #3 — Sanitize your Reeds Often
I'm not talking about taking the reed off your saxophone and wiping the saliva off when you're done playing. I mean going to town on your reeds without waiting for signs of mold.
This is another one of those opinion-type tips so, here goes...
...try to disinfect your reeds at least once a week.
I mean, this thing goes right into your mouth, how hard can that be, right?
Tip #4 — Store Your Reed Properly
I might need to do a proper write-up on reed storage because I see that coming up as a fairly common problem area for beginners, especially. I'll put a link here if (when) I do.
But the rule of thumb with saxophone reed cases is looking for a clean, dry, properly ventilated case so your reeds can dry properly. So make sure your reed case is easy to clean, dry quickly and is properly ventilated.
So throw out your airtight plastic cases or punch adequate ventilation holes in them. The dried and more ventilated a case the better.
The same rule goes for where you keep your reed cases—clean, dry and properly ventilated. Don't be surprised if even just a little moisture in your case causes mildew to spread through to your reed.
So your old, musty saxophone case is totally not the place for your reed case.
Tip #5 — Prefer Soaking Your Reed in Clean, Fresh Water, before Playing
When wetting your reeds before you play them, you have the option of either using saliva or water.
Instead of simply wetting your reed with saliva, soak it in clean, fresh water, fully-submerged for a few minutes, and then take it out and let it sit for a good 5-15 minutes to soak up water before you play with it.
Here's the deal.
I prefer to use fresh, clean water for two reasons:
The first is that, sometimes, saliva only gets the outside wet and not the inside, causing the reed to vibrate somewhat inconsistently.
It's easier to catch this is with beginners, mostly, where they don't wet their reeds well enough and hence cannot get a big proper tone out of their saxophones.
The second is that wetting your read partially can force the reed tip to become very open, making it more resistant.
Your reed needs to soak up enough water to function properly and as I said at the beginning, reeds are porous, so let them sit and soak up water.
Tip #6 — Rotate Your Reeds, Carry more than One Reed
There is no such thing as over-using your reeds, but there is something to be said about using one reed consecutively and cleanliness.
Look at it this way, if you have more than one reed, then you have enough more time to sanitize and dry your reeds, and you don't have to keep only one reed constantly wet, every day (and you should be practicing every day).
Tip #7 — Get in the Habit of Using Disinfectant
If you play in a band, for example, you'll find that you need to use disinfectant all the time.
You will forget some of your reeds, for instance, and you have no time to properly clean the reed before you start the gig, you just use disinfectant.
That's the sort of thing Hydrogen peroxide is brilliant at.
There are other disinfectant of course. You'll find that somtimes the directions on some of those disinfectants say to use it and then rinse it off.
That kinda defeats the purpose when you're stuck and can't get to sufficient water to even to a sink to clean it off.
That's precisely one of the reasons I mentioned that you could use as mouthwash. So, again, nothing to worry about. Nothing fancy but it gets the job done, and properly.
I hope that helps.