We can still hear it now: “Don’t forget to clean your ears!” our mother would scream. As adults we now know she meant to clean around and behind the ears, not so much scrubbing the inside of our ears, but still, ears were a big focus for bath time. And now, many years later, experts argue that ear cleaning is actually a really bad idea. So which is it? Who was right? Should you be cleaning inside your ears? The short answer: absolutely not. Put down the Q-tip and listen up: you can do much more harm than good if you use a cotton swap to clean your ears. And while it’s not a good idea to clean inside your ears, it’s also extremely common to feel like you really need to get in there and tidy up. According to Douglas Backous, M.D., chair of the hearing committee of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNSF) in a piece for The Huffington Post, “every year, about 12 million Americans head to their doctors with “impacted or excessive cerumen,” a really gross-sounding way to say they’ve got serious earwax problems.”
And if you’re a die-hard fan of the cotton swap, then you’re probably thinking that you can’t just quit your ear-cleaning routine. It feels good, it clears up your ears, it makes it easier to hear and it gets rid of that pesky water that hangs out in your ear after a shower. But the reason you feel borderline addicted to cleaning your ears is “because you’ve created a vicious “itch and scratch cycle” for yourself…The more you rub the skin of your ears, the more histamine you release, which in turn makes the skin irritated and inflamed—just like how that mosquito bite gets itchier the more you scratch it. Plus, because of the lubricating nature of earwax, removing it can simply make your ears drier, motivating you to keep sticking swabs in there in a mistaken attempt at relief.” In other words, you might think you’re making your ears cleaner and better, but you’re really making them worse. Stop. Cleaning. You. Ears. Here are 5 common myths about ear cleaning; now that you know the truth, you can start to practice smart habits and safe ear care.
Earwax Should Be Removed—FALSE
False. Earwax isn’t like dirt or gunk; it’s actually supposed to be there for several reasons. First of all, earwax helps keep your ears lubricated so the skin inside you ear does not get too dry. Second of all, earwax in your outer ear protects your inner ear by preventing exposure to bacteria, water and other sources of infection. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, “cerumen or earwax is healthy in normal amounts and serves as a self-cleaning agent with protective, lubricating, and antibacterial properties.” A normal amount of earwax is a good thing, it’s only when it becomes excessive and it causes pain, discomfort of trouble hearing, that you need to worry. But that scenario is rare. In and article for SELF Magazine, Dr. Christopher Chang, an otolaryngologist in Warrenton, Virginia, explains “the ear canal is self-cleaning…You really don’t have to do a whole lot. In certain individuals, earwax can build up in the ear canal—and you don’t want it to build up to the point where you can’t hear. But the majority of folks don’t have to do anything.”
Many People Suffer Self-Inflicted Ear Injuries—TRUE
Sadly, there are a lot of people who swear they have to clean their ears and get a little too aggressive with the cotton swabs. Real Science reports “about 7,000 people are hospitalized with injuries from cotton swabs each year–more than razor blades.” Don’t be a statistic; put down the Q-tip and step away from the mirror.
You Can Pierce Your Eardrum—TRUE
One of the main risks of cleaning inside your ears is that you can push the earwax further into your ear canal, causing blockage, pain and trouble hearing. Instead of actually cleaning your ear, you can make it worse and clock the inside of your ear to the point where your body cannot self-clean. But there’s an even bigger (and more painful) risk as well. If you push a Q-tip too far inside your ear and with too much force you can actual pierce your eardrum, and trust us when we say it is really painful and you really don’t want to do this. To avoid causing any damage to your eardrum, be gentle when cleaning, do not put foreign objects like a cotton swab in your ear, and if you absolutely must clean in there, only insert the swap about two centimeters from the outside of your ear, to ensure you don’t enter the danger zone.
You Should Never Clean Your Ears—FALSE
We don’t like to say never, because of course there are rules and then there are exceptions. If you have excess wax and you cannot hear, you need to clean your ears. If something gets into your ears (water, dirt…) and you want to clean it out, there are safe and effective ways to do it. Experts agree that ears should only be cleaning if you experience pain, you hear ringing, your ears itch or have a strange smell, or you have trouble hearing because of wax blockage. And even then, you need to practice safe methods of cleaning your ears, or you need to seek professional help. Spending quality time with a Q-tip in your ear each day is NOT necessary, and not a good idea.
The Best Way to Clean Your Ears is with a Cotton Swab
Again, cotton swabs are just a recipe for disaster when it comes to cleaning inside your ear. As Shape reports, Nitin Bhatia, M.D., of the ENT and Allergy Associates in White Plains, NY suggests that instead you “grab a Kleenex, use it to cover your pinky finger, and use the finger to gently clean out your ear, taking care not to push it in any farther than it wants to go. Do this after your shower, when the wax is soft.” Another option is to try “placing a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, or commercial drops in the ear. Detergent drops such as hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide may also aid in the removal of wax.” And lastly, you can choose to irrigate your ears using a water syringe or saline solution. And of course, you can seek expert assistance from a professional ENT who can manually remove unwanted and excess ear wax using suction tools or specialized instruments (that you should not use at home).