We’ve all heard that you shouldn’t clean your ears with cotton swabs. In fact, you may have read the warning label on the box that explicitly says ” do not insert into ear canal .” But that advice seems to fall on deaf ears (pun intended).
We understand. If you have a twisted ball of grime in there, it’s tempting to scoop it out. And what could really go wrong? There are horror stories about piercing your eardrum, but that probably only happens if you do it like a jackhammer, right?
- 1 How does wax protect the ears?
- 2 5 dangers of sticking a cotton swab in your ear
- 3 Do you need to clean your ears?
- 4 The best way to clean your ears at home
- 5 4 things you should never do to your ears
How does wax protect the ears?
Turns out, wax is your ears’ best friend. Earwax is made up of natural secretions from the ear canal mixed with dead skin and hair. It begins as an oily amber-yellow fluid and as it accumulates and ages inside the ear canal, it may turn brown or black.
It may seem unpleasant, but this sticky substance plays an important role in maintaining hearing well-being. Earwax is relatively acidic to support your ear’s microbiome, an ecosystem of healthy bacteria. It ensures a proper balance of microorganisms and prevents the overgrowth of bacteria or fungi, which can lead to painful ear canal infections that require medical attention.
It is also an essential emollient. The wax keeps the ear canal moist. If you remove the wax from your ears, they can become dry and itchy.
5 dangers of sticking a cotton swab in your ear
Could you scratch my ear
Rubbing cotton around it can create small scratches, called micro-abrasions. As a result, you have a higher risk of developing ear infections, where you experience excruciating pain, swelling, and pus.
The wax could be affected
Cleaning devices just push the wax further in. Keep in mind that we only produce wax in the outer third of our ear canal, not in the inner part next to our eardrum.
The channel is made to expel the wax naturally, and if you push it too deep with a cleaning device, it will be affected. As a result, it will take longer to come out on its own, and you may even need a doctor to help you remove it.
If this happens, you will notice intermittent or constant hearing loss in one or both ears; you will feel like you are wearing an ear plug.
You could puncture the eardrum
Digging too deep could rupture the eardrum. This leads to hearing loss and an increased risk of infection. Traumatic piercings will usually heal, but it will take several months.
You can go deaf
Beyond the eardrum is the otic capsule, the wall of the inner ear. Penetrating this area causes irreparable damage. If it violates the inner ear, you will be permanently deaf in most cases. You will also experience dizziness that can leave you with a lasting imbalance.
You could dislocate the bones in your ears
When you pierce the eardrum, you can dislocate the small bones that transmit sounds to the inner ear. This does not heal on its own, surgery is necessary.
Do you need to clean your ears?
Probably not. According to experts, excess wax exits the ear canal automatically, carrying dirt, dust and other dirt particles. The movement of the jaw when you chew or speak facilitates the migration of earwax. Once you get to the opening of the ear, it dries and falls off.
You shouldn’t clean your ears unless a doctor tells you to. That being said, some people do produce a large amount of wax that must be professionally removed. These people can have chronic inflammation of the ear, causing a lot of skin to build up over time and mix with the wax. This leads to repeated impaction, where the ears become plugged with wax.
Also, dermatological problems that lead to dry, flaky skin such as eczema or psoriasis can create a lumpy wax that is more likely to get stuck in the ear canal.
Genetics also play a role. For example, you may have been born with particularly narrow ear canals that are more easily blocked. And people of East Asian descent tend to have drier earwax, which makes it harder for trash to come out.
Also, because earwax secretions become more flaky with age, older adults are prone to impacted wax. Hearing aids make the problem worse by pushing the wax deeper.
The best way to clean your ears at home
Although cleaning the inside of your ears clean is not necessary, having a visible brownish-yellow piece of goo is pretty gross.
To get rid of it safely, wrap a towel around your finger and clean the ear opening. It may help to tilt your head to one side during the shower and let the warm water run over your ears to soften the wax before cleaning.
A cotton swab can be used (although a towel is preferable) – just make sure the applicator never goes into the ear canal itself.
4 things you should never do to your ears
While swabs are the most common culprit in ear cleaning trauma, there are a myriad of products that claim to remove wax (and you should stay away from).
Spiral ear cleaners
Although these silicone corkscrew implements claim to safely remove wax, it is important not to use them.
They cause the same problems as swabs, because you may insert them at different degrees of depth.
Simply light a hollow candle and place the unlit end in the ear opening to extract the wax, following this woo-woo practice. What could go wrong? Logically you can end up with many heat injuries that result in burns in the ear canal due to the use of candles.
This popular technique involves spraying a water-filled syringe into the ear canal. It can be effective, but should only be done by a doctor.
If you do it for a long period (more than 30 seconds), the temperature of the water can stimulate your inner ear, causing dizziness. Also, if you use too much force, you can push the wax further in, rather than flushing it out, and you risk breaking your eardrum.
Earwax softening drops
The drops usually do not help the wax drain or relieve any uncomfortable symptoms. All they do is turn a big hard wax plug into a muddy mess.