How to Properly Clean Your Ears

Cotton swabs condense and impact your ear wax deeper into your ear canal — and you may be risking your hearing each time you reach for a swab.

In fact, many do-it-yourself ear-cleaning methods do more harm than good. Although unpleasant, earwax has nothing to do with personal hygiene and the ear canal naturally cleanses itself through your body’s everyday movements.

Visit the UPMC Ear, Nose and Throat website to learn more or call 412-647-2100 to schedule an appointment.

Here are a few simple tips to help you properly clean ears without damaging this delicate sense organ.

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How to Properly Clean Ears

  1. Apply a soft, damp washcloth to clean the outside of your ear.
  2. Clean the outside of your ear with cotton balls, but do not insert them into your ear canal.
  3. Earwax softener can help make for easier removal.
  4. Ask your doctor’s office to remove wax during your regular exam.
  5. Never use ear candles or pointed objects to remove ear wax.

What Is Ear Wax?

Ear wax is important to the health of the outer ear canal, providing protection, lubrication, and antibacterial properties.

If we clean our ears too often, the absence of ear wax actually may result in dry, itchy ears. The ways that many of us have been conditioned to keep our ears “clean,” may actually do more harm than good.

Ear wax is not formed in the deep part of the ear canal. So, when a doctor sees someone with a build-up of wax against the eardrum, it is often because the person used foreign objects to try to clean out the inner ear. This wax blockage is one of the most common causes of hearing loss.

Should You Use Cotton Swabs to Clean Your Ears?

Trying to clean the ear with cotton swabs or other objects can actually cause problems by pushing the ear wax deeper into the ear canal. Normally, ear canals are self-cleaning and should not need to be cleared with any foreign devices.

Sometimes wax can accumulate excessively, resulting in a blocked ear canal. In that case, clean your outer ear with a cloth and try one of the following to remove the blockage:

  1. Place a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, water, or commercial ear drops into the inner ear to soften the wax, which will allow it to come out more easily.
  2. A stream of water or saline (salt water) can be used to rinse the ear. Use a syringe from the drug store to get the solution into the ear canal, but do not insert it too far. These solutions should be warmed to body temperature to prevent dizziness.
  3. You don’t have to do it yourself: Doctors specializing in ear, nose, and throat care have special, safe instruments to vacuum ear wax or otherwise remove it.

Also, it is important to remember that not only is the ear self-cleaning, but it also clears itself due to the body’s normal movements. Old ear wax is constantly being transported from the inner ear canal to the ear opening by chewing, talking, or simply moving the jaw.

Safe Ear Cleaning Tips

  • Do not clean your ears with bobby pins, twisted napkin corners, or other long pointed objects.
  • Do not insert cotton balls into the ear canal. They will merely push the wax deeper into the ear canal, causing a blockage.
  • Do not use ear candles. The Food and Drug Administration issued a public warning in 2010 that the use of ear candles can lead to serious injuries.

If you are constantly experiencing excessive amounts of ear wax or a stuffy feeling in your ears, please consult your doctor.

RELATED: Understanding Ear Wax: How to Deal With Blockages

About Ear Nose and Throat

Ear, Nose, and Throat Services at UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside ranks among the best nationally on U.S. News & World Report’s listings. Our team includes board-certified physicians and highly skilled speech-language pathologists and audiologists. We treat a variety of ear, nose, and throat conditions in both children and adults and provide both surgical and non-surgical options. Our doctors also take part in research and clinical trials. We have locations throughout western Pennsylvania for patient convenience.