If your ears are bothering you and you’re ready to grab a cotton swab — think again.
Cotton swabs condense and impact earwax deeper into the 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.
Here are a few simple tips to help you properly clean ears without damaging this delicate sense organ.
Should You Clean Your Ears?
Your ear canals usually do a good job of cleaning themselves and don’t need much extra care. You should gently cleanse the outside of and behind the ear when needed. Never stick anything inside your ears.
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How to Properly Clean Ears
Here are some safe ways to clean your ears:
- Dampen a soft washcloth with warm water to clean the outside of your ear.
- Clean the outside of your ear with cotton balls, but do not insert them into your ear canal.
- Use an earwax softener to make removal easier.
- Ask your doctor’s office to remove wax during your regular exam.
Never use ear candles or pointed objects to remove earwax.
What Is Earwax?
Earwax is important to the health of the outer ear canal, providing protection, lubrication, and antibacterial properties.
If you clean your ears too often, the absence of earwax actually may result in dry, itchy ears. The ways that many have been conditioned to keep their ears “clean” may actually do more harm than good.
Earwax 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.
Are Cotton Buds Bad for Your Ears?
Trying to clean the ear with cotton swabs or other objects actually can cause problems by pushing the earwax deeper into the ear canal. Normally, ear canals are self-cleaning and should not be cleared with any foreign devices. Putting anything inside your ear is a bad idea.
Sometimes wax can accumulate excessively, resulting in a blocked ear canal. In that case, clean your outer ear with a washcloth and try one of the following to remove the blockage:
- 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.
- A stream of water or saline (salt water) can be used to rinse the ear. Use a syringe from the drugstore 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.
- You don’t have to do it yourself: Doctors who specialize in ear, nose, and throat care have special, safe instruments to vacuum earwax 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
If you must remove earwax, remember these safety tips:
- Do not clean your ears with bobby pins, twisted napkin corners, or other long pointed objects.
- Do not insert cotton balls or cotton swabs into the ear canal. They will merely push the wax deeper into the ear canal, possibly 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 earwax or a stuffy feeling in your ears, please consult your health care provider.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
About Ear Nose and Throat
The experts in the UPMC Department of Otolaryngology treat a variety of ear, nose, and throat (ENT) conditions in both children and adults. Our team includes board-certified physicians and highly skilled speech-language pathologists and audiologists. We provide both surgical and nonsurgical treatment options. Our research and clinical trials help to advance care for our patients. Find an ENT expert near you.