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 sensory organ.
How Often 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 smaller than a washcloth on your finger inside your ears to clean them. Q-tips and other sharp or pointed objects can cause damage to the ear canal and eardrum. Because your ear canals will regulate and clean themselves, it is not necessary to clean inside your ears daily. Earwax is the ear’s way of cleaning itself.
If you have a blockage of ear wax that impairs your hearing, you should see a health care provider to have it properly removed. Attempting to remove it on your own may result in pushing the blockage closer to the eardrum and could worsen your discomfort felt as well as result in hearing loss.
If you wear earrings regularly, be sure to take them out and clean them with rubbing alcohol periodically. You should also clean the piercing in your ear with rubbing alcohol or hydrogen peroxide to prevent infection.
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How to Properly Clean Ears
Here are some safe ways to clean your ears:
- Make a cleaning solution. Mix equal parts water and hydrogen peroxide to help soften the earwax.
- Tilt your head to one side and drop in the solution. Add a few drops of the water and hydrogen peroxide solution into your ear by tilting your head to one side and using an eye or ear dropper to put only a few drops into the ear canal. Wait 3 to 5 minutes for the solution to break down the earwax.
- Use a tissue or washcloth to clear the debris. The solution should make the earwax run out of your ear. Use a tissue or washcloth to wipe away the debris. Do not insert anything into your ear canal to clear it out.
- Ask your doctor’s office to remove wax. If you are still experiencing discomfort or hearing loss, ask your doctor to remove the earwax 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 buildup 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 Q-tips Bad for Your Ears?
Trying to clean the ear with cotton swabs or other objects can cause problems by pushing the earwax deeper into the ear canal. Being too rough can also cause damage and irritation to the ear canal, which can lead to infection.
Normally, ear canals are self-cleaning and should not 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 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 clears itself due to the body’s normal movements. Old earwax is constantly being transported from the inner ear canal to the ear opening by chewing, talking, or simply moving the jaw.
Using pointed objects like a Q-tip can reverse the natural working of the ears and create a buildup or blockage of earwax, which can result in discomfort or hearing loss.
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, 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.