Should We Really Be Cleaning Our Ears With Cotton Swabs? One ENT Weighs In

How to Clean Your Ears - No Cotton Swab Necessary
Getty / Achim Sass

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been personally victimised by a cotton swab. (Hi, yes, my hand is raised.)

The story goes like this: When I was in college, I was cleaning my ears out in my typical post-shower routine when the cotton part of the swab I was using got stuck in my left ear. It came out pretty easily, with the help of some tweezers and my roommate – who very calmly assured me I wasn’t going to permanently lose hearing (I didn’t). But ever since that moment, I’ve always wondered: Are cotton swabs doing more harm than good? Do we actually need to be using them to clean our ears?

Every so often, I take to Google to try to find the answers to these questions. And the not-so-hidden secret is that no one seems to know why we’re using cotton swabs to clean our ears in the first place. Sure, it feels good (great) to plunge these little sticks into our ear holes and tickle our hairs ever so slightly. But eargasms are thought of as a fringe benefit to swabbing out our ear canals;s; the actual desired outcome is, supposedly, to rid our ear canals of uncomfortable and hearing-dampening wax buildup. But is ear wax really the villain we make it out to be?

Complicating matters even more: many cotton swab brands state on their packaging that their products are not meant to be swept inside our ear canals. But if that’s the case, why do so many of us do exactly that? It’s as if we come out of the womb being told “One must use cotton swabs to clean out their ear” – but says who, and for what reason? I brought these questions and more to an ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT), who filled me in on exactly what we really need to know about cleaning our ears.

Do We Even Need to Clean Our Ears?

Honestly, no. Similarly to the vagina, your ears will clean themselves. “Ears are usually self-cleaning, meaning the wax and skin should work itself out over time,” says Eugene Chio, MD, an otolaryngologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. And though ear wax is often demonized by what I’m convinced is a cotton swab-led smear campaign, ear wax actually helps “moisturize the canal skin and also inhibit bacterial growth.” So no, ear wax is not the enemy, despite what we’ve been led to believe.

However, if your ears start feeling clogged, you’re struggling to hear people, or you notice a lot of wax hanging on the end of your AirPod, it might be time for you to manually clean your ears, says Dr Chio. More on how to do that is below.

Related: Strokes Affect More Young People Than You Might Think. Here’s What to Know

Are Cotton Swabs Bad For Your Ears?

Cotton swabs like Q-Tips could be the reason why you have “wax impaction,” says Dr Chio – which is basically another way of saying you have a build-up of earwax. According to Cedars Sinai, a build-up of earwax is often NBD, but for some people, it can cause hearing loss, earaches, sense of ear fullness, itching in the ear, dizziness, ringing in the ears, and a cough, which obviously isn’t ideal.

Dr Chio says wax impaction can happen from using cotton swabs since “the end of the cotton swab tends to pack wax deeper and deeper for some.” So if you want to avoid this problem, you can play it safe by ditching the cotton swab altogether. Or, if you swear by them, Dr Chio says to just “keep cotton swab use to the outside of the ear to be safe.”

How to Clean Ears Without Cotton Swabs

If you’re off the Q-tip bandwagon (welcome to the club!), you don’t have to replace it with anything else – again, the ears are self-cleaning. If you’re worried your ears are getting dirty or wax-filled, Dr Chio has some recommendations. When you lather up the rest of your body, he suggests rubbing some of that warm, soapy water over your ears, then letting the warm water from the shower run over them to rinse them off (making sure to get all the soap residue).

Related: Concerned About Your Headaches? Here’s When You Should See a Doctor

Additionally, Seiji Shibata, MD, PhD, an otolaryngologist with Keck Medicine of USC, previously told POPSUGAR that putting a few drops of mineral or olive oil in your ear can “soothe the ear and also degrade a small amount of wax,” though this is a strategy you’d want to use sparingly. If you just don’t trust yourself to truly get the job done, there are also some over-the-counter products like Debrox and Murine that can “soften wax prior to a warm water flush,” says Dr Chio. However, he adds that you should make sure to remove all the water out of the canal after using a product to “prevent the development of a swimmer’s ear situation.”

If you’d like to try any of the above methods, Dr Chio suggests limiting the cleaning to one time a week at most. And you can certainly ditch the cotton swabs, or at least save them to clean up makeup mistakes and to clean the outer folds of the ear only. Because the bottom line is, your ears will pretty much clean themselves, no swabbing necessary.

Related: Strokes Affect More Young People Than You Might Think. Here’s What to Know

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