Did your mother ever tell you to never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear? Well, turns out she was right.
As an audiologist, I often see patients with the above question, or more specifically a variation of the question “Are Q-tips safe?, Are cotton swabs okay to clean my ears?,” etc. Here’s my quick and easy answer: No.
Updated clinical guidelines published by the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery say cotton swabs are not appropriate for your ears or for earwax removal. And here’s why not: cotton swabs, hair pins, house keys, toothpicks, and even fingernails (all the smaller-than-our-elbow-objects people love to put in their ears) can cause cuts in our ear canals, perforate our eardrums, and/or dislocate the tiny bones in the middle ear space that are crucial for normal hearing. Any of these injuries could lead to hearing loss, dizziness, ringing in the ears, or other not so pleasant symptoms.
Many people feel that they need to remove ear wax in order to "clean" their ears, but that is usually a mistake since it is actually protective of the delicate inner ear tissues, due to its lubricating and antibacterial properties. Ear wax is composed of a mixture of waxy secretions, hair, and dead skin from the ear canal. Our bodies produce ear wax to keep our ears lubricated, clean and protected-dirt, dust, and anything else that might enter our ears gets stuck to the wax, which keeps any such particles from moving farther into the ear canal. In fact, using cotton swabs to clean your ears may create more of a problem. Cotton swabs can actually drive excess wax further into the ear canal, so that it blocks the ear and then medical attention is needed to remove it.
So then how do I clean out my ear wax?, you might ask. Again, the answer is easy: You don’t. The mere presence of visible ear wax does not require any removal or treatment if the ears are functioning well without a problem. Furthermore, the usual jaw motions from talking and chewing, along with skin growth within the canal, typically helps move old earwax from inside to the outside of the ear, where it is washed off during bathing. In some instances, certain people do need to pay more attention to their ear wax status. For example, those who wear a hearing aid are much more likely to develop problems with ear wax because the hearing aid interferes with the normal process of the ear slowly moving the wax out of the canal. Also older people are more susceptible to wax buildup due to wax that is often thicker and more ear hair. If you do happen to have a buildup of earwax, it is best addressed by a healthcare professional.
TLDR- if this blog was too long, and you didn’t want to read it, here’s an easy infographic showing what is acceptable and unacceptable to put in your ears!