It may feel good, but health experts say you need to stop the habit now. (Photo: Getty Images)
You’ve been told for years that you’re not supposed to clean your ear canal with a cotton swab. It’s dangerous and not very effective…. but it feels so good! So you do it anyway, day after day.
The truth is, earwax serves a purpose. It’s lubricating and antibacterial, and without it, your ears would feel dry. And even though you think you’re doing your body a favor by cleaning out your ears with a cotton swab, health experts say the opposite is actually true.
Why You Need To Back Away From The Swabs
Sujana Chandrasekhar, MD, an otologist/neurotologist at the New York Head and Neck Institute at Lenox Hill Hospital, sees patients all the time who attempt to clean wax out of their ears with swabs because it feels nice. Eventually, the practice turns into a habit. “Once you start, you don’t feel complete if you don’t do it,” she tells Yahoo Health.
People will stick all sorts of things in their ears to get wax out, Chandrasekhar says, including bobby pins, pens, the earpiece of glasses, even keys. At least with a cotton swab, you think you’re using something soft, but in reality you’re actually scratching with the stick. Doing this can tear the skin of the ear canal and set the stage for infection.
The worst-case scenario — and this isn’t as uncommon as you might think — is actually puncturing the eardrum because of aggressive scraping. (Remember that particularly jarring episode of “Girls”?) “I’ve repaired eardrums that have been perforated as a result of manipulation of the ear canal,” Chandrasekhar says, recalling one patient who cleaned his ear with a pen while driving, but then slammed on the brakes. He punctured his eardrum and narrowly missed permanent damage.
Even though it seems like you’re doing a good job of cleaning your ears with a swab because you see some wax come out, “you’re mostly pushing the wax in further, as opposed to removing it,” says Chandrasekhar.
In fact, you don’t need to clean your ear at all because it’s a self-cleaning organ, she explains. The skin that lines your ear canal is different from the rest of your skin. There is active movement of wax from out to in and in to out to remove any dirt or dust particles that have gotten in there. “It cleans itself very nicely,” she says.
What To Do If You’re Not Supposed To Use A Swab
If you’re hooked on swabs, the best way to return your ears to their natural state is to quit using them cold turkey. But this can be admittedly hard, especially if the inside part of the ear feels itchy. “If the drum is not punctured, you can use a drop or two of mineral oil or baby oil to get rid of the itch and sensation,” Chandrasekhar recommends.
An effective at-home remedy for loosening dry, compacted wax is to put the oil in your ear for 15 to 30 minutes, and then use an at-home irrigation kit to clean it out, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery.
If you think your hearing is impaired or the itching doesn’t go away, see your primary care physician who may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat doctor for a closer look and medical (i.e., safe) cleaning if wax is blocking the canal. Do not be tempted to try ear candling, which has no scientific evidence or controlled studies to support safety and results. It’s ineffective at best and dangerous at worst, with a bad history of burns and perforations of the membrane that separates the ear canal and middle ear.
If you still feel the need to clean your ear, anything you can easily see or touch with the pad of your finger is fair game. But if you want to snake into your ear with a narrow tool, just remember this advice from Chandrasekhar: “Nothing smaller than your elbow.”