Why You Shouldn’t Use Cotton Swabs to Clean Earwax

safe earwax removal ear

Cotton swabs, cotton buds, colloquially called Q-tips after the brand name, are one of the most common household items you can imagine. Present is our lives since what seems like forever, they are a handy tool to touch up nail polish, remove makeup and help with cleaning or an arts and crafts project.

The only thing cotton swabs appear not to be so good at, is their main purpose and what the vast majority of people use them for – cleaning their ears. We all did it, or still do, despite the fact that most physicians agree that removing your earwax using cotton swabs is not the way to go. Poking anything into your ear canal isn’t the best idea, no matter how careful you are.

So, to explain more about ear hygiene and earwax removal, we need to start with the basics. What exactly is earwax and what is its purpose?

The Purpose of Earwax

Earwax is made up of gland secretions and dead skin cells that combine to form the waxy substance covering the inside of our ear canal. It protects our ears against water, dirt, bacterial and fungal infections and lubricates the skin inside the ear.

Earwax is generally separated into two distinct types – wet and dry. As their names suggest, the first type is softer and stickier, ranging from yellow, honey, to brown color. The second type is drier and harder, usually grayish in color. The type of earwax is determined by a single gene and is dependent on the person’s ethnicity.

There is also variation from person to person. Besides ethnic differences, the appearance of earwax depends on someone’s age, their diet and their environment. Additionally, newer earwax is lighter in color and stickier in texture than older earwax, which is usually darker and harder.

Some people produce more earwax than others, which means they have a higher chance of earwax buildup. Excessive earwax can harden, block the ear and cause problems. The elderly, people with hearing aids and people who regularly use in-ear headphones, are also more likely to experience earwax trouble.

Signs of Earwax Blockage

Ear pain, fluid discharge and unpleasant odor are the telltale symptoms of an earwax blockage you need to watch out for. Developing a strong odor can mean that the impacted earwax caused an ear infection, in which case a visit to your physician is required to deal with the situation.

Sharp pain, in one or both ears, and leaking fluid may also be accompanied by other symptoms like spells of dizziness, itching, irritation or a sensation of pressure in your ear. Impacted earwax can partially or completely block the pathway of sound, resulting in hearing loss. Ringing in the ears or tinnitus is also a common symptom of an earwax blockage.

As we see, something that seems as innocuous as earwax can cause a number of health problems, which are quite common as well. An estimated 6 percent of the entire population is affected by impacted earwax.

Why It’s Not the Best Idea to Clean Your Own Ears

Our ears actually have a nifty ability to clean themselves through a process called epithelial migration, which means that cells inside the ear canal slowly move outwards. Assisted by jaw movement, this process effectively expels the earwax, along with all the dirt it gathered on the way.

So basically, earwax will naturally find its way out of the ear under normal circumstances and there is no need to manually clean your ears, apart from general hygiene – taking regular showers and washing your hair. If you are super neat, the simplest thing to do is to just take a soft washcloth and wipe down the outer part of the ear.

The reason doctors advise against using cotton swabs to clean your ears is that it’s generally unnecessary and you risk doing more harm than good. When you stick a cotton swab into your ear, instead of removing the earwax, you are more likely to push the wax and the dirt it collected further into the ear canal, making it even more impacted.

safe earwax removal ear

Earwax removal generally shouldn’t be attempted at home, but rather left to professionals. Apparently, the leading cause of earwax-related problems is self-inflicted – trying to remove the earwax by yourself. Inserting any kind of implement into your ears should be avoided, if you are not careful, you risk perforating your eardrum or other complications. Under no circumstances use ear candling to remove earwax!

Earwax Removal Methods

When you need to have you can use one of the following methods:

  • Ear drops: Earwax softening drops contain ingredients known as cerumenolytics, which means they are earwax solvents. These include different types of oil, hydrogen and carbamide peroxide, water and baking soda solution, and others. The drops will soften the wax, making it easier to remove or wash away. They should be used for 3 to 5 days prior to the extraction.
  • Manual removal: Health professionals use specialized curettes to physically dislodge and scoop the earwax out of the ear canal. This is usually done with the help of an otoscope – a medical tool that enables the doctor to have a close-up view of your ear. This practice is most common in Asia, where people predominantly have dry earwax.
  • Ear irrigation: A common method using an irrigation tool such as a bulb syringe. The nozzle is inserted into your ear and a stream of water, saline or some other solution, is used to wash away the earwax. The fluid used should be warmed to body temperature to avoid patients experiencing dizziness.

No method is significantly more effective than others and sometimes what works best is a combination of different methods. If you need more information you can check out this article on about ear wax remover tools you can use at home. There are also medical conditions that prevent the doctor from using a certain method, so they usually decide based on the specific situation.

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