Woman holding a cotton swab up to her ear canal

You’ve most likely never noticed, but on the back of any package of cotton swabs there’s a written warning that is some version of this:

“Caution: Do not enter the ear canal with this product. Penetrating the ear canal could cause injury.”

If you have a package of cotton swabs, go check it out for yourself.

The thing is, it’s not just physicians, audiologists, and hearing professionals who advise against the use of cotton swabs to clean the ears—even the makers of cotton swabs think it’s a bad idea!

So why, if the use of cotton swabs is such a popular technique of ear cleaning, should it be avoided? Why are the manufacturers so adamant that you don’t use their product in this way?

We’re glad you asked: here are four reasons to never use cotton swabs to clean your ears again.

1. Earwax is important

Earwax has a couple of beneficial functions besides being gross. It has antibacterial characteristics to reduce the risk of infections, it works as an insect repellent to keep bugs out of your ears, and it helps to lubricate the ear canal, which helps prevent dry, itchy skin.

2. Cotton Swabs push earwax up against the eardrum

Using cotton swabs is actually dangerous. When you drive any foreign object into the ear canal, you’re moving most of the earwax up against the eardrum. This can rupture the eardrum or can bring on an impaction that will lead to hearing loss.

3. Earwax removes itself

The ear is specifically designed to remove its own earwax. The normal motions of your jaw—from talking, eating, or yawning—will push the earwax to the outer ear. All that’s needed from you is normal showering and cleaning the external ear with a washcloth.

4. Excessive earwax removal causes dry skin

Earwax has lubricating and antibacterial properties, so if you remove too much, you’ll have a dried out, itchy feeling and will be more susceptible to infections.

What to do instead

There are several commercial (and do-it-yourself) solutions you can use to flush out your ears, which is far safer than inserting foreign objects into the ear canal. However, if you’re having problems with excessive earwax or you’re having difficulty hearing, it’s usually best to pay a visit to a hearing professional.

Hearing professionals are thoroughly trained in the structure and function of the ear, and can diagnose any issues you may have with earwax buildup or hearing loss. It’s always a wise course of action to rule out more severe problems, and if cleaning is all that’s required, you’ll get the peace of mind of knowing that it’s being done the right way.

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