Picture of woman using a swab to clean her ears.

Your grandmother, the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) and every box of swabs in the drugstore agree: do not stick swabs into your ears for ear cleaning! Your grandmother was right all along: never stick anything smaller than your elbow into your ear. (We see you trying to do it right now…)

In addition to the swab box, your grandmother and the AAO-HNS, please listen to your hearing care professional and follow these 5 reasons you need to stop cleaning out your ears immediately:

1. Ear Cleaning Happens All by Itself

Ear wax (the technical term is cerumen) is actually your ears’ very own cleaning solution. It traps dirt and debris before it can go deeper into the ear canal and get trapped. As you talk, yawn and chew throughout the day, these mechanical motions of you using your jaw actually ushers soiled ear wax down and out of the ear canal, effectively pushing out the dirt. Using a swab, chopstick, key, finger, pencil or any other foreign implement to dig out the ear wax actually hinders your ears’ self-cleaning process, pushing used ear wax deeper into the canal where it can get impacted and lead to injury and hearing loss.

2. How Ear Wax Actually Helps Your Ear

Cerumen has many other very helpful properties besides just moving the dirt out of your ears. It lubricates the ear canal and also protects your ears against viruses, bacteria, fungal infections and even insect invasion!

Cerumen is an interesting mixture of fatty acids, cholesterol, alcohols, sebum, sloughed off skin cells, enzymes and other chemicals that are produced by special glands inside your ears. Your ears excrete this special protective concoction to keep your ears clean and infection free. In fact, average cerumen is slightly acidic, which also inhibits bacterial and fungal growth inside of your ear canal.

3. Can Ear Cleaning Hurt Your Hearing? Yes!

If you’ve spent most of your life swabbing ear wax out of your ears, you’re not alone. You, like millions of others, you have probably jammed old ear wax further into your ear canal, which means you might have some hearing loss already. If you have concerns, schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional to have them check whether you have impacted ear wax that might be causing some hearing loss.

Now, some people do actually make excess ear wax, and some people make too little. Sometimes the chemical composition of the ear wax isn’t ideal—it may be too wet or too dry. Either way, it’s still a bad idea to use anything bigger than your elbow for ear wax removal. If you have any concerns about your ears’ cerumen production, again, please schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional.

Using hearing aids can also impact ear wax. To avoid this, be sure to follow your hearing care professional’s recommendations on gentle ear washing and regular cleaning of your hearing aids to keep the balance right and your hearing clear.

4. Ear Cleaning Causes Ear Injuries

Dozens upon dozens of American children go to the doctor daily because of ear cleaning injuries. Sometimes the well-meaning parents do it, thinking ear cleaning is as necessary as brushing the teeth. But often the kids do it themselves. The most common of these injuries include tympanic membrane tears (torn ear drum) or other small cuts and lacerations inside the ear canal.

But children aren’t the only ones coming in with ear injuries from ear wax removal mishaps. Thousands of people go to the doctor with “ear candling” injuries every year too. Seen as a “natural ear wax removal” technique, ear candling enthusiasts stick a hollow, cone-shaped candle into their ear canals and light it. Here’s what you need to know about ear candling:

  • It’s been proven ineffective for ear cleaning and can actually make ear wax impaction worse.
  • It causes burn injuries to the face, ears, hair, etc. – even burns that go all the way to the ear drum and middle ear.
  • It’s also been known to puncture the ear drum.

Just say no to ear candling!

5. If You Simply Must Clean Your Ears…

All you really need to do is gently dab your ears dry with a towel after your daily shower and hair washing routine. Normally, this is entirely sufficient for healthy ear cleaning. But if you have any concerns about your ear health, excess ear wax, impaction, ear injury or hearing loss, schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional today for appropriate care – and be a little more thankful for that hard-working cerumen!

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