Picture of woman using a swab to clean her ears.

It’s a hard habit to break: cleaning out your ears with swabs. You thought it was healthy and hygienic all this time, but your hearing care professional, the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) and even the warning on your own box of swabs agree: Your grandmother’s elbow saying about ears was right all along. Ear cleaning can be a lot more trouble than it’s worth; here’s 5 reasons why:

1. Your Ear Cleaning Efforts are Essentially Pointless

That’s because your ears already clean themselves—nature designed them that way. Cerumen (the technical name for ear wax) is actually your ears’ very own cleaning solution. It traps dirt and debris before it can go deeper inside your ear canal. But it doesn’t stop there: The daily activities of just talking, chewing and yawning activities physically move the ear wax out of your ear canal so all you have to do is wipe the excess away during a shower. There, finished!

Using a pencil, swab, key, chopstick, fork, finger or any other pointy object for ear wax removal actually frustrates and reverses 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. Ear Wax is So Good for Your Ears

Although nobody ever wants to pop an ear wax flavored Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans jellybean, cerumen (scientific-speak for ear wax) has all kinds of health properties that help keep your ears healthy. Ear wax has several health benefits aside from moving the dirt out of your ears. It protects your ears against viruses, fungal infections, bacteria, and even insects! It also moisturizes and conditions the skin inside of the ear canal, keeping it healthy and supple.

Cerumen is a fascinating recipe of long-chain fatty acids, cholesterol, alcohols, sebum, sloughed off skin cells, enzymes and other chemicals that are produced by special glands inside your ears. Your ears concoct this special recipe to keep your ears clean and infection free. In fact, average cerumen is slightly acidic—which inhibits fungal and bacterial growth. Yay ear wax!

3. Excessive Ear Cleaning Causes Hearing Problems

When you swab, jab or dig around for ear wax removal, you inadvertently push soiled ear wax further down into your ear canal where it’s harder to remove and can cause some level of hearing loss. It may even become impacted and have to be removed professionally. If you’ve been doing this for years, schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional.

To be thorough: there are people who do actually need extra help with ear cleaning. Some people’s ears make too much ear wax, or too little. Sometimes it’s too wet or too dry. Sometimes the chemical composition doesn’t quite protect the ears like it should. A lot of these issues are genetic, but also can be associated with other medical issues. Still, even in these cases, you should never use swabs or pointy objects to clean out your ears. Schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional for an appropriate diagnosis and in-office ear wax removal if necessary.

Now, if you need to wear hearing aids, you do need to pay attention to ear wax buildup and proper ear cleaning because sometimes that can impact ear wax into the ear canal. But still—no swabs! That’s why it’s so important 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 healthy.

4. You Should Prevent Ear Cleaning Injuries

Nearly 12,500 American children sustain ear cleaning injuries each year for which they need a doctor’s visit. Sometimes the well-meaning parents do it under the false impression that ear cleaning is as necessary as teeth brushing. But often the kids do it themselves. These ear injuries range from tympanic membrane (ear drum) tears to cuts and lacerations along the ear canal.

And before you can ask, “But how about ear candling? Is that OK?” The answer is an emphatic NO. We’re not sure what ancient person came up with the idea of shoving a hollow cone into the ear and then lighting it on fire, but it was a bad idea from the beginning, and here’s why:

  • 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.

So no ear candling for you!

5. This is the Safe Way to 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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