Don't Use A Cotton Swab! Here Are Ways to Clean Your Ears
Sat, January 28, 2023

Don't Use A Cotton Swab! Here Are Ways to Clean Your Ears



Did you know that using cotton swabs to clean your ears is not safe? It’s safe to clean the exterior of your ear with a cotton swab, but it is recommended to avoid using it to clean the inside of your ear, explained Jill Seladi-Schulman, Ph.D., of Healthline, a news website on medical information and health advice.

Using cotton swabs is associated with ear injury and infection.  Anh Nguyen-Huynh, MD agreed. “Sometimes, trying to clean them causes more problems than it’s worth,” quoted Cleveland Clinic, a non-profit academic medical center. According to Dr. Nguyen-Huynh, ears are akin to self-cleaning ovens. He added, “When the outer layer of skin in the ear canal sheds, the wax will fall out with it.”



Self-Ear Cleaning Practices and the Associated Risk of Ear Injuries and Ear-Related Symptoms

Nasim Banu Khan and Siavashnee Thaver, and Samantha Marlene Govendeer of life science and biomedical journal portal PMC found that 98% of 206 university students practiced self-ear cleaning, and of those, 75% said it was beneficial. Some students (13%) were not sure and 10% believed it was harmful. Only 2% said it was non-beneficial. 80% owned some cotton buds, with 14.1% reporting that they carry some with them.

17.5% said they only clean the outside of the ear and 7.3% only cleaned their ears’ interior. A larger proportion of students (75.2%) cleaned both the exterior and interior of their ear canal. When the students were asked to state the frequency of self-ear cleaning, 32% said they do it once a day and 27% cleaned their ears once a week. 17% did so more than once a week, 12% said once a month, 7% stated more than once a day, and 5% answered more than once a month.

90.2% of respondents said their siblings engaged in self-ear cleaning, and of those, 84.3% used cotton buds. The authors revealed that 93.2% of their parents engaged in self-ear cleaning, 87.9% of whom reported using cotton groups. Regarding the participants’ reasons for practicing self-ear cleaning, they cited wax (36%), dirt (31%), itchiness (20%), hearing difficulty (3%), and earache (2%). 8% said self-ear cleaning is soothing.

The most common methods among university students across disciplines were cotton buds (65%), towel (20%), finger (5%), matchstick (2%), ENT (2%), and other (3%). 74.7% of participants understood that self-ear cleaning can damage the eardrum/ear while 24.5% said no damage will occur. 2.4% of 206 participants reported experiencing ear-related injuries, with two having perforated tympanic membranes and one requiring tympanoplasty. Three had lacerations and ear infections, with all participants citing cotton buds as the cause for their injuries. 

74.7% experienced some ear-related symptoms due to self-cleaning and 25.2% had not developed symptoms. The symptoms found were itchiness (62%), earache (57%), feeling of fullness in the ear (38.2%), along with tinnitus, hearing difficulty, and ear discharge. The researchers concluded that young educated adults engage in self-ear cleaning, potentially increasing their risk of ear injury and ear-related symptoms. More public health education is needed to discourage individuals from engaging in self-ear cleaning to inform them how the ear naturally cleans itself, how to alleviate itchiness, wax impaction, and more.



What’s So Good About Earwax?

Earwax prevents your ears from getting too dry, traps dirt, prevents bacteria from entering deeper into your ear, and slows the growth of bacteria that have entered the ear canal. As time passes, earwax naturally moves to the ear’s exterior where it can be cleaned. The risks of using cotton swabs are earwax impaction, injury, infections, and foreign body. Cotton swabs push earwax deeper into your ear, accumulating inside your ear, preventing it from naturally clearing. Symptoms can include pain, a feeling of fullness in the ear, and muffled hearing. Injuries like a ruptured eardrum can occur when a cotton swab is entered too far inside your ear.

Ear infection may occur when using a cotton swab as it can push earwax and bacteria farther into your ear. Moreover, a part of the tip of the cotton swab may come off when you are using it, causing feelings of fullness, pain, discomfort, and possibly, hearing loss.

But remember, it’s about balance. Too much earwax may jam your ear or cause temporary hearing loss or infections. Dr. Nguyen-Huynh said those with a “smaller-than-average” ear canal may produce too much wax, blocking their ears and prompting the need for cleaning.  Previous ear surgery or trauma, recurrent ear infections, and wearing hearing aids or deep earplugs may also affect the amount of ear wax.



How Do I Clean My Ears Safely?

You can use over-the-counter ear cleaners that contain hydrogen or other kinds of peroxide. Lay sideways and ensure that the ear you are cleaning is facing up. Add the drops and allow it to sit for about five minutes. The liquid and the earwax should come out when you sit up. Clean up using a tissue.

You can try adding a few drops of baby oil, mineral oil, or glycerin to soften the earwax. After a few days, use a bulb syringe to add warm water to the ear canal. When using a bulb syringe, the water should not be too warm or too cold, as it can make you dizzy. Tip your head to the side to drain the fluid from your ear. Do this step gently. Then, use a clean towel to dry your ear’s exterior.  



When Can I Consult My Doctor?

Ear wax is more annoying than dangerous, but there are times when you will need to see a professional to clear it. Dr. Nguyen-Huynh said, “Someone needs to look in and see if the ear canal is open or if the wax is plugging it up.” Your ears can be unblocked right away in minor cases. Otherwise, you need to consult an ENT so they can use operating microscopes to examine your ear canal, loosen the wax, and vacuum it.

If you have a clogged ear, Dr. Nguyen-Huynh speculated that it could be a middle ear infection with fluid building up behind your eardrum or a viral infection in the inner ear. He recommended having yourself diagnosed and treated by a professional to prevent permanent hearing loss. You can also schedule an appointment with your doctor if you experience fever, tinnitus, dizziness or vertigo, drainage from your ear, or if your ears feel clogged or plugged up.

Many people clean their ears using cotton swabs, but it also increases their risk of injury and infection. Although ears are self-cleaning, too much wax can jam the ear or cause temporary hearing loss. Individuals can use home remedies or consult a doctor to clear up the earwax.