Picture of woman using a swab to clean her ears.

What do your grandmother, the box of swabs in your bathroom and the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) have in common? They’re all urging you to put the swabs down and back away slowly if you were intending to stick that thing in your ear. That sage advice about never putting anything smaller than your elbow in your ear—turns out it’s scientifically sound. Give your ear wax a break for these 5 reasons:

1. Your Ears Clean Themselves without Your Help

Ear wax is an ear cleaning powerhouse solution. Cerumen (the scientific word for ear wax) traps dirt and dust entering the ear canal, preventing it from sliding deeper down where it could get impacted and block your ear drum. The ordinary daily mechanics of yawning, chewing and talking moves the dirty ear wax out of the ear canal so you don’t have to do anything except take a regular shower. Using a swab, finger, key, chopstick, fork or any other foreign object for ear wax removal actually reverses your ears’ self-cleaning mechanisms, pushing old ear wax deeper into the canal where it can get impacted and cause hearing loss.

2. Ear Wax Keeps Your Ears Healthy

Sure, cerumen may look gross, but your ceruminous and sebaceous glands make it for a reason. Besides ushering dirt and dust and crud out of your ears, ear wax protects your ears against fungal infections, viruses, bacteria, and even deters insects! It also protects and lubricates the inside of the ear canal to keep it healthy.

In fact, these glands whip up a special recipe of cholesterol, fatty acids, enzymes, alcohols, sebum, sloughed off skin cells, and other chemicals especially for your ears—the end result is ear-protecting ear wax. In fact, average cerumen is slightly acidic—which inhibits fungal and bacterial growth.

3. Ear Cleaning Mishaps Hurt Hearing

If you, like millions of other people, have a long-established ear cleaning habit with swabs, you may have jammed a bunch of old ear wax down into your ear canal, impacting it down there. This means you might have sustained some hearing loss. Schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional for a hearing checkup to determine whether or not you have impacted ear wax that might be causing some amount of hearing loss.

Occasionally, people do have actual ear wax problems that need to be addressed with ear wax removal, but never with swabs. Some people’s ears make it too dry or too wet. Sometimes the chemical composition is off and it doesn’t do its job properly. Even in these cases, however, you should still shun sticking anything into your ears besides your elbow for ear wax removal or evaluation. Call your hearing care professional if you’re worried about your ear wax.

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. Cleaning Injuries to Avoid…

Dear parents: ear cleaning and teeth brushing are not the same! Teeth don’t clean themselves, but ears really do! Every day, somewhere in America, 34 kids are rushed to the doctor with ear cleaning injuries. The sad thing is how it can harm kids’ hearing during important developmental years. So pass that sage advice from your grandma on to your children, because they often injure their own ears by sticking swabs into them. The most common of these injuries include tympanic membrane tears (torn ear drum) or other small lacerations and cuts inside of the ear canal.

And then there’s the “all natural” practice of “ear candling” that you should absolutely avoid. Billed as a “natural ear wax removal” technique, you basically stick a hollow, cone-shaped candle into your ear canals and light it. Thousands of people go to the doctor with ear candling injuries every year too. 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.

5. Put the Swabs Down and Back Away…

Just take a shower, wash your hair, rinse out your ears in the process and dab with a towel afterward. That’s really all you need for healthy, safe ear cleaning as it removes the ear wax your ear has already pushed out of the canal. If you really struggle with this advisory on ear wax, or worry that there may be some ear wax impaction, hearing loss or injury to your ear, schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional right away.

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