If you’ve ever heard that you shouldn’t stick anything in your ears for any reason, you should heed that advice. While the temptation to clean every possible accessible orifice may compel you, you are actually doing more harm than good by sticking a cotton swab (or anything else) in your ears.
The ears are truly amazing. Not only do they house the smallest bones in the body, they are completely self-sufficient.
Ear wax is not an icky bodily substance, it is the means by which intruders are kept out, those precious tiny bones and ear drum are protected, and the ear canal is kept moist and clean.
The biological name for ear wax is cerumen. It’s made by sweat glands and combines with dead skin cells and sebum (an oily substance made by glands in the skin) in the ear. With antibacterial properties, cerumen is perfectly suited to protect your ears in every way.
Your Ears Push Old Wax Out Naturally
Ever wonder what happens to ear wax (if you don’t pull it out, that is)? Once formed, the wax moves every time your jaw moves: eating, talking, chewing gum, yawning. Old wax is pushed out, like riding an escalator.
If you stick something in your ear, the wax gets pushed back into the canal and can’t get off the escalator. What can occur if it’s done consistently is the wax becomes impacted and can’t make its own way out. If this happens, then you really do have to do something to get the wax out—and it’s not especially fun.
Ears rarely need to be cleaned. The only time it’s indicated is if you notice changes to your hearing; a doctor has tools to flush out impacted cerumen.
Trapped cerumen can retain the bacteria, viruses, and fungus that it was designed to remove. If it remains in the ear because it’s been pushed back, it can cause infection.
Pushed in far enough and you can rupture the ear drum, causing hearing loss. Almost eight million Americans a year have professional medical procedures to remove impacted cerumen.
Stop Using That Q-Tip
The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery has published an issue paper on the topic “Earwax and Care” to be used as a guide for ear health.
The first piece of advice: “start by discontinuing the use of cotton-tipped applicators and the habit of probing the ears”. In other words, don’t stick Q-Tips in your ears. If you persist in “cleaning” out your ears, they are more likely to itch, necessitating more scratching: rubbing the skin in your ears releases histamine, irritating and inflaming the skin. As ear wax is also a lubricant, removing it can cause the skin to dry out and result in even greater itch.
If your ears ache, feel full, or you notice impairment in your hearing (or you’ve already used a Q-Tip and shoved the wax too far down the canal for it to push itself out), there are are simple, natural remedies to soften the wax so it can again move on its own.
If you feel you absolutely must give a gentle cleansing, make a mixture of one part vinegar, one part isopropyl alcohol, and one part water—all at body temperature—and place a few drops in each ear. Other than that, nothing smaller than your elbow should ever enter your ear.