Admit it: There’s nothing more satisfying than digging around in your ear with a cotton swab and extracting a nice big chunk of warm wax. Gross, but satisfying.
Thing is, cotton swabs aren’t the best way to clean out your ears. In fact, they can actually cause some trouble in your ear canal, says Christopher Chang, M.D., of Fauquier ENT in Warrenton, Virginia. “Put it in too far and a cotton swab can potentially lead to you damaging your ear drum.”
And that’s not the half of it. “If you’re too aggressive with a cotton swab, you can create little scratches in the ear canal, which aside from traumatizing the skin could potentially lead to an infection,” Chang explains. “Just like if you have a rash or irritation on your arm and scratch yourself until your skin is raw and even more irritated, you can do the same with a cotton swab.”
Plus, cotton swabs aren’t even all that effective for getting the gunk out of your ears. Instead of pulling earwax out, you might actually be pushing it even further in, says Chang. “Doctors can actually see the earwax building up and the indentation the cotton swab makes inside people’s ears,” Chang says. “Sometimes I’ll see the skin has been traumatized and bruised in the ear canal.”
The bottom line: Despite the morbid pleasure of going to town with a cotton swab, it’s not doing your ears any favors.
The fact is, most people don’t even need to clean out their ears regularly. “The ear canal typically cleans itself and the wax comes out on its own,” says Chang. If you’re concerned about the amount of buildup, though, consider using an ear syringe. These syringes have a small nozzle that shoots out streams of water. Simply fill the syringe with body temperature distilled water, which is free of bacteria, aim into your ear, and squeeze. The streams of water will help to rinse the wax out, says Chang. “Try doing this twice a week to prevent wax buildup and possible blockages,” he says.
You can also try OTC products, like mineral oil, hydrogen peroxide, or rubbing alcohol, to flush out earwax. Tilt your head sideways, drip five drops into your ear, wait a minute, then sit up straight. The liquid should flow out, along with some wax. Chang prefers mineral oil, since some rubbing alcohol and other chemical products can dry out the skin in the ear canal, and potentially cause irritation. Note: Skip this method if you have any holes in your eardrums (your doc would have told you if you do).
Related: Try these natural ear drop formulas.
If you have cause for concern about the general health of your ears, see your primary care doctor or an ENT. “If your ears are itching like crazy, there may be an issue besides wax buildup, like dermatitis of the skin of the ear canal,” says Chang. “A physician can make sure there’s no skin abnormality or a fungal ear infection.” And, if you still insist on swabbing, Chang warns not to insert them more than a centimeter (the length of the cotton tip) into your ear.