5 Tips for Cleaning Your Ears

Plus how to remove wax build-up safely.

Earwax can feel uncomfortable for many, so it's no wonder most of us reach for cotton swabs regularly. But here's the deal: There's a good chance you're putting your ears and hearing at risk with every ear wax removal attempt.

Why? The eardrum and the little bones of the middle ear—called ossicles—are easy to damage and may even require surgery to fix, explained Boris Chernobilsky, MD, assistant clinical professor of otolaryngology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. "In the worst-case scenario, damage to the ossicles can result in a leak of fluid from the inner ear," said Dr. Chernobilsky. "This would result in severe vertigo and potentially a permanent hearing loss."

Also, the skin of the ear canal is ultra-thin and easily injured by just about anything you put in there. "If the skin is broken, it can get infected and lead to a painful external ear infection—swimmer's ear, in lay terms," added Dr. Chernobilsky.

If you want to keep your ears in perfect shape, Dr. Chernobilsky recommended changing the methods to clean your ears.

Tips To Remember When Cleaning Your Ears

When you do go to clean your ears, these tips may help you do so safely and effectively.

Ears Are Natural Cleaners

Most people actually never need to clean their ears. "Ears are self-cleaning," explained Dr. Chernobilsky. "It is the only part of the body in which the skin grows in a direction and brings the wax and skin debris out from the canal to the outer ear." For example, when you move your jaw and chew, you're assisting this process.

Some people have more earwax than others, but generally, the ears make the amount of wax they need. The yellow-orange substance—technically known as cerumen—protects the skin in the ear canal by lubricating it and preventing it from filling up with water.

"It's a natural skin lotion," said Dr. Chernobilsky. "Cerumen also has properties which kill certain types of bacteria and prevent the growth of fungus."

Cotton Swabs Are Better for Cleaning the Outside of Your Ears

Cotton swabs are bathroom staples, but they're not meant for use in the ears. It even says so on most packaging; the typical recommendation is that cotton swabs are intended for cleaning the outside surfaces of ears.

A cotton swab's rigid, pointy shape can damage the skin, eardrums, and ossicles. Using cotton swabs to clean the inside of your ears could also lead to infections.

Another effect of using swabs could be impaction. Impaction happens when there is increased earwax that causes ear-related symptoms (e.g., hearing issues) or prevents a healthcare provider from making an assessment when a person is getting their ears examined.

Swabs can push the wax in deeper and cause impaction, Dr. Chernobilsky said. One more unpleasant possibility: The cotton head can pop off in your ear canal. If that happens, you need to see a healthcare provider and have it removed.

Pointy Objects Could Lead to Other Ear Problems if Used for Ear Cleaning

Sometimes, individuals might use just about anything to remove earwax. "People will stick just about anything they can think of into their ears when they feel discomfort—their long fingernails, bobby pins, sewing needles, keys, to name a few," said Dr. Chernobilsky.

However, anything sharp or shaped similarly to a cotton swab will pose the same risks of cutting the skin and damaging the inner and outer ear. And, like cotton swabs, these types of objects could lead to impaction.

Candling Can Be Unhelpful—In a Few Ways

Ear candling involves placing a hollow, cone-shaped candle into the ear. The flame's heat supposedly creates a vacuum effect, drawing wax to the candle.

But ear candling can do more harm than good—it might lead to ear canal and eardrum damage and still leave you with impacted earwax.

Even though some folks have anecdotal tales of success with candling, Dr. Chernobilsky considered it extremely dangerous: "I have seen eardrum perforations and burns from people's hair catching on fire."

Rinsing Out Wax Should Be Done With Care

Earwax can be removed using ear irrigation, or the process of rinsing your ears out. This method uses a syringe to spray body-temperature water into your ear when sitting upright so that you can tip your head to drain it out.

However, you'll want to be careful if you decide to rinse out earwax. "While this method is generally safe if done right, you are doing it blindly, and you can get a swimmer's ear if the ear isn't dried properly when you are done," said Dr. Chernobilsky.

Furthermore, you'll want to avoid rinsing out your ears if you might have a hole in your eardrum or if you have had recent surgery on your ears. It's best to see a healthcare provider before attempting to do ear irrigation on your own.

How Often Should I Clean My Ears?

You don't need to clean your ears very often. This is primarily because, as noted earlier, they clean themselves.

However, certain people may accumulate wax faster, Dr. Chernobilsky explained. "These are the people that use hearing aids with in-the-ear molds, doctors that use stethoscopes, musicians that use earplugs, or people that use earbuds to listen to music, to name a few."

If your wax build-up bothers you, visit a healthcare provider every few months to have your ears cleaned out.

How To Clean Your Ears

One way to clean your ears is to wait for the wax to loosen on its own and reach the outer ear. Then gently brush it out with a washcloth.

You may be able to soften wax in your ear with some of the following things:

  • Mineral or baby oil
  • Glycerin
  • Water

You can also try over-the-counter wax softeners, as long as you know that your ears are otherwise healthy and you don't have any cuts in or around the eardrum. Softening products typically involve drops or an oily solution that loosen wax and help it slide to the outer ear.

Some products also come with peroxide to dissolve the stuff. "The [softeners] that are oil-based are just fine," said Dr. Chernobilsky. But if you use a product with peroxide and have a cut, it will burn.

Dr. Chernobilsky also warned that if you've got a large plug of wax, a softener could make you feel much worse: "The peroxide can cause the wax to expand and cause significant pain, pressure, and hearing loss without dissolving the plug."

Another trick you can try between healthcare provider visits: Tilt your head to the side and put a few drops of mineral oil in the ear. "I prefer mineral oil to baby oil since it is inert and does not have any fragrances that people with allergies or sensitive skin may react to," said Dr. Chernobilsky. Then lay your head on a towel-covered pillow for a few minutes, and the wax should slip out.

However, Dr. Chernobilsky cautioned that this isn't a solution for a major wax impaction. For that, you still need a healthcare provider.

A Quick Review

Your best bet when it comes to earwax is to let it be. Since ears are natural cleaners, you may never need to clean your ears or clean them regularly unless you have increased earwax production.

However, if you do decide to clean your ears, be gentle. You'll want to avoid using cotton swabs and pointy objects, as it can lead to earwax being impacted in your ears, and refrain from using candling. You should be careful if you choose ear rinsing, or have a healthcare provider do it for you—especially if earwax affects hearing or how your ear feels.

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  4. MedlinePlus. Ear wax.

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