Step away from the cotton buds!
At first glance, ears seem like an uncontroversial topic. Unlike washing your legs (or taking regular showers), there aren’t many internet arguments about the subject. How to clean ears, however, is where things get interesting. After all, the ear is a complex apparatus, and we’ve all heard conflicting information on just how much cotton swabs should factor into your ear maintenance (spoiler alert: not at all).
So, to demystify things for you, we’re breaking down exactly when and how to clean your ears yourself, what you should avoid, and a few tips on when you should see a provider for earwax removal.
Do you even need to clean your ears?
Your ears are more than just earring display cases and hosts for the occasional pimple. When you think about your ears, you probably think of the outer ear. This includes the pinna or auricle, which is the outside structure that you can see very easily, and the external auditory canal, which is the beginning of your ear canal. But there’s also the middle ear, made up of three bones that transmit sound waves, and the inner ear, which consists of nerves and canals that help us hear and maintain our balance, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. Your ears also contain tympanic membranes, better known as eardrums, which divide the external ear from the middle ear, the University of Rochester Medical Center explains.
Now that we’ve covered that quick anatomy lesson, let’s discuss earwax, or cerumen, which is probably the whole reason you’re curious about how to clean your ears in the first place. Glands in the skin in your ears secrete this wax, which lines the outer half of your ear canal, the Mayo Clinic says. It may be hard to believe, but earwax is your friend. It, along with tiny hairs in your ears, is meant to protect your inner ear from dust, dirt, and other elements, the Mayo Clinic explains. And, in possibly harder-to-believe news: “Generally speaking, the ear canal is self-cleaning,” Christopher Chang, M.D., an otolaryngologist in Warrenton, Virginia, previously told SELF.
As your body makes new wax, older wax gets pushed out of your ear and falls away naturally, the Mayo Clinic says. “You really don’t have to do a whole lot,” Dr. Chang previously explained. You also clean your ears a bit just by living your life. The act of opening and closing your mouth moves your ear canals just enough to shake loose some wax, Erich Voigt, M.D., clinical associate professor and chief of general/sleep otolaryngology at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. “Through chewing and talking, the ear auto-cleans,” he explains.
With all of that said, you might be really keen on knowing how to clean your ears as safely as possible, self-cleaning mechanism be damned. Keep reading to learn how to clean your ears without making them very, very mad at you.
Here’s how to clean your ears safely on your own
Dr. Voigt recommends cleaning your ears when you’re in the shower, using gentle soap and water. “When you’re washing your hair, you can clean [your ears] with a washcloth,” he says.
Specifically, you can wipe down the pinna, which encompasses those outer ear folds and your earlobe. You should also hit behind your ears. But the outer ear canal is not a part of the ear that you should clean, Dr. Voigt says. It might seem harmless to take your little pinkie finger and dig in your ear to dislodge a bit of wax at the beginning of your ear canal, but you really shouldn’t do it. Why? Because going rogue this way can cause a host of complications. You might push earwax farther into your ear, which can cause an earwax blockage. This happens when the sticky stuff accumulates or hardens and your body can’t discard it naturally, the Mayo Clinic explains. Or you can accidentally tear or puncture the layer of tissue that protects your eardrum, the Mayo Clinic says. This is called a perforated eardrum. Both of these things can mess with your hearing, BTW.
So, really, stick with Dr. Voigt’s advice and gently wipe down the outer part of your ears in the shower. After you’re done cleaning your ears? “Just dry [them] with your towel,” Dr. Voigt says. Again, Dr. Voigt emphasises staying away from your ear canal. “I tell people to put their finger in their towel and kind of just mark the opening of the ear. This way you’ll remove any unsightly wax from debris and any material that would be visible, but you’re not going into the canal, which would disrupt the natural cleaning process.”
Here are some tips to remember when cleaning your ears
Some people produce more earwax than others
Much like some people sweat more than others, some folks produce more earwax than others, Dr. Voigt says. For some, the wax “keeps building on itself…so there are people that will create the equivalent of a Tootsie Roll of wax in their ear canal,” Dr. Voigt explains. This isn’t a huge deal unless you feel like you’re constantly building up so much wax that you wind up with blockages that make it hard to hear.
Your earbuds can hint at wax issues
If you’re someone who is perpetually attached to your earbuds, they might help you figure out if it’s time to get your ears checked. If you notice a ton of wax on your earbuds every time you remove them, “that means there’s probably a wax buildup inside,” Dr. Voigt says. If you’re seeing a lot of wax and also feel like you need to use your earbuds at maximum volume, that could also be an indication that you have a blockage and could benefit from chatting with your doctor.
Trying to remove the wax yourself can result in earwax blockages
Before you run to the bathroom to clean your ears until they sparkle, keep in mind that a doctor is the best person to remove significant amounts of earwax from your ears. In fact, when you get overzealous about making sure your ears have no visible wax, you increase your chances of earwax blockage, the Mayo Clinic explains.
Seriously, earwax is normal
Yup, we’re going to say it again for good measure: Earwax isn’t the enemy! In addition to protecting your ears from dust and dirt, “It’s a waterproof agent,” Dr. Voigt says. “So when water goes in, the wax protects the skin, and then it’ll bead up…so it’s protection from infection.” You need some wax in your ears to keep yourself healthy. Keep this in mind when you’re tempted to rid your ears of wax completely.
There are more than a few things to avoid when cleaning your ears
The overarching rule here is to leave your ears alone except for the gentlest cleaning of the exterior parts, but the list below goes into specifics about the things you should avoid. TL;DR? Don’t stick anything in your ear without consulting your provider first.
Put down the cotton swabs, bobby pins, and other small structures
Did you know that cotton swab packages often have a warning that explicitly tells you not to use them in your ears? Using them to remove earwax actually pushes wax farther into your ear, the Mayo Clinic explains. Additionally, cotton can cause tiny cuts or microabrasions in your ear, which can increase your chances of getting an ear infection, Dr. Voigt says. This is actually the opposite of what you’re looking for when you set out to remove wax from your ears.
So what should you do with all those cotton swabs? “A cotton swab can be used to go into the little folds of the [outer] ears,” Dr. Voigt says. “People also use those cotton tip applicators to apply makeup or to clean other areas of their face. But they should not be stuck into [your ear canal].” This rule doesn’t just apply to cotton swabs: Many experts say you shouldn’t put anything smaller than an elbow into your ears. Yes, you read that right: an elbow.
Don’t even think about ear candling
Ear candling is a technique that involves using a cone-shaped lit candle to remove earwax, the Mayo Clinic says. The heat from the candle is supposed to suction the earwax so that it sticks to the candle. On top of the fact that there’s no evidence that ear candling works, it’s downright dangerous, the Mayo Clinic explains. “You’ve got a flame near hair,” Dr. Voigt says (which, TBH, is enough reason to avoid ear candling). “I’ve also seen the wax heated and slide down onto the eardrum,” he adds.
Be wary of earwax softeners and removal kits
There are probably lots of earwax softeners and removal kits in your local drugstore, but Dr. Voigt says that you shouldn’t reach for them. These softeners, often made from mineral oil or glycerin, do soften the wax, but Dr. Voigt says that this might cause the wax to slide farther into your ear instead of out of it. Then, when the wax hardens again, it will cause a blockage that may not have been there before you started. In short: Don’t use these on your own, and consult your doctor before fiddling with your ears, the Mayo Clinic says.
Cleaning your ears incorrectly can cause serious complications
We keep emphasising how bad it is to stick items in your ears because self-cleaning can increase earwax blockages. Blockages are irritating enough (and downright counterproductive), but a more serious potential complication of cleaning your ears incorrectly is a perforated eardrum. As we mentioned above, perforated or ruptured eardrums happen when you puncture or tear the tympanic membrane, that thin layer that separates your middle ear from your eardrum, the Mayo Clinic explains.
Typically, your eardrum can heal on its own, but sometimes it might require surgery to patch the tear, the Mayo Clinic explains. One great way to avoid a perforated eardrum is to skip sticking anything in your ears to try to clean them. We know that cotton swabs can feel good, and seeing the dirty cotton can make you feel like it’s all worth it. Trust us; it’s not.
Here’s when to see a doctor for ear-related concerns
If you’re experiencing symptoms like an earache, a feeling of pressure or fullness in one ear, ringing in the ear, dizziness, coughing, or problems hearing, you might be dealing with a blockage, the Mayo Clinic says. Contact your doctor instead of trying to handle it yourself. You may just require routine wax removal, but your doctor can screen you for other conditions that might cause similar symptoms (like an infection), the Mayo Clinic says.
You should also see your doctor if you’re dealing with symptoms of a perforated eardrum. If you’ve perforated your eardrum, you might feel a sharp pain that subsides quickly (like you’ve pierced something), the Mayo Clinic says. You could also find that your ear is leaking blood, pus, or mucus—plus, you might experience ringing in your ear and vertigo (which includes dizziness, a spinning sensation, and nausea or vomiting), the Mayo Clinic explains. A perforated eardrum can also result in hearing loss, and it can make you more vulnerable to ear infections, the Mayo Clinic says
This is what your doctor will do to clean your ears safely
If you think you have an earwax blockage, Dr. Voigt suggests going to an ear, nose, and throat doctor if you can, although a general practitioner can be a great place to start if you’re having trouble finding a specialist.
When you visit your doctor, they will examine your ears by using an otoscope, an instrument that lights and magnifies the inside of your ear, the Mayo Clinic says. If your doctor determines that you do have an earwax blockage, they’ll remove the wax with an instrument called a curette, or they might first use an earwax softener followed by gentle suction, the Merck Manual explains. “There are often pretty dramatic, immediate results,” Dr. Voigt says. “You might have immediate relief of the pressure,” he explains. “[You] can hear incredibly well.”
In most cases, the entire procedure can be done in a few minutes. Your ears will be clog-free, but Dr. Voigt says to be careful. Since earwax is your friend, you’ll need to be cautious now that the vast majority of the wax in your ear is gone. For instance, Dr. Voigt warns against getting water in your ear for a few days while your body builds up new wax. He also recommends turning down the volume on your car stereo, TV, phone speaker, earbuds, and any similar devices. People often turn the volume way up to compensate for their wax-induced diminished hearing, he says. Once your blockage is removed, you can probably tone things down a bit.
If you are dealing with excessive earwax production or frequent blockages, your doctor can prescribe you an earwax-removal medication to help manage the buildup, the Mayo Clinic says. Whatever you do, leave deep wax removal to the pros.
This article originally appeared on SELF US.