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Picture of woman using a swab to clean her ears.

Science alert: cleaning your ears with anything smaller than your elbow is a bad idea. So put down the swabs and back away. Yes – even that box of swabs in your bathroom has a warning label somewhere on it that tells you not to stick them into your ear canal. Yet so many people still do it. Why? Especially when everyone from your hearing care professional and the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) to your grandmother have all weighed in on the matter and agree with the warning on the box? Maybe it’s because people just don’t understand how cool ear wax really is. Here are 5 reasons to stop digging it out of your ears and let it do its thing:

1. Ear Wax is Nature’s Own Miracle Ear Cleaner

Cerumen is a special ear cleaning solution that you should use to clean out your ears. And cerumen, by any other name, is ear wax. Special glands in your ears produce it for cleaning and other ear health benefits. Instead of aggressively poking around in your ears to remove it, you should just let it be.

Cerumen was specifically designed to grab dust, debris, and other undesirable objects and trap them so they can’t go down into your ear canal any further. Then, as you go through your day talking, chewing and yawning, those actions actually move the soiled ear wax down and out of the ear canal where you can easily wipe it out with a washcloth during your shower.

What’s more, if you try to dig out the ear wax with a fingernail, swab, fork, pencil, key, chopstick or other pointy foreign object, you’re actually reversing your ears’ self-cleaning mechanisms by pushing soiled cerumen further into your ear canal with all the dust and dirt it’s collected. Over time, soiled ear wax can build up as it gets shoved into the ear canal, blocking your ear drum. This is called “ear wax impaction” and it’s not pretty or helpful.

2. Ear Wax Keeps Your Ears Healthy

Although ear wax may gross you out, and coming across an ear wax flavored Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor jellybean may make you shudder, cerumen is specially designed to benefit your ears and keep them healthy. Glands inside of your ear canal produce this special substance for a reason, so don’t get all antsy about trying to dig it out. Your personal ear wax recipe isn’t actually wax, though it creates the waxy substance we know and love out of long-chain fatty acids, sebum, cholesterol, alcohols, enzymes, sloughed off skin cells and other chemicals. This interesting chemical balance accomplishes several protective functions:

  • It’s antimicrobial; it protects your ears against viral, fungal and bacterial infections very effectively.
  • It repels insects—their sensitive sense of smell finds ear wax too stinky.
  • It lubricates and moisturizes the ear canal, keeping it healthy and soft.
  • Healthy ear wax is slightly acidic, something else that hinders fungal and bacterial growth in your ears.

Let’s face it—ear wax is marvelous and healthy!

3. Ear Wax Removal and Hearing Loss Go Hand in Hand

You may already have sustained some level of hearing loss, just from the process of swab-based ear wax removal habits. This type of ear wax removal actually shoves soiled, old ear wax further down into the ear canal where it can become impacted and cause hearing loss. If you’ve been doing this for years, schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional to have them check whether you have impacted ear wax that might be causing some amount of hearing loss.

To be fair, there are some people who have actual medical problems with their ear wax and need professional assistance. Some people don’t make enough of it, while others make too much. Some people have ear wax that is too wet or too dry, or that may not have an optimal balance of ingredients to adequately protect and clean the ears. Nevertheless, you still shouldn’t try to remedy or clean it out yourself with a swab or anything else (smaller than your elbow). If you’re worried about the health of your ear wax, please get in touch with your hearing care professional for an evaluation.

If you wear hearing aids, ear wax can become impacted if proper care protocols aren’t followed. Fortunately, following your hearing care professional’s advice is a very good way to avoid this. Make sure to properly clean and store your hearing aids at the end of each day and follow any instructions on ear cleaning—instructions that will be entirely devoid of swabs. If you’re having difficulties with hearing aids and ear wax, schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional right way.

4. Ear Cleaning Accidents Cause Long-Term Pain

Every day, at least 34 children somewhere in America are carted off, in tears and pain, to the doctor’s office with tympanic membrane tears, cuts, and lacerations from ear cleaning accidents. Sometimes the parents are a little too keen on digging out the ear wax, but sometimes it’s the kids who are learning this bad ear cleaning habit from their parents and lack the fine motor skills to do it without harming their ears. Either way, this is something the entire family needs to stop doing. Remember what grandma said: Nothing smaller than your elbow goes into your ear, or you could suffer pain and hearing loss.

Some of you out there may be wondering out loud about the “natural” ear cleaning technique called “ear candling”. Thousands of years ago, someone apparently thought it was a good idea to stick a hollow tube into the ear and set it on fire. But it’s a bad idea with no science behind it, although the practice doggedly remains displayed in health food stores across the nation. Here’s what you should 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.

So please—avoid ear candling and just clean your ears the proper way…

5. Clean Your Ears Like This Instead

The only thing you really need to do to clean out your ears is to take a shower. While you’re in there, use a soft washcloth to gently wipe behind and around the outside of your ears. You don’t need to jam your finger into your ear canal – just wipe the outside of it and this should be enough to remove the used-up ear wax that has already finished cleaning your ears. Once you’re done showering, just use a towel to dry around the outside and you’re finished! Ears are safely cleaned and that hard-working ear wax in your ear canal is free to keep doing what it does.

If you have any concerns about your ear wax, your hearing, ear wax removal, ear cleaning habits or anything else associated with your ears, schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional today—and be grateful for your wonderful ear wax!