How to Properly Clean Your Ears
Plus, what you really need to know about using q-tips to do so.
Unlike your face, hands, or hair, it's easy to forget about cleaning your ears. When you do remember, you likely reach for a cotton swab (commonly referred to as a q-tip) to give your ears' interior a serious deep clean. However, while this vanity staple is perfect for eyeliner touch-ups and mascara smudges, it is ultimately damaging to your ears and should never be used to clear your ear canal of wax. To learn more how ears should be properly cleansed, we spoke to Benjamin Tweel, an otolaryngologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital. Here's what he had to share.
Inside and Out
Believe it or not, for most people, there is absolutely no reason to clean the interior of the ears, notes Dr. Tweel. "Earwax or 'cerumen' naturally cleans the ear canal and normally works its way out of the canal without you having to do anything," he explains. "In fact, trying to physically clean the inside of the ear canal can lead to trouble, such as infection or hearing loss." As for the exterior? This part of your ear can be cleansed with a tissue or a washcloth, Dr. Tweel adds. "Any area that you can reach with your finger is safe to clean—any area you can't should be left alone," he says.
Cotton Swab Danger
If you do use cotton swabs to clear ear wax, it's time to stop, says Dr. Tweel. "When cotton swabs enter the ear canal, they will often push the wax further inside, making the problem worse," he says. "If the cotton swab goes too far, it can damage the eardrum and the tiny hearing bones within the middle ear, leading to hearing loss." The worst case scenario, however, is one that will make you put down the cotton swab for good: "The cotton tip can fall off and get stuck in the ear canal, leading to blocked hearing or infections. This may lead to surgery," Dr. Tweel continues.
A few drops of peroxide can safely remove a buildup of wax from your ears, but "an over-the-counter earwax cleaning solution, which contains mineral oil and carbamide peroxide, is my preferred method," suggests Dr. Tweel. He advises using a bulb syringe to gently suction out the softened wax after letting the product sit (so patience is key!). "It may take five days of drops, administered twice a day, until the wax is soft enough to come out. Irrigating the ear with water should be done with caution," he notes.
You shouldn't have to use these drops regularly—and you should consider speaking with your physician before turning to them in the first place. "The only reason to use earwax drops is if your doctor has noticed a lot of wax or if you feel your ear getting blocked. If drops don't help, it's very important to see a doctor firsthand to have the wax removed or to evaluate for any other cause of hearing loss," Dr. Tweel concludes.