Picture of woman using a swab to clean her ears.

What do your grandmother, the box of swabs in your bathroom, your hearing care professional and the American American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) all have in common? They all urge you to stop cleaning your ears with swabs! Ear wax removal rituals like this are unnecessary and even harmful to your hearing. Let’s check out 5 reasons why:

1. Nature Made Your Ears Self-Cleaning

Cerumen (the technical name for ear wax) is actually your ears’ very own cleaning solution—and it works very well on its own. It traps dust and debris before it works its way deeper into the ear canal where it might get trapped. As you talk, yawn and chew throughout the day, the very mechanical process of you using your jaw actually moves soiled ear wax out of the ear canal, effectively removing the dirt. Using a swab, fork, key, finger, chopstick, pencil or any other foreign implement for ear wax removal actually reverses your ears’ self-cleaning process, pushing used ear wax deeper into the canal where it can get impacted and lead to injury and hearing loss.

2. Ear Wax is Actually Quite Healthy

While none of us would ever want to run across an ear wax flavored Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans jellybean, the fact is, cerumen has all kinds of health properties that help keep your ears healthy. Ear wax has several health benefits aside from moving the dirt out of your ears. It protects your ears against viruses, fungal infections, bacteria, and even insects! It also moisturizes and conditions the skin inside of the ear canal, keeping it healthy and supple.

Cerumen is a fascinating recipe of long-chain fatty acids, cholesterol, alcohols, sebum, sloughed off skin cells, enzymes and other chemicals that are produced by special glands inside your ears. Your ears concoct this special recipe to keep your ears clean and infection free. In fact, average cerumen is slightly acidic—which inhibits fungal and bacterial growth. Yay ear wax!

3. The Hearing Loss – Ear Cleaning Connection

If you’ve always just cleaned your ears with swabs because that’s how you were taught, don’t feel too bad—just understand that you may already have some level of hearing loss without realizing it. As you’ve been swabbing around in there, ear wax can get pushed far down into the ear canal, making hearing difficult. If you’ve been doing the swab ear wax removal routine 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.

On the other hand, some people do actually make excess ear wax, and some people make too little. Sometimes the chemical composition of the ear wax isn’t ideal—it may be too dry or too wet, making it hard for the cerumen to do its job correctly. Either way, it’s still a bad idea to use anything bigger than your elbow for ear wax removal. If you have any concerns about your ears’ cerumen production, again, please schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional.

Now, if you need to wear hearing aids, you do need to pay attention to ear wax buildup and proper ear cleaning because sometimes that can impact ear wax into the ear canal. But still—no swabs! That’s why it’s so important to follow your hearing care professional’s recommendations on gentle ear washing and regular cleaning of your hearing aids to keep the balance right and your hearing healthy.

4. Ear Injuries Resulting from Bad Ear Cleaning Habits…

Nearly 12,500 American children sustain ear cleaning injuries each year for which they need a doctor’s visit. Sometimes the well-meaning parents do it under the false impression that ear cleaning is as necessary as teeth brushing. But often the kids do it themselves. The most common of these injuries include tympanic membrane tears (torn ear drum) or other small cuts and lacerations inside the ear canal.

You may be asking, “But what about ear candling?” Well, thousands of people go to the doctor with “ear candling” injuries every year too. Touted as a “natural ear wax removal” technique, ear candling enthusiasts stick a hollow, cone-shaped candle into their ear canals and light it. Just stop. Here’s what you need to 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 no ear candling for you!

5. Just a Shower…

While it may be hard to give up the swabbing habit, all the ear cleaning you really need is your daily shower. Just gently dab the extra water away from your ears afterwards and that is usually enough to remove any expelled ear wax. But if you have any concerns about your ear health, excess ear wax, impaction, ear injury or hearing loss, schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional today for appropriate care – and be a little more thankful for that hard-working cerumen!