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Stop using cotton buds to clean your ears

Earwax is not the enemy you might think it is


I know I’m not supposed to stick things such as cotton buds in my ears. But how else am I supposed to clean them?


You may have heard the warning never to put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear, or shuddered at the story of a friend’s friend who ruptured her eardrum with a cotton bud.

While eardrum puncture injuries are “quite unusual”, they can be severe, says Dr Seth Schwartz, an ear, nose and throat doctor in Seattle. And when they happen, cotton buds are often to blame.

Here’s why you should stop sticking cotton-tipped dowels in your ears, and how to think about cleaning them instead.


Cotton buds

The first thing to understand is that earwax isn’t an enemy that must be eliminated, says Dr Alexandra Quimby, an ear, nose and throat doctor in New York.

This tacky, sometimes crumbly substance – made up of oily skin secretions, sweat and dead skin cells – protects the delicate inner ear by trapping irritants such as dirt, dust, bacteria and fungi, and by regulating moisture.

Earwax also helps clear away the dead skin cells that shed from the inner ear, Dr Schwartz says. As you shower, or when you move your jaw while speaking or chewing, your earwax carries those dead skin cells from deep inside your ear canal to the outer ear, where they will eventually be pushed out.

If you try to remove earwax with cotton buds, you risk irritating your delicate inner ear skin, says Dr Hae-Ok Ana Kim, a doctor who specialises in treating inner ear disorders. Cotton bud fibres, while appearing “nice and fuzzy”, she says, are “actually quite abrasive”. And that can cause your ear to produce more wax to protect the now-vulnerable skin.

Cotton buds can also push earwax deeper into your ear canal, where it can cause a build-up, she says – leading to symptoms such as itching, pain, feelings of fullness or dizziness. If it becomes bad enough, it might cause muffled hearing, too.

Many people experience built-up, or impacted, ear wax, though it can be more common in older adults or those who wear hearing aids. Dr Kim says people with skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis might also have a greater risk of impaction, as can people with small or differently shaped ear canals.

If you think you might have a blockage, go to a doctor who can safely remove it, said Dr. Tiffany Peng Hwa, an ear, nose and throat doctor at Penn Medicine.

Other strategies

The best way to keep your ears clean and healthy is to leave your earwax alone, experts say. But if you absolutely can’t resist the urge to poke around in there – and it’s understandable; the ear is lined with nerve endings that, when stimulated, can be extremely pleasurable – experts have tips on how to clean them safely.

Washcloth: Dr Quimby recommended wiping the outer ear (called the pinna) with a moist washcloth, just as you would wipe other parts of your body. “Clean the outer part you can get to, but nothing deeper,” she says.

Drops: To help your ear with its natural self-cleaning process, Dr Schwartz recommended over-the-counter ear drops. These tend to be best for those with naturally drier earwax, he said, since they work by softening the wax, making it easier to clear.

Some people find drops ineffective – or as effective as using drops of water – but because they’re generally safe, experts recommend ear drops over swabs.

DIY tools: Beyond cotton buds, experts warn against using any home-made or shop-bought tools that allow you to scrape, pick or scoop the wax from your ear. They can be as simple as paper clips, or they may be tiny curettes, brushes or camera-tipped picks that you can buy in drugstores or online. These tools are as dangerous as cotton buds, Dr Schwartz says.

He also advised against ear candling, which involves placing the unlit end of a hollow candle in the ear canal and lighting the other end. This is supposed to create suction that pulls the earwax out. But “candles are both ineffective and dangerous,” Dr Schwartz says. They can lead to burns; and the visible leftover wax, which some people might consider as proof that the technique worked, is really just wax from the candle, not earwax.

Cotton buds: Still, some people feel the urge to use cotton buds despite their risks, Dr Hwa says. “If you’re using them to sop up a little moisture right around the opening of your ear, that’s probably fine.”

But it shouldn’t go any deeper than that. And if your ears hurt, itch or feel clogged, go to a doctor who can diagnose a blockage and remove it safely. That’s “the least risky approach”, Dr Hwa says. – This article originally appeared in the New York Times

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