Picture of woman using a swab to clean her ears.

If, for all these years, you’ve been dutifully cleaning out your ears with cotton swabs, you can stop now. It causes way more harm than good for your ears and actually isn’t even necessary. Ear health experts including your local hearing care professional, the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS), the warning on your box of swabs and your grandmother agree that you should never stick anything bigger than your elbow into your ears. No, really, it’s OK to quit swab ear cleaning and just let your ear wax do it for these 5 important reasons:

1. Your Ears Actually Clean Themselves

Ear wax is called cerumen by doctors and scientists lucky enough to study this amazing, but gross-looking substance. It actually snags stray dirt and dust that tries to enter your ear canal before it can get very far and cause problems. As if that wasn’t cool enough, without realizing it, you already help your ears clean themselves by just talking, chewing and yawning all day long. These jaw mechanics move the soiled ear wax out of the ear canal. All you have to do is gently wash that excess away while you’re showering.

And just know this: Using a swab, chopstick, paintbrush, key, fingernail, fork, key or any other small, pointy foreign object for ear wax removal actually frustrates your ears’ self-cleaning process. Digging around in there can actually push old, spent ear wax further into the ear canal where it becomes impacted and can dampen your hearing.

2. Ear Wax is Amazing

That yellowish brown waxy goop in your ears may look deceptively disgusting, but your ceruminous and sebaceous glands have your ears’ best health in mind when they make this recipe. In addition to effectively removing dust and crud out of your ear canal, ear wax guards your ears against bacteria, fungal infections and viruses. It even keeps bugs out of your ears, which is good because nobody likes bugs in their ears. It also lubricates, protects and keeps the skin of the ear canal healthy and soft.

The chemical formulation of ear wax is fascinating too: cholesterol, sebum, long-chain fatty acids, enzymes, alcohols, sloughed off skin cells, and other chemicals that really keep your ears healthy and protected. Healthy cerumen is also just a tad acidic, which is something that also inhibits fungal and bacterial infection. Yes, ear wax really is pretty awesome when you think about it.

3. Ear Cleaning Can Cause Hearing Loss

If you’re just now learning that you need to break the swab ear cleaning habit, you’re not alone. It’s also possible that you’ve suffered some level of hearing loss, probably without even realizing it. As you shoved those swabs into your ear canal, you’ve likely pushed layer upon layer of old, dirty ear wax down into your ear canal, which can damage your hearing.

If this sounds like you, schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional for a hearing checkup to determine whether or not you have impacted ear wax that might be causing some amount of hearing loss. Impacted ear wax removal should only be done in the office and without any pointy objects like swabs.

To be fair, some people have less-than optimal ear wax production issues that need to be addressed with ear wax removal. Some people’s ears make cerumen that’s either too dry or too wet, so it doesn’t properly do its job. Sometimes the chemical composition is off and doesn’t fully protect against infections. Even in these cases, however, you should still shun sticking swabs into your ears ear wax removal or evaluation. Call your hearing care professional if you’re worried about your ear wax.

Note about hearing aids: ear wax buildup can lessen the effectiveness of your hearing aids, if you wear them. Improper hearing aid cleaning can also cause ear wax jams. So it’s very important to follow any hearing aid cleaning and gentle ear washing instructions that your hearing care professional gives you.

4. Ear Cleaning Can Cause Ear Injuries

It’s important for parents the world over to understand that ear cleaning is not necessary like brushing your teeth is! Every day, somewhere in America, 34 kids are rushed to the doctor with ear cleaning injuries. Unfortunately, these injuries sometimes cause hearing loss that impacts the child’s language and communication development. So teach your kids not to put anything in their ears except their elbows (and then giggle as they try to do it). But seriously, the most common of these ear injuries include tympanic membrane tears (torn ear drum) or other small lacerations and cuts inside of the ear canal.

We hear some of you out there thinking out loud about “ear candling”. Nobody knows exactly who thought of sticking these hollow cones into your ear and setting them on fire, but we’re here to tell you—it doesn’t work, and it’s dangerous. So don’t do it. People across the country end up in the doctor’s office with ear candling injuries every year.

Need to know facts 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 just… don’t do it!

5. If You Absolutely Need to Clean Your Ears…

Showering. Really, just take your shower and wash your hair. Afterwards, just gently dab around your ears with a towel to sop up any excess water and you’re good to go. This will safely remove only the spent ear wax that your chewing, talking and yawning have evacuated from the ear canal.

Seriously – don’t pick up another swab! If not cleaning your ears the wrong way makes you feel awkward, or if you have any other concerns about ear wax impaction, ear injury or hearing loss, please schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional for an ear checkup today.

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