We’ve all done it. You’ve probably even done it a few times this week after you shower. We’re talking about cleaning your ears with a cotton swab, of course. You open up that medicine cabinet, take a fresh cotton swab (see: Q-Tip) and jam it in your ear to clean out the wax and gunk that has taken refuge in your ear canal over the past few days. But the truth is, there are many negative consequences associated with this style of at-home ear cleaning. From super-impacted wax to punctured eardrums, there are quite a few reasons why you should stop cleaning your ears with cotton swabs.

At our practice we’ve seen all sorts of injuries from things being jammed into the ears: toys, paper clips, tweezers, and – believe it or not – plenty of cotton swab injuries. Generally, you shouldn’t stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ear. Sure, we’re all taught that every few days our ears need to be cleaned or wax (called cerumen in the medical world) will build up and make it harder to hear or cause pain. While this is true, and excess wax can be a bad thing, we still must recommend that nothing should be placed inside the ear to remove dirt and debris.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

To be blunt, you could rupture your eardrum and cause permanent hearing loss. Scary stuff, right? Because the eardrum is easily reached with a swab, it can be easily ruptured – even if you’re using gentle pressure to clean away debris. When this occurs, you’ll know it from intense pain and because the eardrum may also leak a clear fluid.

The eardrum will eventually heal, but it may lead to something known in the otology field as “conductive hearing loss.” Basically this means that you won’t be able to hear as well because sound conduction in the outer/ and or middle ear is disrupted.

Swabs also are notorious for merely pushing around earwax in the canal where it may cause pain, pressure or temporarily poor hearing on a more short-term basis.

So How Should I Clean My Ears?

The only part of the ear that really should be cleaned is the part that can be seen when looking in a mirror, commonly known as the outer ear. This can be done with a little soap, water, and a handy washcloth. In most individuals, the ear canal does not need to be cleaned.

In fact, during most showers, enough water enters the ear canal to dislodge the accumulated wax so there is no extra work on your part. In addition, the skin in our ears grows outward in a spiral pattern (sounds gross, but it’s for a good reason) and it will eventually get to a point where the ear wax just falls off while you sleep.

What if I Have a Lot of Wax in My Ear?

Some wax is good. Earwax is composed of layers of skin, fatty acids, cholesterol, and alcohol all designed to protect the ear from water and infections. It also helps prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi in the ear.

But, if you’re experiencing discomfort from waxy or hardened buildup in your ear, a trip to the otolaryngologist may be required. At our office, we have several ear specialists that can easily remove impacted ear wax using a method that is relatively quick and painless.

As a general rule of thumb, if you think what you’re doing may be unsafe, then it probably is a good idea to contact a health professional before proceeding.