Some people swear by their cotton swabs, and others say ear candles are the way to go. Maybe you’re one of those that says you should never even clean your ears.
About the only thing doctors do agree on putting anything inside your ear is a bad idea. Your ears usually do a good job cleaning themselves and don’t need any extra care. The only reason you should clean them is to soften or remove earwax from the outside of your ear canals. And if you’re going to do that, you’ll need to know how to do it carefully.
Why Your Ears Make Wax
The reason we feel tempted to clean our ears is because of that substance called cerumen, commonly called earwax. It’s normal for your body to produce it, and it actually helps protect and lubricate your ears. If you didn’t have earwax, your ears would probably be itchy and dry.
It even has antibacterial properties, which means your ears are self-cleaning. Earwax is like a filter for your ears, keeping out harmful things like dirt and dust, and trapping them so they don’t go deep inside.
When you chew and move your jaw, you help move old earwax out of the ear canal to the ear opening. That’s where it usually dries up and falls out. But earwax isn’t formed in the deep part of your ear canal; it’s made in the outer section.
So, the only reason you’d have an earwax blockage up against your eardrum is because you tried to clean your ears with a cotton swab -- or something like it -- and pushed the wax in deeper.
Swabbing or sticking pointy objects inside your ear can cause other serious problems:
- Rupture of the eardrum
- Significant hearing loss
Should You Clean Your Ears?
Ideally, no; your ear canals shouldn’t need cleaning. But if too much earwax builds up and starts to cause symptoms or it keeps your doctor from doing a proper ear exam, you might have something called cerumen impaction. This means earwax has completely filled your ear canal and it can happen in one or both ears.
The symptoms of cerumen impaction are:
- Pain or a feeling of fullness in your ear
- Feeling like your ear is plugged
- Partial loss of hearing, which worsens over time
- Ringing in your ear, known as tinnitus
- Itching, discharge, or a smell coming from your ear
This kind of earwax buildup is rare, but it can happen. But if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, don’t assume earwax is the problem. Call your doctor. They can examine your ears and figure out the cause.
Your doctor can look into your ear canal with a special device and remove any earwax with small instruments, suction, or irrigation.
How to Clean Your Ears, and How Not To
If your problem isn’t serious, but you do feel like you have too much earwax buildup, you can gently clean the outside of your ears. Just use a washcloth. You also can try putting a few drops of baby oil, hydrogen peroxide, mineral oil, or glycerin in your ear to soften the wax. Or you can use an over-the-counter wax removal kit.
Besides cotton swabs or any other small or pointy objects, don't use ear candles to clean your ears. Studies show they’re not effective and they can even cause injury. These hollow candles are supposed to be inserted into the ear canal and lit at the exposed end, but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found they can cause burns and even pierce the inside of the ear.