How to Clean Your Ears

Medically Reviewed by Shruthi N, MD on June 20, 2024
7 min read

There are different ideas about how to clean your ears. Doctors generally agree that 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.

It’s normal for your body to produce earwax, or as doctors may call it, cerumen. It 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 such as 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 from 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, most times, the 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.


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.

If you wear hearing aids, have complications after ear surgery, or use cotton buds or other objects in the ear, your ear wax can build up.

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
  • Coughing

Though rare, this kind of earwax buildup can happen. If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, call your doctor. They can examine your ears, figure out the cause, and recommend treatment for earwax removal.

Your doctor can look into your ear canal with a special device and remove any earwax with small instruments, suction, or irrigation.

Experts generally advise against removing earwax yourself. If your ears feel blocked, add drops of water with a cotton ball into it with your head tilted. Let it sit for a minute, then tilt your head back to relieve the blockage.

But it’s best to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor for earwax removal. They may recommend treatments, including:

Ear drops with cerumenolytic agents

You can get ear drops with a liquid substance called a cerumenolytic, over the counter. This liquid solution, which may be water-based or oil-based, helps thin or dissolve earwax.

They may recommend water-based cerumenolytics with ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide, carbamide peroxide, acetic acid, docusate sodium, or sodium bicarbonate.

Oil-based cerumenolytics commonly include ingredients such as peanut oil, olive oil, or almond oil.

Your doctor may tell you to use up to five drops per dose once or twice daily for 3-7 days.

Irrigation or rinsing

Another safe method that works well for earwax removal is irrigation.

Your doctor may do your earwax removal by rinsing your ear with warm water or a mixture of warm water and hydrogen peroxide close to your body temperature. They will put the solution into a syringe and release it into the ear canal.

They may also use an oral or electronic jet irrigator (water flosser). 

Manual method

A doctor may use special tools such as a tiny microscope and a handheld device called a speculum to see inside the ear. They may then use a small loop or spoon, a curette, or alligator forceps (a long, thin, scissor-looking tool) to remove the earwax.

This procedure takes only a few minutes.

If you have earwax buildup often, your doctor may recommend putting mineral oil in your ears for 10-20 minutes once a week to help prevent it. 

If you wear hearing aids, take them out for about 8 hours (probably when you’re asleep) daily to reduce the amount of earwax that builds up.

See an ear doctor about once or twice a year, and avoid putting anything into your ears except if you need to wear hearing aids or earplugs.


If your problem isn’t serious but you think you have too much earwax buildup, you can gently clean the outside of your ears. Just use a soft, clean 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.

Over-the-counter solutions

You can use ear drops, available over the counter, to clean your ears. Look for water-based ear drops with ingredients such as hydrogen peroxide, carbamide peroxide, acetic acid, docusate sodium, or sodium bicarbonate.

You can also consider oil-based ear drops for earwax removal. Look for those with peanut, olive, or almond oils. 

Only use these drops as the manufacturers or your doctor recommends to avoid irritating your skin.

Your doctor may not recommend ear drops if:

  • You have ear infections often.
  • You have holes in your eardrums.
  • You’ve had ear surgery.

You can also try using an over-the-counter wax removal kit. However, it’s not clear that these kits work. They may also be unsafe.

You can rinse your ear canal and flush out excess earwax with a rubber bulb syringe containing water or saline. Ensure the saline solution or water is close to your body temperature. Using cold water can affect the nerves involved in motion and position and make you feel dizzy.

Don't use at-home suction devices. Most doctors don’t recommend them, as they don’t work well for many people.

Are cotton swabs effective for earwax removal?

Most people use cotton swabs, but they can cause more harm. Using cotton swabs may:

  • Push wax into your ear canal, making earwax buildup worse
  • Hurt your eardrum
  • Injure the ear canal skin, making it bleed or become infected

You can use cotton swabs to clean the outside of your ear, but make sure you don’t push them in.

Ear candling

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 can even cause injury. These hollow candles are supposed to be inserted into the ear canal and lit at the exposed end, but the FDA has found they can cause burns and even pierce the inside of the ear.

Wearing hearing aids or using earplugs regularly can affect how often your ears can clean out themselves, causing earwax to build up.

On the flip side, earwax buildup can block the ear canal so much that you lose your hearing until a doctor treats it. A doctor must first clean your ears before they can confirm precisely why you’re having hearing problems and prescribe and fit the proper hearing aids.

Plus, earwax and ear drainage can damage a hearing aid.

See a doctor regularly if you use hearing aids or if you have hearing problems and ask about the proper way to clean your ears.

The inside of your ears clean themselves, so you don’t need to clean or touch them. If you have earwax buildup, see a doctor before trying to clean them yourself. They may recommend over-the-counter ear drops or remove them manually. You can also add a few drops of water to your ear to release blockage. See an ear, nose, or throat doctor once or twice a year for ear cleaning, especially if you’re prone to having earwax buildup (for example, when wearing hearing aids).

What is the best way to clean your ears?

Your ears are self-cleaning, so it’s best to leave them alone. But you can clean them with a few drops of clean water from a soaked cotton ball.

How can I clean my earwax at home?

You can clean your earwax at home with ear drops. But don’t buy them or use them without talking to a doctor first.

How can I naturally clear my ears?

Your ears naturally clean themselves. You can clean the outer part with a cotton swab or when you bathe.

How do you scoop out earwax?

Don’t try to scoop out earwax with a cotton swab or any other instrument yourself. Only a doctor should scoop out your earwax, and they’ll use a special instrument such as a small spoon or forceps.