Why Cotton Swabs are NOT the Right Ear Cleaners And What You Should Use Instead

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Why Cotton Swabs are Not the Right Ear Cleaners And What You Should Use Insteadimage © vladimirfloyd – fotolia.com

Most people associate cleaning our ears with cotton swabs (also known as Q tips or cotton buds) but research in the past several years begs to differ. They suggest that regular cleaning of ears with cotton swabs can actually do more harm than good!

One of the most common misconceptions perpetuated about our ears is that the earwax is “dirty” and should be cleared out of the ear canal. Wrong! Earwax is naturally produced by our ear to prevent unwanted debris (and the occasional insect!) from entering, which can possibly damage the delicate tissue of the eardrum and the ear canal. Wax will most often fall out of your ear as old wax is replaced by new wax and migrates outward naturally, which means “regular cleaning” isn’t actually a necessity in keeping your ear healthy. [1]

Cotton swabs may be used on the outer ear canal (the part you can see), to get rid of visible dirt or debris – but using it on the inner ear is advised against, mainly because of three major reasons:

1. It can puncture or damage or eardrum.

The tympanic membrane of the ear or the eardrum is made up of a very thin layer of tissue that can be easily be torn with a minimal amount of pressure. If a person isn’t careful with the cotton swab he or she is using and goes too far, a slight push or bump of the swap can cause the membrane to rip. This kind of damage can lead to an infection and cause fluid build-up in the middle ear, hearing loss, and even problems with balance. Headaches and earaches are also common symptoms of an ear infection. [2]

2. You can make the blockage worse.

If the wax build-up is indeed present in the ear, using a cotton swab can actually push the blockage deeper in the ear instead of clearing it out. Repeated irrigation is advised to clear out wax build-up instead of using an instrument (which can, again, damage the eardrum or push the wax deeper into the ear). If irrigation at home is unsuccessful, it’s better to see a doctor to get the wax removed safely. [2]

3. You can damage the skin of the ear canal.

The cotton swab can also damage the delicate skin of the ear canal, making it prone to the bacterial habitation and infection. Debris will also stick easier to damaged skin, again increasing the risk of infection. [3]

What you can use instead:

You can use different things to clean the outer ear – cotton swabs, cloth, or paper tissue. You can dampen them with a little bit of water or oil (baby or mineral) to keep the wax soft.

If the wax blockage is small and can be managed at home, you can use these simple irrigation techniques:

• With warm or room temperature water, fill a small syringe or dropper.

• Direct the stream of water to the wall near the blockage, not directly on the wax build-up (this can push the wax deeper into the ear).

• Tilt your head to the side to drain the water.

• Repeat this until the wax has been cleared from your ear.

If there is an infection, hearing loss or other symptoms, medical advice should be sought and a physician will be able to perform a more thorough removal of wax or other treatment required.

Further reading:

Natural Remedies For Ear Infections


[1] Roland, P., et. al. (2008). Clinical practice guideline: Cerumen impaction. http://oto.sagepub.com/content/139/3_suppl_1/S1.full

[2] US National Library of Medicine. Ear wax. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000979.htm

[3] Lee, L., Govindajaru, R. & Hon, S. (2005). Cotton Bud and Ear Cleaning – A Loose Tip Cotton Bud? http://www.e-mjm.org/2005/v60n1/Cotton_Bud_Ear_Cleaning.pdf

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  • By Jasmine, June 15, 2016 @ 6:42 pm

    The way I clean both my dog and my kid’s ears is simple. Half water and half apple cider vinegar (if you use the mother, use a cheese cloth to strain first). I have them tip their head or lay on one side while I use an eye dropper or syringe on the outside of the ear just outside the canal, so the liquid goes in on its own. I will tug gently on the ear a little in different directions so the liquid gets inside well. Then immediately have them turn over their head with a towel underneath the ear to let it drain with more gentle tugs (I let them do it). Usually the liquid that comes out is more the color of ear wax than when it went in. None of my kids have ever had an ear infection in their entire life, and my dog has never had any ear issues despite being a floppy eared dog (which are prone to them). It’s much better than plain water which can cause swimmers ear or an infection if you’re sensitive. I would never put plain water in the ear, too easy to introduce bacteria that way.

  • By Paul W., November 18, 2016 @ 10:28 pm

    Every year or two, I come out of the bath with my left ear totally blocked (ear wax trapping a small amount of water). I then have to go to the emergency room for it. The procedure is much like Jasmine has outlined, but I think they use hydrogen peroxide. They also let the ear (wax) soak in the solution for 5-10 minutes.
    Raw vinegar is probably just as good, and I hope I have some on-hand if and when it happens next time.

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