Now hear this: If you’ve been using a cotton swab to clean wax from your ears, it’s likely you’re doing more harm than good. Why? First of all, you shouldn’t try to remove the wax, also known as cerumem, from your ear canal all. “It’s there for a reason — to keep the ear canal clean and healthy,” explains Charles W. Yates, M.D., M.S., director of otology, neurotology, and cranial base surgery at Indiana University Health. “Because the wax is sticky, it stops debris from getting inside the ear. Earwax also picks up dead cells shed from the skin lining the ear canal and other debris, and has been found to have antibacterial qualities to help prevent infection."
If you do dig around in your ear, you’ll likely push wax deeper into your ear canal where it can become impacted. “When earwax becomes impacted, it can create an uncomfortable feeling of fullness in the affected ear,” says Dr. Yates. “It also prevents sound from reaching the eardrum, so you can’t hear as well out of the ear.” Not only that, a build-up of earwax can block, in the case of anyone who spends a lot of time in water, excess fluid. Less commonly, says Dr. Yates, impacted earwax can cause pain or an infection. Most people produce the right amount of wax to keep their ears healthy, so if earwax builds up, it’s almost always because it got pushed into the ear canal.
Feel like wax has become impacted in the ear? You can try using an over-the-counter irrigation kit to clear it out . Most of these products consist of some type of oily drops that loosen wax and a syringe. But, says Dr. Yates, a visit to an ENT or primary care doctor will be much more effective.
“He or she will be able to see inside the ear canal to remove wax using spoon-like tools that fit into the ear canal safely,” explains Dr. Yates. “And for someone who has recurrent earwax buildup, a doctor can prescribe a product for maintenance, such as hydrogen peroxide or mineral oil to help keep wax thin so it won’t clump up easily.” The ears rarely produce more earwax than is needed, but hearing aids can stimulate wax production too, so people who wear them may be prone to impaction, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery (AAO).
Other modes of earwax removal, such as using an earwax candling, don’t work, says Dr. Yates. In fact, according to the AAO, ear candling — in which one end of a long hollow candle is inserted into the ear canal and the exposed end is lit — has led to “burns, obstruction of the ear canal with wax of the candle, or perforation of the membrane that separates the ear canal and the middle ear.”
The best way to keep your ears clean is to wrap a washcloth around your finger when you shower and use it to gently swab away any wax that’s dried up enough to flake and travel to the outer ear, says Dr. Yates. “The ear is a self-cleaning mechanism. It’s best to let it do its job.”