advice: don’t stick that swab in your ear

there are a lot of ways to keep your ears clean and healthy, but according to the experts, cotton swabs are not one of them.

pushing bacteria deep in your ear can cause an infection
putting a cotton swab in your ear canal can damage your ears. getty

dear asking for a friend,  

are q-tips really that bad for your ears?

addicted to swabbing     


dear addicted to swabbing,  

extracting that built-up earwax — also called cerumen — in the ear canal may be why most people buy q-tips, but the little pieces of wood with cotton at each end are actually intended for all kinds of things, from applying or removing eyeshadow, cleaning out the sticky dust between computer keys to spreading ointments on wounds.

but have you noticed that every box of q-tips has a very clear warning? putting a cotton swab in your ear canal can damage your ears.

interesting, though, the origin of this popular consumer behaviour comes from q-tip inventor leo gerstenzang in the early 1920s, according to cnn . he wanted something better for his wife to clean their baby daughter’s eyes, ears and belly button with during her baths. she was using a wad of cotton wrapped around a toothpick.

gerstenzang designed a machine to produce sterilized cotton swabs for baby care and the product took off. ear care was a focus of the marketing strategy until the 1970s when the warning label was added.

ears clean themselves

but ears are self-cleaning and earwax is essential to keeping them clean, says salima jiwani, a toronto audiologist, past president of the canadian academy of audiology , and founder of the audiosense hearing, balance and concussion clinic .



“earwax is natural and we produce a little bit of wax every single day,” she says. “ it’s basically a product that the sebaceous glands in our ears will create from our natural skin oils.”

earwax is not your enemy. it’s also not a wax — rather, it’s, according to queensland health, it’s a mix of sebum (a body secretion made up mostly of fat), skin cells, sweat and dirt. it’s your body’s natural way to cleanse and protect your ears. newly created earwax is typically off-white or light yellow in colour, while older sticky stuff that’s ready to flake out of your ear can be darker in colour from the debris collected.

“your ear is a tiny little orifice,” says jiwani. “you can’t get in there and get the dirt out because you can’t see it. the only way for that dirt to come out is through the earwax.”

putting a cotton swab into your ear also pushes the older ear wax deeper inside your ear, essentially doing the opposite of what you’re hoping to do. instead of cleaning your ears, you could actually cause an ear infection by pushing the bacteria that the earwax would normally collect and expel deeper into your ear, jiwani adds. there’s also a chance that you push it in so deep into the ear that it gets stuck against your eardrum, which can hurt. 



if earwax buildup is bothering you, her best advice is to see a health-care provider or audiologist for a diagnosis and prompt treatment. this might include removing the lodged earwax with irrigation, suction or other professional tools. jiwani recommends patients put a couple drops of olive oil into their ears to help soften the sticky substance the day before their appointment.  

how to keep your ears clean without q-tips

removal earwax is not a do-it-yourself fix with q-tips or other objects, jiwani cautions.

“some people will use a bobby pin or cotton or earwax removal tools that you can buy,” she says. “but you should never be removing it yourself.”

this goes for children as well. a study in the journal of pediatrics found that between 1990 and 2010, about 263,000 kids under the age of 18 were treated for cotton swab-related injuries in u.s. hospitals — ear cleaning was the most frequently documented circumstance.

it is possible to keep your ears clean and healthy without q-tips. when you’re in the shower, tilt your head to the side and let some water into your ear. if you’re taking a bath, use a soft cloth to drip some clean water into your ears, which naturally softens the earwax. then, jiwani advises washing your hands after your bath or shower and using your index finger to gently scrape out the wax. and you can do this every day.



“it’s just like cleaning another part of your body, like your face, which you’re going to rinse every day,” she says.

if there’s a possibility you have an ear infection or perforations in the eardrum, however, keep your ears dry to avoid any further irritation or slow recovery.

on the subject of overall ear health, jiwani suggests a hearing test every two years for everyone where the audiologist will also examine inside your ears with a scope and remove built-up wax.

“just like you get your eyes checked, it’s the same with ears and part of routine health care,” she says.
for more information on how to keep your ears healthy, click here.

karen hawthorne is a toronto-based writer.

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