Whether it was mom or grandma who said it first, she was definitely right: You probably shouldn’t put anything in your ear that’s smaller than your elbow.
But in order to understand why you don’t need to swab out the ol’ ears, we first need to understand why we have earwax to begin with. That gross gunk, known medically as cerumen, is actually there for protection. “The purpose of earwax really is to keep your ear canal clean,” says Douglas Backous, M.D., chair of the hearing committee of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNSF) and director of hearing and skull base surgery at Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle.
Not only does earwax help to keep dust and dirt away from the eardrum, it also provides some antibacterial and lubricating perks. And — one of the body’s many wonders! — your ears basically clean themselves. Once earwax dries, every motion of your jaw, whether that’s chowing down on lunch or gabbing away with friends, helps move the old earwax out of the opening of your ear (much like as if it were riding an escalator, says Backous).
The problem, then, is when we think we’re smarter than the systems our bodies have had in place since the beginning of time, and go poking around in those cerumen-laden ears of ours. Sure, that cotton swab looks tiny enough, but it’s actually pushing earwax deeper into the ear (after shoving it off of that escalator), where it gets stuck in the parts that don’t clean themselves, he says.
Earwax trapped there also brings with it fungus, bacteria and viruses accumulated in the outer ear, potentially leading to pain and infection, says Backous.
Pushing earwax deeper inside can also block the ear canal, leading to hearing loss, or, if you push it even farther, a ruptured ear drum — which, if that episode of “Girls” is to be believed, seems more than a little bit painful.
Every year, about 12 million Americans head to their doctors with “impacted or excessive cerumen,” a really gross-sounding way to say they’ve got serious earwax problems. All those checkups lead to about 8 million yearly earwax removal procedures performed by medical professionals (a.k.a. not the ear candle specialist at the salon on the corner), according to the AAO-HNSF.
Ears really only need to be cleaned — even by a medical professional — if they feel full or you notice changes to your hearing that could be related to waxy buildup. The AAO-HNSF feels so strongly about not sticking cotton swabs in your ears that it released an official position statement about earwax removal, for both physicians and patients. And even the website for Q-Tips, arguably the only most popular brand of cotton swabs, advises to use the product “around the outer ear, without entering the ear canal.”
Yes, we know what you’re thinking, with that grossed-outlook on your face: You can’t just stop cleaning your ears. Well, that’s only because you’ve created a vicious “itch and scratch cycle” for yourself, says Backous. The more you rub the skin of your ears, the more histamine you release, which in turn makes the skin irritated and inflamed — just like how that mosquito bite gets itchier the more you scratch it. Plus, because of the lubricating nature of earwax, removing it can simply make your ears drier, motivating you to keep sticking swabs in there in a mistaken attempt at relief.
For those of you who just can’t leave your ears alone, Backous recommends a little at-home irrigation. A few drops in each ear of a mixture of one part white vinegar, one part rubbing alcohol and one part tap water at body temperature should do the trick. (Too cold or too hot and you might feel dizzy, he warns.) But the bottom line? “I can tell you,” says Backous, “there is nothing good about putting anything in your ear.”