Picture of woman using a swab to clean her ears.

It’s not often you get official permission to remove items from your personal hygiene to-do list, but here’s one for you: stop cleaning your ears with swabs. The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS), your local hearing care professional, your grandmother—and even the box of swabs in your bathroom—urge you to avoid sticking anything into your ear that (say it with us) is smaller than your elbow! These 5 compelling reasons should make you stop cleaning your ears for good:

1. Stop Ear Cleaning—It’s Done

Ear wax is called cerumen by doctors and scientists lucky enough to study this amazing, but gross-looking substance. It actually snags stray dirt and dust that tries to enter your ear canal before it can get very far and cause problems. As if that wasn’t cool enough, without realizing it, you already help your ears clean themselves by just talking, chewing and yawning all day long. These jaw mechanics move the soiled ear wax out of the ear canal. All you have to do is gently wash that excess away while you’re showering.

And just know this: Using a swab, chopstick, paintbrush, key, fingernail, fork, key or any other small, pointy foreign object for ear wax removal actually frustrates your ears’ self-cleaning process. Digging around in there can actually push old, spent ear wax further into the ear canal where it becomes impacted and can dampen your hearing.

2. The Special Recipe of Ear Wax

OK, so ear wax looks sort of icky, but your ceruminous and sebaceous glands have your ears’ best health in mind when they make this special cleaning solution. In addition to effectively removing dust and crud out of your ear canal, ear wax guards your ears against viruses, bacteria, fungal infections and even insects. It also protects, moisturizes and lubricates the ear canal, keeping it healthy and supple.

The general recipe for ear wax is interesting: long-chain fatty acids, enzymes, alcohols, cholesterol, sebum, sloughed off skin cells, and other chemicals in a balanced mixture that protects your ears. Healthy cerumen is also a little acidic—a feature that also discourages fungal and bacterial infection. Thank you ear wax fairies!

3. Ear Wax Removal Can Dull Your Hearing

One of the reasons so many people walk around with some level of hearing loss without realizing it is actually aggressive ear wax removal. As you shove those swabs into your ear, old layers of ear wax get impacted further down into the ear canal, causing some hearing loss.

If you’re worried this may have happened to you, schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional for a hearing checkup to determine whether or not you have impacted ear wax that might be causing some amount of hearing loss. Impacted ear wax removal should only be done in the office and without any pointy objects like swabs.

To be fair, some people have ear wax production issues that need to be addressed with ear wax removal. Some people’s ears make cerumen that’s either too dry or too wet, so it doesn’t properly do its job. Some people make way too much ear wax while others don’t make enough. Even in these cases, however, you still need to avoid sticking swabs into your ears for ear wax removal. Call your hearing care professional if you’re worried about your ear wax.

A quick thought about hearing aids: If you wear hearing aids, you need to follow your hearing care professional’s hearing aid cleaning regimen and any ear washing regimen you’re instructed to follow. This will help preserve what natural hearing you still have while also keeping your hearing aids performing at their best.

4. Prevent Ear Wax Removal Injuries

Please teach your children, and anyone else’s children, not to stick anything into their ears for ear wax removal. Tell them how necessary their ear wax is and that they should let it do what it does: clean and protect your ears! Dozens upon dozens of kids end up in doctors’ offices every day suffering with ear cleaning injuries. Unfortunately, these injuries sometimes cause hearing loss that impacts the child’s language and communication development. So teach your kids not to put anything in their ears except their elbows (and then giggle as they try to do it). But seriously, the most common of these ear injuries include tympanic membrane tears (torn ear drum) or other small lacerations and cuts inside of the ear canal.

If you were just about to ask us about ear candling, we were just about to answer: don’t do it! Nobody knows exactly who thought of sticking these hollow cones into your ear and setting them on fire, but we’re here to tell you—it’s a bad idea and can also cause hearing loss. So don’t do it. People across the country end up in the doctor’s office with ear candling injuries every year.

3 things you need to know about ear candling:

  • It’s been proven ineffective for ear cleaning and can actually make ear wax impaction worse.
  • It causes burn injuries to the face, ears, hair, etc. – even burns that go all the way to the ear drum and middle ear.
  • It’s also been known to puncture the ear drum.

Bottom line: Avoid ear candles!

5. A Safe Ear Cleaning Method

All you need to do, really, is shower and wash your hair. Then just gently dab around your ears with a towel to sop up any excess water and you’re done. This will safely remove only the spent ear wax that your chewing, talking and yawning have evacuated from the ear canal.

Seriously – don’t pick up another swab! If not cleaning your ears the wrong way makes you feel awkward, or if you have any other concerns about ear wax impaction, ear injury or hearing loss, please schedule an appointment with your hearing care professional for an ear checkup today.