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I’m an ENT and this is what everyone gets wrong about cleaning their ears

Zoe Weiner

Zoe WeinerMay 6, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/Charday Penn

When my ear, nose, and throat doctor first told me that I should never, ever stick a cotton swab in my ear, I damn near fell out of my chair. I felt like I’d been living a lie, considering that’s what I’d been doing every day for some 20-odd years. And apparently, I’m not the only one: Between 1990 to 2010 a whopping 263,000 children in the United States (that’s 34 per day) had to be treated in emergency rooms for ear injuries related to cotton swabs.

Suffice to say, there is a lot of confusion out there about how to clean your ears properly, and most of us are making the same mistakes over and over again. To help clear up any misconceptions, we asked an ENT doc to share the biggest mistakes he sees people making when they’re cleaning their ears—and using a cotton swab to do it is just the beginning.

3 things people get wrong about cleaning their ears

1. Going too hard with cotton swabs

Cotton swabs have an infinite number of beauty uses (Removing makeup! Crafting nail art! Applying lip gloss!) but one thing they should never be used for is cleaning the inside of your ear canal. “The most common mistake I see is people using cotton swabs incorrectly or too aggressively. They actually aren’t meant to go deep into your ear,” says Shawn Nasseri, MD, an ENT trained by the Mayo Clinic. “If you shove a Q-tip down your ear to remove ear wax, it can actually have the opposite effect and push the wax down deeper, compacting it into the ear canal which can cause many issues, including bacteria build up, infection, hearing trouble, and in severe cases, damage to your ear drum.” Limit cotton swab use to the outer rim of the ear, and if you want to clean inside your ear, some pros suggest using a manual ear washer, like WaxRx pH Conditioned Ear Wash System ($40), which uses drops to soften wax and a spray bottle to help clean it out.

2. Cleaning too often

Scrubbing the inside of your ears on a daily basis might feel like the best way to keep ’em clean, but cleaning them too frequently may actually be doing you a disservice. “Your ears are actually a relatively low-maintenance, self-cleaning body part, and earwax is there for a reason—to protect the ear canal,” says Dr. Nasseri. “Over cleaning can cause dryness and irritation.” If your ears are smelly or itchy, or if you’re having trouble hearing things, it’s a sign that you’re due for a proper profession cleaning, so schedule one with your doc. Otherwise, let your body do the work on its own.

3. Removing wax with a sharp object

Just because it’s #oddlysatisfying to get a large chunk of wax out of your ear does not mean it’s something you should be doing regularly. “Fingernails and random sharp objects that people use to get wax out could cause small cuts, and likely have microscopic bacteria that can cause infection,” says Dr. Nasseri. Instead, when cleaning your ears, he says to “keep it simple and gentle” and stick with wiping the outside of your ears when you get out of the shower with a towel or damp washcloth.

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