Cotton Swabs for Ear Cleaning: Yay or Nay?

Cotton swabs have become the common thing to clean ear wax with. But actually, ear wax purpose is to be in ears, while cotton swabs are not supposed to get close to your ear canals.

Wait. Do ears actually need cleaning?

That’s one controversial question. Even though it’s common to use cotton swabs to clean ears, specialists advise against doing so. The reason why is simple: your ears already have a self-cleaning mechanism and it’s been there all along. Yes, even when you felt nasty and wanted to scrub the hell out of your ear canal.

The thing is, ear wax or cerumen has antimicrobial and antifungal properties, is a natural lubricant and its secretion serves as a mechanism for removing dust from your ear canals. So yeah, you should never try to completely get rid of ear wax. 

The yay of cotton swabs

The best use you can make of Q-Tips is applying, removing your makeup or simply making it cleaner with them. They’re also handy for household uses such as cleaning and arts and crafts or touching up nail polish that gets on the skin. There are also medical-type swabs that are used to take microbiological cultures or apply medicine to specific areas. 

The nay of cotton swabs

Here’s when it gets interesting. If you have a pack of cotton swabs at home, go check out what it says in the instructions. You most likely never noticed that it warns you from using the product in the ear canal. 

Originally cotton swabs or Q-Tips were invented in 1923 by Leo Gerstenzang after watching his wife wrap cotton around toothpicks to clean her child's ears. He wanted to make the process easier, and he did it ‒ but at what cost?

In 1972 the first publications on medical problems associated with their use started to appear. According to The Journal of Pediatrics study published in 2017, from 1990 to 2010 about 263 338 children (under the age of 18) were treated in US hospitals for ear injuries associated with the use of cotton swabs.

More reasons why Q-Tips are dangerous to use in ears:

  • The skin of the external auditory canal is extremely thin and delicate and the use of even such seemingly gentle things like cotton swabs leads to scratching and abrasions.
  • Painful ear infections can occur because of earwax clumps pushed down near the eardrum.
  • Pushing the wax you’re trying to remove even further in the ear doesn’t sound like a good idea ‒ but that’s exactly what you’re doing when inserting the swab into the ear canal. This can damage the ear canal or eardrum, make the earwax harder to remove or even cause diminished hearing.
  • You can accidentally push the tip too far and seriously damage your eardrum.
  • Overzealous use of cotton swabs can produce wax plug impaction, with resultant discomfort, deafness and vertigo.

All in all, be careful with any technique you choose to clean your ears, whether it’s cotton swabs or ear candling. And, of course, consider all of the precautions and possible dangers.

Don’t forget to change your earplugs regularly, use water and washcloth for outer ear hygiene and see a specialist when you feel there may be ear wax buildup ‒ and we’re sure you won’t need cotton swabs to get that squeaky clean feeling ever again.

Check out more articles on ear health here.


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