By Dr. Mercola
Many Americans swab their ears with cotton swabs as part of their regular hygiene routine, hoping to remove excess earwax. Yet, there's nothing unhygienic about earwax and experts strongly recommend against inserting such swabs into your ear canal.
You see, your ears produce earwax for a reason. Known technically as cerumen, it's produced by glands in your ear canal. Made up mostly of dead skin cells, earwax also contains other substances, including lysozyme, an antibacterial enzyme, fatty acids, alcohols, cholesterol, and squalene.1
Earwax is a substance that's meant to be in your ears. It aids in your ears' self-cleaning process, providing protection, lubrication, and antibacterial properties. As explained by the American Hearing Research Foundation:2
"Too little earwax increases the risk of infection… at least ten antimicrobial peptides are present in earwax preventing bacteria and fungi from growing."
The Benefits of Earwax
If you have too little earwax in your ear canal, your ears may feel dry and itchy. However, just the right amount of earwax helps with:
- Preventing dust, bacteria, and other germs from entering and damaging your ear
- Trapping dirt and slowing the growth of bacteria
- Protecting the skin of your ear canal from becoming irritated by water
Your ears should have a healthy amount of earwax, as they're a self-cleaning part of your body. Excess earwax should move out of your ear canal automatically, as cells there actually migrate naturally.
The removal of earwax is also helped along by movements of your jaw (talking, chewing, etc.), and once it reaches your outer ear it will simply fall out or be removed when you shower or bathe.
Why You Shouldn't Stick Cotton Swabs in Your Ears
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Foundation (AAO-HNSF), under ideal circumstances your ear canals should never have to be cleaned. They state:3
"Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that earwax should be routinely removed for personal hygiene. This is not so.
In fact, attempting to remove earwax with cotton-tipped swabs, bobby pins, or other probing devices can result in damage to the ear, including trauma, impaction of the earwax, or even temporary deafness. These objects only push the wax in deeper, and can block the ear canal entirely."
Under normal circumstances, earwax is only produced in the outer one-third of your ear canal. One of the primary risks of cotton swabs is they can push the earwax into the deeper part of your ear canal, near the eardrum. As AAO-HNSF noted:4
"When a patient has wax blockage against the eardrum, it is often because he has been probing the ear with such things as cotton-tipped applicators, bobby pins, or twisted napkin corners. These objects only push the wax in deeper."
When earwax is pushed deep into your ear where it doesn't belong, it can bring fungus, bacteria, and viruses from the outer ear into the inner ear, increasing the risk of infection. It can also block your ear canal, leading to hearing loss, or even cause a ruptured eardrum.
It's a vicious cycle, too, because the more you rub your ears with cotton swabs, the more histamine will be released, which makes your skin irritated and inflamed. This, in turn, may make you want to insert a cotton swab again, leading to additional dryness and irritation.5
There's even research showing earwax impaction may alter cognitive function in the elderly via its affect on hearing. In one study, when impacted earwax was removed hearing improved significantly, as did the participants' cognitive function.6
Put Down the Cotton Swab – Try This Instead
Most people do not need to clean their ears regularly. However, the following symptoms may indicate you have an excess of earwax buildup that needs attention:7
✓ Noticeable wax accumulation
✓ Tinnitus (ringing in your ears)
✓ Severe itching in your ears
✓ Frequent earaches
✓ Partial loss of hearing
✓ Foul odor in your ears
✓ Discharge from your ears
✓ A feeling of fullness in your ears
✓ A sensation your ears are plugged
An ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor, or otolaryngologist, can remove earwax using a special suction, miniature instruments, and a microscope. If your eardrum is perforated, manual removal by a physician is recommended, however in most other cases you can clear earwax blockages at home.
The simplest way to do this is to first soften the wax by placing a few drops of olive oil, coconut oil, or water in your ear. Then, pour a capful of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide in each ear to flush the wax out. It's worth noting that using plain sterile water, or a sterile saline solution, to soften earwax works just as well as oil or over-the-counter eardrops.
As an aside, the hydrogen peroxide trick (pouring a capful of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide in your ears) also works remarkably well at resolving respiratory infections, like colds and flu. You will hear some bubbling, which is completely normal, and possibly feel a slight stinging sensation. Wait until the bubbling and stinging subside (usually 5 to 10 minutes) then drain onto a tissue and repeat with the other ear.
If You're Still Having Trouble With Wax Buildup…
If the home remedies don't seem to be enough, high-pressure irrigation of your ear canal with a syringe may be necessary to remove troublesome wax. This should only be done by a professional, as if it's done improperly it can damage your ear drum. Additionally, you should not irrigate your ears if you have diabetes, a perforated eardrum, a tube in your eardrum, or if your immune system is weakened.
If you suffer from a more serious impaction or you can't get results at home, you may need to get the earwax removed by a physician who can manually remove the wax using microsuction, an otoscope, and other appropriate instruments.
Earwax Buildup Is Often a Sign of Omega-3 Deficiency
While most people's ears are self-cleaning, there are some who seem to have trouble with excess wax buildup on a regular basis. If this applies to you, you may want to regularly soften and remove your earwax using peroxide, or visit a specialist every six to 12 months for a routine preventive ear cleaning.
However, you will also want to be sure to increase your intake of omega-3 fats, as frequent excess buildup of earwax can oftentimes be traced back to an omega-3 deficiency.
Often, the remedy is quite simple: eat more omega-3s or take a high-quality animal-based omega-3 supplement like krill oil. Good dietary sources of omega-3 include sardines, anchovies, and wild-caught Alaskan salmon.
Once you've cleared out any excess buildup or impaction, and are making sure you're getting sufficient amounts of omega-3, it will normally prevent a recurrence. If the wax does return, it's a clue that you have a serious omega-3 fat deficiency, and you may want to consult with a natural health care practitioner who can help ensure you're getting the proper daily dose.
The Following Ear-Cleaning Methods Are Not Recommended
In addition to avoiding cotton swabs or other probing objects to clean your ears, AAO-HNSF also recommends avoiding the use of oral jet irrigators and ear candles. Ear candling involves putting a hollow cone-shaped device or "candle," typically made of linen or cotton soaked in wax or paraffin, in your ear canal and lighting it on fire.
The person undergoing the procedure lies on his or her side. A paper plate or other collection device is placed above the ear, and the candle is inserted through a hole in the plate into the ear canal. The candle is lit and trimmed as it burns down.
After the candle burns down and is removed from the ear, a cotton swab is used to clean visible wax from the ear, and oil is sometimes applied as a finishing touch. Proponents and practitioners of candling maintain the procedure removes wax and other impurities from your ear.
The process by which this purportedly happens is as the smoke moves down the candle into your ear and back out again, a vacuum is created that pulls out wax and other debris from your ear into the hollow candle. However, research published in the journal Laryngoscope measured this pressure and concluded that no negative pressure was created.8 The same research also revealed that no earwax was removed during candling, and that candle wax was actually deposited in some test subjects' ears.
Additionally, serious injuries may result from ear candling, including external burns, ear canal obstruction with candle wax, and even a perforated eardrum. Remember, earwax has been designed by nature as a cleaning mechanism for your ears. For most, the wax moves through the ear canal and eventually makes it to the outside, taking any dirt and other accumulated matter with it. Typically, only earwax that has reached the opening of your ear should be removed.