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No, You Don't Need Cotton Swabs, and Why You Shouldn't Even Try

Cleanliness is an important part of our wellbeing. We have developed a variety of routines and products to help keep us clean, and safe from unseen dangers that can harm us. Whether it’s soap or shampoo, rejuvenating skin care to keep our skin healthy and fresh, or toothbrushes for self-maintained tooth care, there are a lot of options out there. 

One of those items on the list are cotton swabs. They were invented in the early 19th century when its inventor noticed his wife cleaning out their infant’s ears with cotton attached to several toothpicks. It was then created in a mainstream fashion, and it has been cleaning and damaging ears ever since. 

How Does It Damage My Ear?

Simply put, it’s a reflexive action that occurs. The cotton swab is intended to be  used in the outer part of the ear,  and should never be entered into the ear canal. Most people who use cotton swabs are placing the cotton swab directly into their ear. It can feel comforting and like you’re cleaning out your ears, but in fact it is directly damaging your ear canals and ear drums. 

When we put it into our ears, we’re actually pushing the wax back in possibly causing a blockage that may actually cause damage, instead of preventing it. This is why we should never use cotton swabs to clean our ears.

It is also possible to go to far in to our ear canal, and touch the ear drum.  This can cause  irreversible damage, and loss of hearing, or even complete deafness. The damage can be quite extensive to children with around 12,000 children a year having a related emergency. 

It is better to not use cotton swabs  at all, than trying to do it properly. A recent study showed that 73% of ear injuries are related to cotton swabs being used to clean ears. 

Isn’t Ear Wax Dangerous?

No – ear wax isn’t a waste that our body produces. Our bodies are wonderfully complex organisms that have a lot of useful features like ear wax. Ear Wax helps fight bacteria and other biological based issues in your ear because it’s slightly acidic. 

It’s also basically oil, so it’s waterproofing your ear as well, because as we all know, water in the ear can lead to those frustrating ear infections. In fact when we remove all of our ear wax through cotton swabs or just brushing it off with a towel, we leave our ears prone to dryness and itchiness, especially in dry cold weather. They also trap dirt and other debris from actually entering into your ear and causing potential damage to your ear. 

Of course ear wax can seem slightly upsetting to some, and sometimes it is associated with being dirty. It can be seen as an icky substance-  but again, it helps keep our ears in a self-cleaning mode versus having to deal with the pain, and protrusion caused by cotton swabs. Ear wax is a natural protector of your ears- and for the most part, should be left alone to do its job. 

There are also some instances where some people produce too much ear wax.  It’s around 5-10% for children and adults, and  around 30% as we age.  If this is the case, there are effective ways to handle cleaning excessive ear wax. 

They also may produce ear wax that hardens faster, and can actually start causing blockages, removing itself as being something beneficial to your body. So whether it’s the icky factor or the fact that there’s so much build up happening, there are safe ways to clean your ears, other than with a stick with some cotton on the ends. 

How Should I Clean My Ear Canals Then?

Usually, when you shower and clean behind your ears as our parents taught us, you can also clean inside your ears as well. Be gentle and feel free to use soap and water and dry them properly. If you have ears that produce too much or too dry wax, you can use a washcloth with some child-safe cleaning items to help easily clean up that wax build-up.
There are some over the counter ear syringing options that clean out your ear canals and the ear wax build-up, but those can be tricky to use, and you should consider consulting with your ENT doctor on how to properly use them.
Sometimes, when not used properly, you guessed it, they may cause damage to your ear canal. Similarly, cotton buds can cause more problems than help.
A better option would be to do micro suction, that works in conjunction with ear drops to loosen the wax. Then once the wax is loosened, the irrigation and suction will be quite gentle and effective. However this can only be done by your doctor.
Some people consider using ear wax candles or ear candling. This is about putting a candle in your ear, lighting it, and using the heat to melt it and sometimes suck out the wax. This can cause damage to your ear as there’s a hot flame near your ear, and again, you’re poking something into your ear, which is a big no.

Final Thoughts

We are only given two ears, so we should do everything we can to protect them. There are many alternatives to cleaning your ears - without the use of cotton swabs. You can always consult with your ENT specialist who can also recommend the proper ways to clean out your ears, without causing damage to them.