As children, we were sternly told to always clean behind our ears lest something terrible should happen. And, as we grew up, we learned how to clean the inside too. After all, is there anything more disgusting than seeing someone’s ears overflowing with wax? The general perception seems to be that a wax-less ear is a clean ear, but there’s research to suggest that this isn’t actually the case. Earwax might seem gross but, like other bodily fluids, it serves a unique purpose.
Believe it or not, although cotton swabs, (aka Q-tips) appear to have been created with the sole purpose of reaching teeny, tiny areas we wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to, they should not be used to dig out wax from within your ears. In fact, everything you think you know about cleaning this particular area — from ridding it of waxy buildup to swabbing it out with tiny implements — could be completely wrong.
Cleaning your ears regularly isn't strictly necessary
As Reader’s Digest Canada advises, Q-tips aren’t actually supposed to be used to clean out the ears. Physician Adam Perlman explains, “While we want to get the wax out of our ears, it is there for a reason and one should be very, very careful when using Q-tips.” Why? Because doing so can actually force the wax further into the ear canal rather than clearing it out. As a result, earwax builds up next to the eardrum, which can lead to blockage or even hearing problems down the line.
Ironically, your ears actually clean themselves, so there’s no real need to swab them. Wax drains out naturally, after lubricating and protecting the ear. Dr. Perlman recommends natural earwax removal drops if you’re really concerned about buildup. Healthline concurs, suggesting a damp washcloth to remove excess wax. Most people will not need to regularly clean their ears, so keep that in mind if you’re worried about being some kind of waxy goblin.
The general rule of thumb is to not put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear, or else you’ll risk damaging it (via Prevention). This includes Q-tips and any other small or sharp objects, which can cause injury and even affect your hearing in the long run. As for the outside of your ears, ensure you give those a good wash in the shower and, as we were told as kids, don’t forget to clean behind your ears too.
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