How many times did your mom tell you to clean your ears growing up? If you’re like most of us, it was part of a daily mantra chanted by our parents. Walk into any personal bathroom in America and there’s a 75% chance you’ll find a fancy little container of Q-Tips sitting on the counter reminding you to clean your ears. The only problem is that your ears don’t actually need cleaning.
The architect of the human body was brilliant and built an auto-cleaning function into our ears. Our bodies naturally produce ear wax (what doctors call cerumen) to trap dust particles that find their way into the ear canal. Ear wax also collects all the dead cells from your ear canal that naturally desquamate (the doctor word for “die and slough off”) each day as well as some antibacterial properties. Without this wax, your ears would have been completely blocked with dirt and cells by about age 3. So how does the wax get out? The portion of your ear canal where wax is produced (the outer 1/3 of the canal) is lined by tiny hair cells (cilia) which are constantly brushing in the outward direction. The repetitive movement of these hair cells pushes the wax and dust particles out of your ears all by themselves…no Q-Tips needed. When left alone, your ears are an amazing self-cleaning wonder. So what’s the problem with using a Q-Tip to help this process along (perhaps before a hot date or your next yearly check up)?
There are two hazards to using Q-Tips:
1. You could perforate (i.e. poke a hole in) your eardrum. We’re all aware of this danger and have adjusted our ear cleaning techniques appropriately after the one time we dug a bit too deep and couldn’t hear for the rest of the morning. Luckily your ear drum (called the tympanic membrane) is one of the fastest regenerating tissues in your body. Thus, a perforation will be able to heal itself relatively quickly and you will regain normal hearing.
2. When you use a Q-Tip, the wax that you aren’t able to sweep out gets pushed deeper into the ear canal, beyond the region of the canal where the hair cells are able to push it out. This wax remains in your ear and slowly accumulates with each successive Q-Tip “ear cleaning.” Over time, you will build up your own Great Wall of ear wax and begin to notice a change in your hearing as you occlude the canal and coat the ear drum. This is the point at which you go see your doctor to find out what’s going on with your hearing, resulting in a vigorous in-office ear flushing (yes, we realize this is both gross and uncomfortable). If you’re already at the point of auditory-impairing wax build-up, you don’t necessarily need to go to the doctor to have it cleaned out. The American Academy of Otolaryngology (i.e. Ear Doctors) recommends mineral oil or hydrogen peroxide treatments in the ear combined with rinsing in the shower to help soften up the wax and wash it out. If the problem persists, go see your doctor for some cleaning assistance. If you insist that something be done on a regular basis for your wax, feel free to continue the mineral oil regimen at your leisure. No harm in helping the natural cleaning process in a clinically-proven way!
Because of both of these dangers, Q-Tips are not actually intended for use when cleaning the ear canal. The marketers of Q-Tip are aware of this and will never show a person cleaning their ear canal with Q-Tips during their commercials. Instead, you’ll find lots of clips of women removing their makeup, wiping away the gunk around babies eyes, and people cleaning the outside portion of their ear (called the pinna)…but no deep ear cleaning. For more information about earwax, visit The American Academy of Otolaryngology