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.
Your ears produce earwax for a reason. That gross gunk, known medically as cerumen, is actually there for protection. “The purpose of earwax really is to keep your ear canal clean,” says Douglas Backous, M.D., chair of the hearing committee of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNSF) and director of hearing and skull base surgery at Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle.
Ears aren’t intended for cleaning. Your ears have their own hygienic process, and by putting foreign objects in your ear and “cleaning” them out, you’re disrupting your body’s natural process. You can even potentially injure yourself!
The problem, then, is when we think we’re smarter than the systems our bodies have had in place since the beginning of time, and go poking around in those cerumen-laden ears of ours. Sure, that cotton swab looks tiny enough, but it’s actually pushing earwax deeper into the ear (after shoving it off of that escalator), where it gets stuck in the parts that don’t clean themselves, he says.
What happens when you use cotton swabs?
When you swab your ears after a shower, you remove cerumen, otherwise known as earwax. Cerumen is a healthy feature of the inside of your ears. It’s protective and antibacterial. It originates near your ear drum and slowly pushes its way out, becoming dry and then simply falling out. This is the normal process of ear maintenance.
Your ears should never have to be cleaned. According to Dr. Douglas Backous, the director of hearing and skull base surgery at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle, when you rub the skin in your ears often, histamine gets released. That causes your skin to become irritated. The more you rub, the more irritated it becomes.
If yo feel like you have too much ear wax or your ears are exceptionally dirty, it may be time to go to your doctor. Your physician may recommend doing a cleaning. Don’t try to do it yourself!