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Put Down the Q-Tip: Here’s How to Safely Clean Your Ears

If you find it oddly satisfying to watch videos of earwax removals, you aren’t alone. Millions of people are drawn to TikTok videos of earwax cleanings.

Much like the fascination with these videos, the urge to put a cotton swab (Q-Tip) in your ears to clean them may be equally tempting. But don’t do it! 

While the big reveal at the end may be satisfying, earwax generally isn’t bad for you. It plays an important role in keeping your ears clean and healthy. Cleaning the wax out with cotton swabs could do you more harm than good.

Read on to understand the importance of earwax and how to keep your ears clean without using a cotton wand.

Earwax is your ear’s protector

Having ear wax doesn’t mean your ears are dirty. Much like nose hairs and eyelashes serve protective purposes, earwax is the guardian of your ear canal.  

“Earwax (or cerumen) is naturally made by special glands in the outer ear canal skin,” said Bruce Stewart, MD, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist with Banner – University Medicine. “It forms a protective layer around your ear canal.”

Your earwax blocks foreign particles like dust and insects from entering the ear canal and helps prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi. It also provides moisture to the ear canal, preventing dryness and itchiness. 

Your ears are self-cleaning

“Your ears have their own self-cleaning system that helps push earwax from the deeper parts of the ear canal toward the ear’s opening,” Dr. Stewart said.

This process works thanks to your jaw muscles. When you chew or talk, this motion helps the wax move along the ear canal to the opening, where it can dry up, flake off or fall out. Cleaning is only necessary when there’s excessive earwax.

The dangers of fussing with earwax

The trouble starts when you tinker with earwax on your own. 

Despite the clear warnings on the swab box, many people will reach for a cotton wand to remove earwax. Far too often, ENT experts like Dr. Stewart also see patients who routinely use pencils, pen caps, hair pins and paperclips to clean their ears.  

But using anything smaller than your elbow can cause bigger problems than earwax. Instead of helping, placing objects in the ear pushes earwax further into the ear canal and eardrum or cause injury deep within your ear.

“If you end up pushing the wax close to the eardrum, this can prevent earwax from naturally clearing and cause earwax buildup or impaction in the ear,” Dr. Stewart said. “Impacted earwax is one of the most common causes of hearing loss.”

Pushing an object too deep into your ear canal could also injure three tiny bones in the middle ear that help with sound. 

The eardrum is so delicate it can easily rupture, even with a puffy cotton swab. A perforated or ruptured eardrum can cause severe ear pain and may lead to temporary hearing loss

Beware of over-the-counter (OTC) earwax removal gadgets

There are some ear-cleaning tools, like ear candling, that people swear by on social media, but most of these products should be avoided. 

Ear candling or ear coning involves placing a lit candle into the ear. The heat from the candle is supposed to pull out the earwax.

“But there is no clinical evidence ear candling actually works,” Dr. Stewart said. “This method is more likely to cause injury to your ear canal or serious burns.”

How to safely clean your ears

While there are many reasons why you should avoid using cotton swabs, there are a few safe ways to clean your ears:

  • Let your ears do their thing: Washing your hair is usually enough to remove wax near your outer ear. A small amount of water enters the ear canal and loosens the wax inside. When you are done, put a dry tissue or cloth on your finger and dab the outer edge of the ear. 
  • Use softening drops: You can try OTC ear drops to soften the wax. Tilt your head to the side and apply a few drops. Then, gently flush your ear with lukewarm water. “If it hurts or you become dizzy, stop immediately and contact your health care provider,” Dr. Stewart said.

Your provider may not recommend ear drops if you have:

What to do if you have wax buildup or are in pain

It’s important to recognize the signs of earwax buildup, which can happen naturally or from improper ear cleaning. Contact your health care provider if you experience ear pain or pressure, hearing problems, tinnitus (ringing or buzzing sounds in the ear), dizziness (vertigo) or itching in the ear canal. 

Your provider can look inside your ear using an otoscope to locate the problem and determine next steps. If excessive earwax is the cause, they may use ear lavage, where warm water is flushed into the ear canal to gently wash away the wax. They may also use a long, thin tool called a wax spoon to grab and remove built-up wax.


Earwax might seem a bit gross, but it serves an important role in protecting and maintaining the health of your ears. 

While you may be tempted to clean your ears with cotton swabs, it’s best to let your ears manage earwax naturally. Stick to watching professional earwax cleaning videos and don’t risk DIY methods.

Contact your health care provider or a Banner Health specialist if you experience symptoms of earwax buildup. 

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