Put Down the Cotton Bud! How to Clean Ears Safely.

Put down the cotton bud! How to clean ears safely is one of the most common concerns our patients have. Given the huge amount of (mis)information out there, this is completely understandable. The first thing to know is that your mum (or grandma) was right – never put anything in your ear that’s smaller than your elbow. However, you may have heard some other things that are not quite as accurate.

So let’s begin with what you should not do. Some common myths around how to clean ears are:
1. Ears should be washed with soap and water
2. Ears can be washed out using the shower rose
3. Cotton buds should be used to clean ears and remove wax
4. Wax is dirty and should be removed

The above statements are not true. Engaging in these activities will do more harm than good to your ears. Let’s look at each one individually.

  1. Ears should be washed with soap and water

Ears should not be washed at all! In fact they should be kept dry. Washing ears with soap and water washes away oils produced by the skin in the ear, that is necessary to keep our ears lubricated. Without the oils, our ears would become dry, flaky and very itchy.

2. Ears can be washed out using the shower rose

Aiming water down the water canal from the shower rose can result in pain, injury and the impaction of wax deeper into the canal. This can then cause a wax blockage and even ear infection if water remains in the canal.

3. Cotton buds should be used to clean ears

It is a common belief that cotton buds or Q-tips are sold for the sole purpose of cleaning ears! This is not the case. In fact, cotton buds have many different uses including household duties, arts & crafts and applying makeup. There is no medical benefit to using cotton buds. On the contrary, they can damage your ears.

Cotton buds will serve only to push wax deeper into the canal, causing a temporary hearing loss, tinnitus, injury, dizziness, infection or the most serious complication.. eardrum perforation. It is also not uncommon for us to find an entire tip which has come off the stick altogether and become lodged in the ear. Ears should not be cleaned in the home setting.

In the United States each year, it is estimated that around 12,500 children are seen in the Emergency Department as a result of cotton bud injuries to the ear *1.

4. Wax is dirty and should be removed

Wax is not dirty.  In fact, it plays an important role in keeping our ears healthy and comfortable. Ear wax forms a barrier which protects the ear and the delicate inner parts from air-borne particles, foreign objects and insects.  Without wax, the eardrum would be at risk of injury or damage.

Ear wax is also slightly acidic and therefore has a natural ability to fight bacteria that may otherwise lead to infection.

So what do you do?

Now that we’ve covered what you mustn’t do, let’s take a look at what you can do.  

  1. You may have heard that olive oil can play a beneficial role in keeping ears clean and healthy.  Rest assured that this one isn’t a myth. All you need to do is drop some olive oil into your ears now and again. This keeps the wax soft and moving towards the outside of the ear.

2. Use a face cloth to wipe around the entrance to the ears after your shower or swim.

3. If you feel you have a problem with wax or are experiencing any pain, hearing loss, blocked sensations, itchiness or ringing in the ears, visit the Ear Nurses at Crystal Clear Ears for a thorough assessment and professional clean.

So do your ears a favor and leave them alone!  

Cindy Morris (Nurse Educator)

*1 https://edition.cnn.com/2017/05/11/health/ear-cleaning-cotton-swab-injury-study/index.html