Experts Warn Against Using Cotton Swabs To Clean Your Ears


The doctors’ advice hasn’t changed much, but it’s still so unsatisfying: You should not use cotton swabs to clean your ears.

Updated clinical guidelines published Tuesday in the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery says they’re not appropriate for earwax removal.

In fact, information for patients in the guidelines say putting anything smaller than your elbow in your ear is dangerous.

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Regardless of this strict warning, most of us still insist on the soft-tipped paper sticks because we believe they so perfectly suit the dirty job.

So the authors of the guidelines — an advisory panel of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery — have injected a little bit of freshness into the usual advice, giving more explanation as to “Why not?” They even included a consumer representative on the panel.


Here is why cotton swabs are not to be used for the ear. Dr. Seth Schwartz, chairman of the guideline update group for the academy explains: “Cotton swabs, hair pins, house keys and toothpicks — the many smaller-than-our-elbow-objects we love to put in our ears — can cause cuts in our ear canals, perforate our eardrums and dislocate our hearing bones. And any of these things could lead to hearing loss, dizziness, ringing or other symptoms of ear injury.”

Instead of going for these smaller objects to do the job for us, he says we can actually let nature do its job.

“Our bodies produce earwax to keep our ears lubricated, clean and protected: Dirt, dust and anything else that might enter our ears gets stuck to the wax, which keeps any such particles from moving farther into the ear canal. Our usual jaw motions from talking and chewing, along with skin growth within the canal, typically helps move old earwax from inside to the outside the ear, where it is washed off during bathing.”

Cotton swabs can cause cuts in our ear canals, perforate our eardrums and dislocate our hearing bones

“For those with impacted ear wax, the use of cotton-tipped swabs may push the earwax deeper into the ear canal and harm the eardrum.” He added that “about 2% of adults with impacted earwax may go the doctor with hearing loss as their symptom.”

The experts also warn against over cleaning the ears. According to them, excessive cleaning may increase earwax impaction. “It’s cultural” to want clear ears,  but “wiping away any excess wax when it comes to the outside of the ear is enough to keep it clean.”

Another warning in the new guidelines: Do not use ear candles. Not only can they cause “serious damage” to your eardrum, “there is no evidence that they remove impacted cerumen,”  the authors warn.

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“Home therapies are fairly effective,” Schwartz said, adding that the “whole host” of over-the-counter wax-softening drops as well as home-use irrigators are effective and safe. “Even drops of water in the ear can be effective to soften the wax,” he added.