Open most medicine cabinets, and you’ll probably find a box of Q-tips. Cotton swabs have been staples of ear hygiene for nearly a century. They’re so commonplace that people often assume that they’re safe. But are they?
Is It Safe to Clean Your Ears With Cotton Swabs?
The overwhelming consensus among doctors and medical researchers worldwide is that using Q-tips and other types of cotton swabs is hazardous to your health. They’re a significant source of injuries and infections in the ear. The evidence is clear: Q-tips are bad for your ears.
Why Are Q-Tips Bad?
Q-tips or cotton buds were invented by Leo Gerstenzang in 1923.
He noticed that his wife used wads of cotton to clean the baby’s ears, and so he created a cotton swab on a stick that he marketed as Q-tips. These became mass-produced and widely used over, but in the 1970s, doctors began sounding the alarm about the dangers cotton swabs pose to public health.
Manufacturers were forced to put a label on packages telling people not to use Q-tips in the ear canal. Despite these warnings and pleas from medical professionals, people are still jabbing Q-tips in their ear canals.
To this day, Q-tips cotton swabs are responsible for 10,000 ear injuries annually.
Here are some of the risks of using cotton swabs to clean your ears:
Ear Wax Impaction
People often use Q-tips to clear out excess wax clogging up their ear canal, but it can actually make the problem worse. If you already have a partial blockage, using Q-tips does more harm than good.
You can end up pushing the ear wax deeper inside the ear canal, where it becomes impacted, causing hearing loss and other symptoms.
Symptoms of an ear wax impaction include:
- Hearing loss
- Tinnitus, or ringing in the ear
- Ear pain
- Your ear feels boggy or full
If you have impacted ear wax, don’t try to dig it out with a q-tip. Go to your local drug store to purchase a cleaning kit. If symptoms don’t improve, contact a doctor to help you relieve the blockage in your ear canal with suction.
Ruptured Ear Drum
A Q-tip is long enough to reach all the way to the tympanic membrane or ear drum. One careless motion, and you can puncture or cut this essential component of your body’s auditory system.
Made out of cartilage, the tympanic membrane sits between the outer ear and middle ear. In adults, mild trauma to the thinnest part—the pars tensa—can rupture it, leading to temporary hearing loss in one ear.
Symptoms of an ear drum rupture include:
- Bleeding or reddish ear wax
- Ear pain
- Ringing in the ear
- Sudden hearing loss
- Ringing or buzzing in the ear
- Fluid leakage
If you have signs of a rupture, don’t panic. The rupture will heal on its own without treatment, and the associated hearing loss will go away, but you’ll still need to set up an appointment with your doctor to check for signs of infection.
Scratches and Cuts
Cotton swabs may be soft, but they can still produce tiny scratches and cuts in the delicate skin of the ear canal.
Signs of cuts in the ear canal:
- Red ear wax
- Ear pain
It’s possible for a cotton swab to get contaminated with bacteria or fungi and introduce these microbes into your outer ear, causing ear infections.
A cotton swab sometimes leaves behind little clumps of fiber that cling to the walls of the ear canal and get stuck.
The remnants of a cotton swab can become a breeding ground for bacteria.
To reduce the chances of an ear infection, a doctor needs to remove the leftover parts of the cotton swab using forceps.
Symptoms of an ear infection include:
- Ear pain
- Hearing loss
Contact your doctor if you’re experiencing hearing loss or any of these other symptoms. They’ll prescribe some medication for the infection and some other remedies for the symptoms.
How Should You Clean Your Ears?
People tend to think of ear wax as dirty and unhygienic, so they clean their ears rigorously and often. This is misguided and potentially bad for your health. In general, you should only clean your ears sporadically or if you’re experiencing hearing loss due to a blockage.
Your ears have a natural mechanism to expel ear wax over time. Chewing gradually pushes it down the ear canal. It is ultimately exposed to air, dries and falls out.
Use plain warm water and no soap.
You don’t need to clean your ears often. However, some people produce excess wax due to genetics, medical conditions, or environmental factors like the overuse of earbuds or hearing aids. If that’s the case, doctors recommend a few methods.
For those who have episodic hearing loss due to an overabundance of ear wax, modern medicine has an effective way to manage the problem.
The safest way to clean your ears is using cerumenolytic solutions.
Cerumenolytics can loosen up your ear wax so that it comes out on its own or can be easily flushed out with the help of a little warm water.
- Aqueous acetic acid
- Triethanolamine polypeptide oleate-condensate
- Docusate sodium
- Hydrogen peroxide solution
- Sodium bicarbonate
- Saline solution or distilled water
- Carbamide peroxide.
Several household cooking oils are also known to loosen ear wax, including:
- Almond oil
- Peanut oil
- Olive oil
These oils are common components of home remedies. However, they’re mainly known to soften the ear wax, and they’re not as capable of breaking the wax apart as other compounds like carbamide peroxide.
Family physicians can prescribe a safe, effective way to keep your ears free of blockages, or you can find kits at your local drug store.
If you’re experiencing symptoms of a ruptured ear drum, contact your doctor before attempting at-home treatment. The doctor will want to inspect your ear drum first.
Steps for Safely Removing Ear Wax
The standard procedure is to break up the ear wax with a cerumenolytic solution and then rinse to flush it out.
Follow these steps:
- Tilt your head sideways and apply a few drops directly into the ear canal.
- Keep your head tilted away from the affected ear for several minutes. You will feel a tingling and itching sensation and some temporary hearing loss because your ear is full of fluid.
- When you’re ready, fill a bulb syringe with water that is warm but not hot.
- Tilt your head over the sink and squirt water directly into the ear canal. Repeat as necessary.
- Clean any remaining ear wax from the outer ear.
If these at-home methods are unsuccessful, then you’ll need help from a medical professional.
Never Put Things In Your Ear
Doctors have a saying: Don’t put anything in your ear smaller than your elbow. It’s a cheeky way of saying never put anything in your ear.
Unfortunately, many people still don’t heed this basic health advice. Cotton swabs are the most common tool to remove ear wax, but people stick a variety of instruments into their ear canals, including:
It’s incredibly dangerous to put any of these in your ears. They can cause permanent damage. Most people are aware that these items can damage the ears yet continue to do it.
Unless you have approval from your doctor, you also shouldn’t try home remedies like:
- Baking soda
- Acetic acid
Ear Wax is Your Friend
Many people consider ear wax to be disgusting and dirty, so they obsessively clean their ears, but ear wax plays a vital role in keeping your ears healthy. Here are some ways this waxy substance benefits your health.
Moisturizes and Lubricates
As we already noted, the skin inside your ear canal is extremely sensitive, which is one reason why you should never use a cotton swab to clean inside your ears.
Unnecessarily removing wax from your ears is also harmful in itself because the substance acts as a natural moisturizer, preventing dryness, itchiness and irritation.
Traps Dust and Particles
Ear wax plays a similar role to the mucus in your nasal passages. It traps dust particles and other foreign bodies, preventing them from reaching your middle and inner ear. Think of it as a goalie or a sentry guarding your ear canal.
Ear wax creates an acidic environment inside your ear, preventing bacteria from growing.
Because of these antibacterial properties, it’s the first line of defense, preventing infections from entering your body through the ear.
The experts agree: Cotton swabs are bad for your ears. They can cause ear wax impactions, ruptured ear drums and ear infections. The evidence is clear that Q-tips or cotton swabs should never be used inside the ear or nose. If you’re still using Q-tips to clean your ears, stop immediately.
Furthermore, ear wax is beneficial to your health, so frequent ear cleaning may do more harm than good. If you have a blockage causing temporary hearing loss, flush it out with an ear cleaning method approved by an ear, nose and throat doctor.
1. Hobson JC, Lavy JA. Use and abuse of cotton buds. J R Soc Med. 2005;98(8):360-361. doi:10.1258/jrsm.98.8.360
2. Rensink, Michael; Martin, Robert Beware the cotton-tipped applicator, The Hearing Journal: September 2007 – Volume 60 – Issue 9 – p 54-56 DOI: 10.1097/01.HJ.0000295757.16387.fc