3 reasons to leave earwax alone

Robert H. Shmerling, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @RobShmerling

Can you think of something you do that’s nearly irresistible, widely popular, but a bad idea that’s based on a health myth? That’s right, I’m talking about inserting cotton-tipped swabs into your ears.

According to guidelines from the American Academy of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, experts strongly discourage twirling cotton-tipped swabs in the ears. Here’s why.

  1. It’s unnecessary

The ear is self-cleaning. No routine maintenance is required. If you’re inserting swabs into your ears to remove earwax or prevent its buildup, think again. Earwax is produced within the ear canal and naturally migrates from deeper inside to outside. There are exceptions, of course. Some people make more than the average amount of earwax, and for others (especially older adults) it becomes harder and drier than usual. Even in these situations, inserting a swab inside the ear is not the answer. More on this in a moment.

  1. It may be harmful

Inserting a cotton tipped swab (or anything else) into the ear can damage the ear canal or eardrum, or push earwax farther into the canal, making it harder to remove. This may cause a feeling of pressure in the ear and diminished hearing. Even worse, clumps of earwax pushed down near the eardrum can lead to painful ear infections.

  1. Earwax is not a sign of poor hygiene

Here’s where there seems to be some misunderstanding. Earwax — the medical term is “cerumen” — is there for good reasons. Among other things, cerumen:

  • is a natural moisturizer, preventing the skin inside the ear from becoming too dry
  • traps dirt and dust before they can reach deep into the canal
  • absorbs dead skin cells and debris
  • prevents bacteria and other infectious organisms from reaching the inner ear.

Some people make more earwax, while others make less. The makeup of earwax varies depending on ethnicity, age, environment, and even diet. While there seems to be a certain “ick” factor associated with earwax, it’s not a reflection of uncleanliness; in fact, it’s a sign of normal, healthy ears.

What to do about “cerumenosis”

Buildup of earwax can cause symptoms. When it does, doctors call it “cerumenosis” and recommend over-the-counter ear drops that can soften earwax and allow it to exit the ear more easily (with gentle irrigation, such as during a shower). Or, a healthcare provider can look inside your ear and use instruments specifically designed to remove earwax.

In conclusion…

There’s a reason the makers of cotton-tipped swabs put this warning on their packaging: “Do not insert swab into ear canal. Entering the ear canal could cause injury.” But, it still goes on. Perhaps it’s just too tempting or satisfying. Perhaps no one reads the labels of the products they use. Or maybe the myths about earwax are too ingrained to be easily dispelled by facts. Whatever the reasons, now you know to stop putting cotton-tipped swabs into your ears. And that also goes for unfolded paper clips, pen caps, or whatever else you’ve been using!


  1. Charles Blackwell

    “…If you feel that you should put some object in your ear canal, talk to a doctor about doing it first. That is a very serious action and could cause you serious and irreversible hurt.”

    • William T. Gallucci BS,BS, MS,MS, ABD

      Its a hole in your head. Who can resist putting somethihng in a hole. But, nothing smaller than your foot. Most people can get their foot at least to their mouth. Its hard to resist especially after a shower. I will use a tissue or a little suction device made just that purpose.

  2. Joe Martin

    I occasionally use my little fingernail to remove some wax from my right ear. I notice an improvement in hearing, but my left ear does not seem to need this.

  3. Masood

    I wish I could have read this article before. I have already damaged my right ear because I was trying to clean my earwax and now I got the infection, partial hearing loss and severe and sharp pain. I am on medication right now. hopefully I learned my lesson and will never insert anything into my ear canal no matter what. The best thing is always go to the doctor and let him/ her do the proper treatment in case you feel there is something in your ear, something build up inside or itchy feeling. Inserting any object inside your ear could damage your ear drum for which you have to pay a high price by losing hearing ability, sharp and severe pain and even worst.

  4. Micah

    I seriously love a good q-tip twirl inside my ear canal. Are there any services available out there to help me stop this behavior?

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