Watch any hygiene guide on YouTube and you’re sure to hear the same advice: be sure to regularly clean your ear canals with a q-tip. This wisdom is not endorsed, however, by science. In fact, swabbing your ears might lead to bad health consequences.
On Tuesday, the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery published new clinical guidelines that forbid use of cotton swabs for removing earwax. The guidelines recommend you not put anything “smaller than your elbow in your ear.”
Dr. Seth Schwartz, chairman of the group that wrote the update, says, “We really have come to appreciate that clinicians are not the only users of [the guidelines], that patients are really interested in their own care and people are really taking ownership of their own care.”
So why avoid swabs and other insertables? Because they can inadvertently cause small cuts in our ear canals. They can also accidentally perforate your eardrums and even dislocate the small bones in your inner-ear that are responsible for producing your hearing. Any and all of these negatives are risk factors for hearing loss, tinnitus and dizziness.
In fact, earwax is pretty important. The body doesn’t produce much that isn’t of use to it. Earwax collects dirt and other particulates that could damage the ear canal. Old earwax gets moved close to the surface of the ear when we chew and talk. Then, it naturally gets washed away when we bathe.
The natural earwax cycling process doesn’t work perfectly for everyone, though. For people with impacted earwax, the authors recommend just going to your doctor. Trying to remove it with q-tips just pushes the earwax farther back into your ear.
The authors also issue a very clear warning against ever using ear candles. “There is no evidence that they remove impacted cerumen [the medical term for earwax].” Ear candles can also cause “serious damage” to eardrums.
If you need to soften your earwax at home, they recommend using over-the-counter softening drops or irrigators, which they say are safe. “Even drops of water in the ear can be effective to soften the wax,” says Dr. Schwartz.
Having earwax in your ear canals isn’t gross or unsightly. Unless part of your first-date regimen is examining each other’s ear canals with medical scopes, you’ll be fine. All you have to do for aesthetic maintenance is make sure you don’t have any old earwax crusted on the visible parts of your ear. A pretty easy task.