So Long, Q-Tips: The Truth About Ear Cleaning
Do you clean your ears with Q-tips? Almost everyone I know does. I used to. Even after watching Lena Dunham's infamous, horrifying scene on Girls, in which she painfully ruptures her eardrum with the aforementioned swab of choice, I still saw them as the go-to for removing earwax. At least that's what I thought I was doing—"removing excess wax." Then one day, I lost my hearing in my left ear and learned a very valuable lesson that surprisingly few people know and even fewer practice—you're never supposed to put anything in your ear that's smaller than the size of an elbow. Keep scrolling to learn why, and what to do about earwax in lieu of using Q-tips.
Here's the bottom line: When you remove a Q-tip from your ear and see wax on the end and think, See? Q-tips do work, and I am looking at proof that they're effective at getting gross wax out, you're not seeing the full story. Even if the Q-tip grabs a bit of wax from your ear, in doing so, it also pushed more wax deeper into your ear canal—definitely more than you got out. It is an indisputable fact that Q-tips impact wax. They do the opposite of what you think you're using them to do—rather than "cleaning" or removing earwax, they push it farther into your ear, like a snowball getting packed and pushed into a pipe. Not only can this cause hearing loss via blockage, but also, the Q-tip itself can damage the eardrum.
I experienced this firsthand last year after jumping into a pool and getting water into my ear. When I got out of the pool, it felt like half my hearing was blocked and thought it was because the water had moved around some existing earwax. (Water in your ears softens wax, which can frequently cause the sensation that you need to clean your ears and is why most people get the urge to reach for a Q-tip after the shower.) I instinctively went straight to the bathroom for a Q-tip to "get the wax out," and as soon as I stuck it in, I felt the exact opposite of what I wanted: the wax went farther in, and instantly my already-compromised hearing was gone. My ear felt stuck and blocked, and I felt claustrophobic. I had lost 100% of the hearing in that ear. It was truly a terrifying feeling, and my physical response to it was panic. I desperately wanted to unblock my ear and kept fooling around with the Q-tip, probing, and violently shaking my head around. Nothing worked. I was afraid it was permanent.
After searching home remedies for hearing loss from earwax blockage, I purchased a bulb syringe with saline solution, which you use to gently soften and flush out the earwax (without any probing or pushing). Had I used this method to flush my ear initially, I could have effectively removed the excess wax disturbed by the water. Post-Q-tip, however, it didn't work—precisely because I had pushed the wax so deep in, with the mini Q-tip head working as a ramrod. After several days of upsetting and disorienting hearing loss, I ended up having to see my general practitioner, who used an in-office vacuum suction device to gently remove the impacted wax that was blocking my hearing. She told me then, and I've heard this echoed by many doctors since, that sticking a Q-tip in your ear is not just counterproductive to "cleaning"; it can be dangerous and injurious to the eardrum.
Furthermore, ears are self-cleaning, and earwax is essential for maintaining a healthy and functioning ear canal. Earwax has antibacterial properties and helps to lubricate and protect your ear from infection. The ear has its own cleaning system in place, and your repetitive daily motions of chewing, talking, and moving your jaw around help to loosen wax and enable it to fall out of the ear naturally. You should not use Q-tips or ear candles to routinely "clean" your ears, as neither method has been proven effective; conversely, both can result in complications and injury.
That said, sometimes too much earwax accumulates and you experience symptoms like I did after the pool, where you feel as if part of your hearing is compromised or that the ear is plugged. On occasion, you can see and/or feel too much wax. In those cases, there are some DIY methods for cleaning the ear that are recommended by the The American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS), the world's largest organisation of specialists who treat the ear, nose, throat, and related structures of the head and neck. Keep scrolling to see what they say is safe and effective.