Warnings about cotton swabs are nothing new, but I used to shrug it off because the idea of wax growing in my ears was too unappealing to ignore. But it turns out that, despite its icky appearance and feeling, earwax is something we want and need. In fact, using a cotton swab can not only makes our ears less clean—it also puts us at risk for infection and even deafness.
Waxing Poetic About Cerumen
First, let’s tackle a common misconception about earwax, the yellow or brown stuff found on the end of cotton swabs (or whatever you use to clean your ears). It isn’t the result of bacteria and debris building up in our ear canals, as many falsely believe. Earwax, more scientifically known as cerumen, is actually produced in the ear, thanks to glands lining the skin in the outer canal.
What we think of as gross is a defense mechanism—the sticky substance protects sensitive skin within the canal from invading dirt, dead skin, and other things that could cause problems. They get stuck on the wax instead of burrowing further into the ear. The ingredients in cerumen, such as saturated fatty acids, and its acidity also make it a powerful opponent against bacteria. Waxy layers keep the skin lubricated as well, which prevents dry spots and reduces itchiness.
Even if we embrace earwax as a beneficial resident in our bodies, what happens when it builds up? That’s another little-known fact about ears—they actually clean themselves when functioning properly. Earwax and other debris naturally make their way toward the outer part of the ear, a process aided whenever we move our jaws to talk or chew. Once it reaches the visible portion, it’s safe to remove with a washcloth. Healthy ears efficiently remove excess materials and maintain a protective cerumen layer inside. So even though wax has become synonymous with dirtiness, the exact opposite is true. Without it, our ears would be much less clean.
Don’t Get Empty Between the Ears
It’s important to understand why earwax is a good presence in ours lives, but it’s even more important to realize just how much damage we can inflict by trying to get rid of it. Wax is only produced in the outer one-third of the canal, so it shouldn’t go anywhere near the ultra-sensitive eardrum—unless we stick something in our ears that pushes it in the wrong direction, that is. Poking around our ear canals with cotton swabs moves wax where it shouldn’t be, and since there’s no pressure going the opposite way that far into the canal, it stays put and builds up. The build up can lead to infection and possible hearing loss; if wax accumulates against the ear drum, tinnitus—a terrible buzzing in one’s ear—can also occur.
Removing the shielding wax from the ear also leaves the skin exposed to a variety of infections. The skin within the canal is delicate, which is one big reason why it’s a bad idea to run a rough cotton swab against it—the friction can cause small tears and leave the skin vulnerable to dust particles and bacteria. Plus, the lack of acidic wax means the pH levels in the canal are off-balance, and since bacteria prefer environments with low acidity levels, they thrive in wax-free ears. Bacteria also enjoy high-moisture areas, which is why swimmer’s ear, a painful infection in the outer ear, happens more frequently, too. The wax isn’t there to keep water, and all of its bacteria, moving out of the canal.
Ear infections are painful and annoying, but not nearly as much as rupturing an eardrum, which happens when people get too cotton swab-happy. A ruptured ear drum won’t necessarily kill you, but if left untreated, it can lead to deadly bacterial infections. In 2008, a man in Montreal died from an infection stemming from the eardrum he ruptured with a cotton swab a few days earlier. Earwax doesn’t occur near the eardrum, so there’s no reason to stick anything that far back. But since some people don’t know the facts, they try to get as deep into the canals as possible. Death from cotton swabs is extremely rare, but they do remind us about the fragility of our ears and how dangerous it is to put foreign objects in them.
Just a Dab Will Do
So if cotton swabs are out, what can we do to promote good ear hygiene? The best course of action is taking a washcloth soaked in warm water (this is important—cold or hot water entering the ear can make people feel dizzy) and gently wiping the outside of the ear. Since this is where dead skin, dirt, and extra wax end up, it’s an easy and safe way to clean house. Don’t stick anything inside your ear—not cotton swabs, not fingers, and especially not bobby pins, pencils, or whatever else is handy.
Knowing what I do about the dangers of cotton swabs, it was still difficult to avoid using them last night. Their connection with cleanliness will be hard to break. But it helps to remember that our ears can do a perfectly good job of cleaning themselves on their own. If you do feel that there’s wax buildup in your ears—common symptoms are earaches, hearing loss, itchiness, unusual smells or discharges, and a feeling of being plugged up—make a doctor’s appointment. They use special instruments to clear blockages without endangering the ear, so put down the cotton swabs and let someone else do the dirty work for you.