How to clean your ears

... and why you shouldn’t use cotton tips

Do you use cotton tips?

Or perhaps you call them cotton buds or cotton swabs. Well, here’s some advice that experts all over the world could shout together in unison:


Seriously, it’s a very bad idea. Putting anything in your ear canal can push wax and other debris inwards. This can prevent sound from reaching your eardrum effectively.

However, there’s much more to it than that.

Wax is produced in the outer ear canal and naturally works its way outwards. But if you push it further in, it goes in deeper than it is supposed to.

Then it carries bacteria inwards to where the skin is very thin and fragile. And although cotton tips may look soft, they are actually abrasive on the sensitive skin deep in your ear canal.

Besides all this, you risk rupturing your eardrum.

Okay, so how do I get earwax out then?

You don’t. Your ears are designed to naturally expel earwax. One of the main purposes of earwax is to capture anything foreign and invasive, and then to come out of your ear canal with it. It is a vital part of your ear’s self-cleaning process, which works like a conveyor belt.

  • The skin in your ear canals grows in a direction: outwards. This means it brings out the wax, skin debris, and everything that has become trapped in the wax

  • Chewing and yawning naturally helps to move earwax outwards along the ear canal

  • In general, our ears make the amount of wax they need
  • DIY ear cleaning tips
  • Don’t put anything in your ears that is smaller than your elbow

  • Wipe earwax out of your outer ears with a washcloth when it is ready to come out

  • Consult your doctor if you suspect you have an earwax blockage

  • Consult a pharmacist, your hearing care professional, or your general practitioner (primary healthcare provider) if you think you need specialist cleaning

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Can't I just reduce it a bit with a cotton tip?

Inserting anything into your ear canal risks pushing ear wax inwards. Wax is only made in the outer third of the ear. Anything that could push it deeper – in towards the eardrum where the ear doesn’t clean itself – is very dangerous.

  • You risk pushing wax past the ‘conveyor belt’ of outward skin growth that is supposed to carry it out, leaving it trapped there
  • Cotton tips can damage the skin of the ear canal — especially in the deeper, more sensitive areas — leaving them open to infection from bacteria  
  • Pushing earwax deeper inside can block the ear canal, leading to hearing loss. You also risk rupturing the eardrum with the cotton tip

But I want to be clean and free from earwax!

Well, earwax is essential. Our ear canals are designed to create wax because it is an integral part of the way our ears function. It is natural, completely normal, and everyone needs it. Earwax has evolved to serve many purposes.

  • Earwax creates a sticky barrier that prevents foreign objects from entering, including bacteria and fungal infections of the ear canal and ear drum
  • It traps dead hair, skin and dust, which it then carries out of your ear
  • Earwax helps to prevent fungal and microbial infections in the ear canal, because it is acidic*
  • It lubricates the ear canal, to help prevent your ears from itching


*Hanger, 1992

Right, so we need some earwax. But can there be too much?

Well, sometimes our ears do produce more wax:

  • Hearing aid users and earphone users can experience more earwax build-up because the devices block their ears, which hinders the natural progression of wax
  • Some people produce more earwax than average — it can run in your family's genes*
  • If your ears are irritated because you have been inserting things to clean them, they may take a while to re-establish a balanced level of wax production

 *Hanger, 1992

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