How to clean your ears

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Cotton swabs condense and impact your ear wax deeper into your ear canal — and you may be risking your hearing each time you reach for a swab.

In fact, many do-it-yourself ear-cleaning methods do more harm than good. Although unpleasant, earwax has nothing to do with personal hygiene and the ear canal naturally cleanses itself through your body’s everyday movements.

Visit the UPMC Ear, Nose and Throat website to learn more or call 412-647-2100 to schedule an appointment.

Here are a few simple tips to help you properly clean your ears without damaging this delicate sense organ.

How to Clean Your Ears

  1. Apply a soft, damp washcloth to clean the outside of your ear.
  2. Clean the outside of your ear with cotton balls, but do not insert them into your ear canal.
  3. Earwax softener can help make for easier removal.
  4. Ask your doctor’s office to remove wax during your regular exam.
  5. Never use ear candles or pointed objects to remove ear wax.

Should You Use Cotton Swabs to Clean Your Ears?

Trying to clean the ear with cotton swabs or other objects can actually cause problems by pushing the ear wax deeper into the ear canal. Normally, ear canals are self-cleaning and should not need to be cleared with any foreign devices.

Sometimes wax can accumulate excessively, resulting in a blocked ear canal. In that case, clean your outer ear with a cloth and try one of the following to remove the blockage:

  1. Place a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, water, or commercial ear drops into the inner ear to soften the wax, which will allow it to come out more easily.
  2. A stream of water or saline (salt water) can be used to rinse the ear. Use a syringe from the drug store to get the solution into the ear canal, but do not insert it too far. These solutions should be warmed to body temperature to prevent dizziness.
  3. You don’t have to do it yourself: Doctors specializing in ear, nose, and throat care have special, safe instruments to vacuum ear wax or otherwise remove it.
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Also, it is important to remember that not only is the ear self-cleaning, but it also clears itself due to the body’s normal movements. Old ear wax is constantly being transported from the inner ear canal to the ear opening by chewing, talking, or simply moving the jaw.

Safe Ear Cleaning Tips

  • Do not clean your ears with bobby pins, twisted napkin corners, or other long pointed objects.
  • Do not insert cotton balls into the ear canal. They will merely push the wax deeper into the ear canal, causing a blockage.
  • Do not use ear candles. The Food and Drug Administration issued a public warning in 2010 that the use of ear candles can lead to serious injuries.

If you are constantly experiencing excessive amounts of ear wax or a stuffy feeling in your ears, please consult your doctor.

RELATED: Understanding Ear Wax: How to Deal With Blockages

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Tips on cleaning ears safely

Remember—we need earwax as protection for the eardrum. So, you shouldn’t clean it too much. It just isn’t necessary. It is safe to wipe away visible excess earwax using a wet cloth. But do not use swabs to remove wax (or anything else) from your ears.

Do you know the saying, “don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear?” It’s true. You shouldn’t stick anything in your ear canal. While many people may think are safe to clean your ear, Q-tips™ or Cotton Buds™ are definitely a bad idea for wax removal! Why not?

  • They can scratch and inflame the sensitive skin inside the ear canal, leaving it open to infections.
  • They also can push debris farther in the ear canal, rather than drawing it outward.
  • Swabs are not suitable to remove anything from the ear.
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If you think you have a blockage in your ear canal, have a foreign object in the ear or think you are experiencing excessive wax, consult a hearing care expert for specialist cleaning.

Cleaning your ears at home

We’ll say it again: don’t insert any foreign objects into your ear canal. You can irritate the fragile skin of the canal and can end up perforating your eardrum. This means no cotton swabs and definitely no ear candles. (Speaking of ear candles, in 2010, the FDA distributed a warning against using them, announcing that no scientific evidence supports their effectiveness and that their use can induce severe injuries.)

To properly clean your ears at home, take the following methods:

  1. Buy earwax softening solution at the drugstore or make some at home. Directions for preparing the solution can be found online, and the mixture often includes the use of hydrogen peroxide, mineral oil, and glycerin.
  2. Pour the solution into your ears from the container or by using a plastic or bulb syringe. Tilt your head to the side and let the solution to work for 5-10 minutes.
  3. Empty the fluid out of your ear by tilting your head gradually over a container or the sink, or you can use a cotton ball pressed against the outside of the ear. (I know it’s tempting, but again, don’t force the cotton ball into your ear.)
  4. Flush out your ears with lukewarm water using a bulb syringe to free any loose earwax.

Signs of Earwax Buildup

First of all, how would you even know you need to clean your ears? You might have an excess of earwax. These are some signs of earwax buildup, also known as impaction:

  • Aching ears
  • A stuffy feeling or ringing
  • Trouble hearing
  • Odd smells from the ear
  • Dizziness and coughing
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If you wear hearing aids or need earplugs, you may notice too much earwax building up in your ears. Likewise, if you are older or have a developmental disability, you may also find you have too much earwax.

Methods to Safely Clean Your Ears

Here’s what you should to safely clean your ears:

Using a wet cloth: Because cotton swabs can only make the problem worse, don’t use them. Instead, try using a wet cloth. Wipe down the affected this area with the wet cloth, and only use the cotton swabs on the outsides of your ears.

Try over the counter products: You could also try using over the counter products. Many pharmacies offer these remedies. Earwax drops can help, but you may not know what’s in them:

  • Mineral oil
  • Glyercin
  • Peroxide
  • Saline

The syringe method: This technique will sound unconventional, but it might also work. With a syringe, you can irrigate your ears. How does this work? You’d only be rinsing the wax out of your ears. For best results, use an earwax softening product and wait for fifteen to thirty afterward to try the syringe.

What You Shouldn’t Do

Whatever you do, don’t try the following methods. For instance, don’t use anything that is sharp. Although this is tempting, you could do even more damage to your affected ear. Cotton swabs are unlikely to help as well. If you want to attempt the syringe method and irrigate your ears, here’s what to keep in mind:

  • Don’t try it if you have diabetes
  • Avoid this method if your immune system is compromised somehow
  • If you have any holes in your eardrum from previous damage, don’t do it either
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