It can be tempting to want to clean your ears with a cotton swab when it gets itchy.
However, experts have one word of advice: don't!
It is such a common habit - many of us don't realise that medical professionals have long been warning the public against putting things into our ears.
In fact, the general consensus is that we don't have to clean our ears as often as we think, and especially not with a cotton bud.
1. Earwax is not dirt; it's made to protect your ears
Earwax, also known as cerumen, is a thin layer of wax produced by your ear canals to protect its lining and the eardrum from getting irritated by foreign particles such as dust, hair, water, and occasionally, insects.
Other than things visible to the eyes, earwax also protects your ears from infections.
"People think that earwax is dirty and needs to be cleaned, but earwax has both anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties," said ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist Dr Anh Nguyen-Huynh in an editorial by Cleveland Clinic.
2. Earwax will clean itself out
In most people, earwax should not build up and clog the canal. It will usually make its own way out of the ear canal while new wax is secreted to replace it.
The movement of your jaw, such as when you are chewing, helps move ear wax from the inside of your ear canal, away from your eardrum to the opening of your ears, where it is safe to clean with a warm damp towel or will usually get washed away while you shower.
3. You might push earwax further in or hurt the inside of your ears instead
Constantly pushing a long instrument such as a cotton bud or a metal ear pick into your ear canal may only cause worse earwax build-up or irritation of the delicate skin inside.
Not only that, the worse case scenario would be pushing too far and tearing a hole in your eardrum (a situation that doctors call a perforated tympanic membrane), and this could result in hearing loss.
4. Once you start scratching, it will only get itchier
According to audiology news portal Healthy Hearing, you should actually completely resist the urge to clean or scratch the inside of your ears when it is itchy.
The dermatologist the portal interviewed, associate professor at Wayne State University School of Dermatology Dr Steve Daveluy said, "Try not to scratch at all. For any skin, scratching makes the nerves that feel itch grow."
"So the more you scratch, the more you'll itch."
5. Cotton buds were not made for cleaning the inside of your ears anyway
According to The Independent, the modern day household staple was created as a baby cleaning product by American-Polish Leo Gertenzang in 1923 after he saw his wife stick a cotton ball at the end of a toothpick to groom their baby.
It is not meant to be stuck into your ears. Cotton bud manufacturers across the world have never marketed their product for use deep inside the ears too, instead recommending them for outer ear use, in make-up, or household cleaning.
In fact, some brands now have an explicit warning on their packaging that says: "Do not insert swab into ear canal".
Ultimately, there are not many at-home remedies to try when you have too much earwax build-up or itchy ears
Mayo Clinic recommended two self-care measures to remove excess earwax:
- Over-the-counter earwax removal drops that have peroxide in them to soften and break down plugs, or
- Mineral oil or baby oil to help lubricate the ear canal for easier removal.
They advised to use a syringe after a day or two to gently flush water into the canal and tilt your head to drain the water and excess earwax out.
Medical professionals also do not recommend ear candles as they do not work and may result in burns and injury to your ears.
If you are experiencing issues such as an itchy or clogged ear, it is still best to see a medical professional about it.