man holding onto his ear
man holding onto his ear

Time to Toss the Q-Tips: Are Cotton Swabs Bad For Your Ears?

If you’ve ever had a conversation with a hearing care provider, you’ve probably heard them caution against using cotton swabs to clean your ears. We may sound like a broken record, but we promise, our constant warnings are only for your own good!

While we’ve talked about this topic with our patients hundreds (maybe even thousands) of times, this topic is worth an in-depth article. Let’s talk a little more about Q-tips, the damage they cause and what you can do instead if you still feel the need to remove wax from your ears.

Why Do We Use Cotton Swabs?

Before we talk about why cotton swabs are bad, we need to think about why we use them in the first place. Since childhood, we’ve been taught that earwax is a sign of bad hygiene and should be removed for cleanliness. And ever since that message was drilled into our brains, we’ve been sticking Q-tips in our ears to get rid of earwax and the stigma that came with it. We bet even to this day, you still feel a little grossed out by earwax, and that is a testament to years and years of this wrong message being spread!

While the original purpose of the Q-tip was not necessarily to clean ears, it was quickly adapted for that purpose in the market. It wasn’t until the 1970s that cotton swab brands started cautioning against using them in your ears… but by then, it was too little, too late.

Why Are Cotton Swabs Bad For Your Ears?

One of the biggest issues with using cotton swabs to remove wax is that wax is actually good for you and plays a very important part in keeping your ears healthy and functioning. Ear wax actually captures things like dead skin cells, hair and dirt to prevent them from entering your inner ear and messing with your delicate hearing and balance systems located there. It also has some anti-fungal and anti-microbial properties, which helps keep your ears infection-free, as well.

Another reason cotton swabs are so bad for your ears is that, while they may pull out some wax, they actually push the majority of that wax further in your ear, which could cause an impaction, leading to potential infection and hearing loss and making it harder for your ear to remove it naturally (that’s right, your ear naturally pushes wax out on its own, basically negating the need for Q-tips anyway).

In some cases, cotton swabs can also cause damage to your eardrum if you push them in too deep, which could cause long-term damage to your hearing and balance.

I Can’t Give Up Cleaning My Ears — What Should I Use Instead Of Cotton Swabs?

We get it: bad habits die hard, and there are actually a few cases and reasons why you may need to remove ear wax more than the average person. For example, if you wear hearing aids, if you suffer from ear itchiness or if your body is producing so much wax that it’s blocking sound from entering your ear canal. For these folks, there are luckily some healthier and safer options to clean your ears that don’t involve sticking any sort of cotton swab in there.

For a quick home remedy, you can get an over-the-counter ear cleaning solution, called a cerumenolytic, that will soften the wax and make it easier to gently rinse out with warm water. Alternatively, you can accomplish a similar effect by using some hydrogen peroxide.

For more severe cases, we always recommend seeing a hearing care professional to help clean out impacted wax and evaluate if any hearing loss is present as a result of Q-tip damage or infection.

If you still have questions or are experiencing itchiness or hearing loss as a result of overproduction of wax (or even regular Q-tip usage!), you can book an appointment with your local Beltone office and have one of our hearing care providers take a closer look and help you with a safe treatment plan.

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