Let’s be honest: Digging in your ear with a cotton swab feels amazing. There’s a reason it’s called an “eargasm”! But no matter how good it feels you really need to stop. Like, now. No, seriously. Stop it.
Cleaning out ear wax is the number one reason people give for sticking a cotton swab in their ear canal. And if you’ve ever stuck one in and (oh-so-satisfyingly) drawn out a big, yellow, gooey clump of wax then you’re probably convinced it’s working.
Well, I have bad news for you: It’s not.
First things first, ear wax isn’t dirty. In fact, it is the way the ear keeps itself clean and germ-free. Ear wax is a self-cleaning agent with protective, lubricating, and antibacterial properties, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS). Your ear uses the wax to move skin cells and other debris slowly from the eardrum to the ear opening. Once there the wax dries out and flakes out of your ear using the motion from your jaw as you chew and talk.
At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. We can mess up that process when we take an object, oh like a Q-tip, and jam it into our ear, shoving the wax down on top of the ear drum. Left there it can become impacted and cause infection, pain and temporary hearing loss. Not to mention that any bacteria on the cotton swab is now introduced into your tender ears. (Fun fact: Over 12 million Americans a year have to see a doctor due to “impacted or excessive cerumen.”)
Hear that? Rather than cleaning your ears you’re actually making them more prone to infection and disease. No cotton swabs in your ear, not even a little bit, not even if you’re really gentle, says Eugene Chio, MD, an assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.
Q-tip, the most popular brand of cotton swabs, is totally on board, stating on their website that “Q-tips cotton swabs should only be used to swab gently around the outer ear, without entering the ear canal.”
Still not convinced? Watch this guy get a huge chunk of impacted extracted from his ear after years of cotton-swabbing. (Or don’t, if you have a weak stomach. I’m sorry.) The short term reward of an eargasm just isn’t worth the long-term risk to your hearing.
But if you’re still worried about cleaning out your ears Chio has a great tip: “Insert drops of rubbing alcohol into the ear canal then hold a hairdryer up to the ear on a low setting,” he says.
Other tips for proper cotton swab use include never licking it (use clean tap water to moisten it for makeup removal), never re-using swabs, and keeping them in a closed box in a hygienic location.