Woman holding her congested ear considering these tips on how to safely clean your ears

How to Safely Clean Your Ears

July 26, 2021

“Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.” Have you heard that saying? Most hearing healthcare professionals say this to their clients every day, although they seldom listen. Which begs the question—what is the “right” way to clean your ears?

We’ll cover how to safely clean your ears, and why common techniques like using Q-tips aren’t the best way to go about it.

What is ear wax?

Before we look at how to clean your ears, it’s important to learn a little bit about what you’re mostly cleaning out: ear wax. 

Ear wax (or cerumen) is an oily substance that your body produces to protect your ears from dust, particles, and water. In most cases, the wax will naturally make its way out of the ear canal without any help. However, any foreign body in the ear (such as headphones or hearing aids) may cause your body to produce excessive ear wax. Some people struggle with excessive ear wax production even with no external cause.

Why removing ear wax is important

When ear wax does not run out of your ear canal on its own, it may cause a blockage. Symptoms of an ear wax blockage include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Feelings of fullness in your ear
  • Ringing in your ear
  • Ear pain

If you have any of these symptoms, it is best to visit your healthcare professional to take a look in your ear. Never attempt to remove the ear wax yourself with an earbud, hairpin, or any other object. Healthcare professionals remove ear wax every day, and there is some skill involved. 

During removal, the healthcare professional will use an otoscope to look into your ear canal. They will be able to see if the wax is causing a complete or partial blockage and how hard the wax is. If the wax is very hard, they may ask you to use an ear drop such as sweet oil for a few days before attempting to remove it.

Getting your ears cleaned professionally

There are three main methods a healthcare professional can use to clean your ears.

Curette

A curette is an instrument with a thin metal hook at the front. Your healthcare professional will use this to scoop the wax out of your ear.

Irrigation

A syringe with lukewarm water is held in a particular way and the water goes behind the blockage and pushes it out of the ear.

Suction

Your healthcare professional will use a specific machine to suction the wax out of your ear.

The procedures described above can really go wrong if attempted by someone other than a healthcare professional. The adult ear canal is about 2.5cm in length, that’s not very long at all. Using a sharp instrument to try and remove ear wax yourself can result in your eardrum being punctured. This can lead to temporary, or in some cases, permanent hearing loss.

How to safely clean your ears

If you’re not experiencing any negative symptoms, you can clean your ears at home—especially if you know you are prone to ear wax buildup. However, while many people may opt to grab a Q-tip, there are other methods that are both safer and more effective. Let’s take a look at a few.

Sweet oil

People prone to ear wax can use sweet oil to keep the wax soft. In most cases, using a few drops of sweet oil every 2 weeks is enough to help the wax flow out of your ear naturally and prevent a build-up. 

Water

Using water to clean your ears at home is also effective when done safely. One of the best and easiest ways to do this is to let a bit of water flow into your ears while showering. This is a natural form of irrigation that is not harmful.

Irrigation kits

Similarly to irrigation performed by a professional, you can buy irrigation kits made specifically for your ears at the pharmacy. Never use a kit that was made for anything other than your ears, as the pressure may be too great and can harm your ears. Always follow the instructions at the back of the box carefully. 

Note: Someone prone to ear infections or with a perforated eardrum should never get water close to their ears, as it could lead to a nasty infection. It is therefore always best to consult with your health care professional before trying any of the methods above.

Cleaning methods to avoid

Use the above methods to safely clean your ears. Avoid other methods, such as:

Ear candles

An ear candle is a hollow candle that you insert in your ear and let burn for 15 minutes while lying on your side. The idea is that the candle will create a suctioning force that will rid your ear of earwax. It is also believed that the heat can melt the wax, causing it to run out on its own. However, there is no scientific basis for ear candles, and they are not a recommended cleaning method.

Q-tips (and other small objects)

Though commonly thought of as an ear cleaning tool, Q-tips can push ear wax deeper into the ear and cause it to become impacted. The same applies for other small objects, including bobby pins, earbuds, or cotton swabs.

Hearing aids and ear wax

Unfortunately, if you are a hearing aid user, your hearing aids can cause a build-up of ear wax. This is because the hearing aid can block your ear, preventing wax from running out. Your body may also see the hearing aid as a foreign object, leading to your ear producing more ear wax. 

Using the safe cleaning methods above to prevent a wax build-up can be very helpful. It is also important to regularly clean your hearing aids and replace the wax filters in them often. Your hearing health professional will show you how to do this.

If you are a hearing aid user, contact a Lexie hearing professional today for more information on how to manage ear wax.

Image of post writer Nadia van Eyssen.

Written by Nadia van Eyssen

B. Communication Pathology Audiology

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