Woman holding her congested ear considering ear wax removal

Safe Ear Wax Removal

“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. techniques do you make use of for ear wax removal?

In this article we share facts on why earbuds or q-tips are not great to clean your ears with, as well as what you can use them for instead.

What is ear wax? (Cerumen)

Ear wax 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. Any foreign body in the ear (such as headphones or hearing aids) may cause your body to produce excessive cerumen. Some people struggle with excessive cerumen production even with no external cause.

Removing ear wax

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. First, you need to be able to see what you are doing. 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.

Your healthcare professional can remove the wax in 3 ways

  1. Using a 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.
  2. Using 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.
  3. Using 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.

The skin in your ear canal is very thin. Scratching the ear canal can lead to bleeding and pain, which may in turn cause infection. Trying to remove the wax with an earbud will push it deeper into your ear canal. This is often the cause of the blockage in the first place, but it also makes the wax much more difficult for your health care professional to remove.

How to safely clean your ears

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. Clients are recommended to let a bit of water flow into their ears when they take a shower. This is a natural form of irrigation that is not harmful.

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. 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.

A note on 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. The facts are, there is no scientific basis for ear candles.

Hearing aids and ear wax

Unfortunately, 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 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.

So what can you use Q-tips for?

Q-tips can be used safely to clean the outside of your ear. It is a great tool to clean hard-to-reach places, such as belly buttons, faucets, or even the battery contacts on your cell phone. It can also make a nifty paintbrush to use for a craft project. Q-tips may be an indispensable item in your bathroom, but experts agree, keep them out of your ears!

Hearing expert and article writer Nadia van Eyssen

Written by

Want to Stay Informed

Sign up to our newsletter.