Every medicine cabinet contains a box of cotton swabs, which, along with cosmetic use and delicate first aid work, seem to have an obvious purpose—to clean our ear canals of stubborn earwax buildup. However, a closer look at the packaging will show that the manufacturers discourage consumers from using them this way. Before you start poking, take note of the dangers of using cotton swabs in your ears and rethink your use of this nearly universal household item.
When we reach for a cotton swab to clean our ears, our goal is to relieve a sense of fullness in the ear by digging in and pulling back out with a big glob of earwax that’s been the problem all along. We rarely realize this goal. The ear is a self-cleaning organ, and it disposes of excess earwax on its own by flushing it out. Reaching in with a swab actually runs counter to how the ear cleans itself—rather than pulling earwax out, you’re more likely to push it in. Impacted earwax only leads to further discomfort and can even obstruct your hearing.
Whether you’re a diehard audiophile or someone who appreciates a well-wired entertainment system, you take good care of your sound systems by cleaning them and handling them with care. Shouldn’t you treat your natural sound system the same way? Just as you wouldn’t carelessly probe your speakers, you shouldn’t clean your ears by poking deep into them. A punctured eardrum can lead to permanent hearing loss, especially if the tip of the swab goes past the eardrum.
Ear infections, traditionally the province of small children whose ear canals are still settling into place, can afflict adolescents and adults, too. Because manufacturers don’t ensure the sterility of cotton swabs, cleaning your ears with them can introduce viruses and bacteria into deep sections of the ear. From there, those pathogens can cause fluid to accumulate in the eustachian tubes. Consider, too, the purpose of earwax—to trap bacteria in the ear and send it out of the body. By impacting earwax and inadvertently forcing it to remain in the ear canal, you’re allowing the ear to harbor harmful bacteria, where it can cause an infection. We know you mean well, but the dangers of using cotton swabs in your ears make it a counterproductive measure. Trust your ears to clean themselves.