Hear This: How to Properly Clean Your Ears

by SOFIA LEVY

People clean their ears for several reasons: better hearing, comfort, hygiene, and more. However, these individuals might be using harmful tools and employing dangerous methods to keep their ears squeaky clean. So the question is, what is the proper way for people to clean their ears? Well, contrary to popular belief, commonly practiced methods such as using Q-tips and candling are NOT the answer!

 

First of all, what is wax?

Wax, also known as cerumen, forms in the ear as a result of skin cells, dust, and secretions from ceruminous glands. Ceruminous glands are structures in the ear canal that secrete lipids and other substances in the ear

 

What is wax for?

Secretions from the ceruminous glands are part of the ear’s self-cleaning mechanism. These secretions protect the ear from bacteria by:

1. Keeping the skin in the auditory canal lubricated.

2. Protecting the skin’s protective acid mantle which helps kill bacteria.

According to a 2011 study published in Lipids, the study found over one thousand compounds in ear wax that help protect the skin by producing a low pH in the ear and providing a hostile environment for bacteria.

3. Trapping dust, bacteria and other foreign particles to prevent them from entering further into the ear canal. 

Movement also helps with this self-cleaning process because actions such as speaking or eating moves the lower jaw, which gradually pushes the wax out.

 

What determines how much ear wax you have?

The amount of ear wax that one has may be determined by genetics or age. People of older age may produce more ear wax since the ceruminous glands shrink with age, causing the ear wax to be dry. Dryness keeps the ear from cleaning itself well, so skin particles may accumulate as a consequence and result in greater amounts of wax in the ear.

 

When should I clean my ears?

It is important to remember that ear wax is beneficial and is not a sign of poor hygiene, so one should not clean his or her ears too often. However, when too much wax builds up, it can become impacted and form a plug. This can also happen when someone wears a hearing aid, uses earplugs, or does not use the right ear-cleaning tools. One might want to remove a blockage of impacted ear wax to improve comfort and hearing.

 

What not to do:

There are commonly practiced, but risky ways to clean out the ears.:

Q-tip 

Using a Q-tip not only puts one at risk for perforating the eardrum, but it can also just push the wax further into the ear and make it more impacted. Also, the cotton tip can increase the chance of bacterial infection.

  • A 2004 study in the International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology concluded that using cotton-tip applicators for cleaning ears seems to be the leading cause of otitis externa in children, otherwise known as swimmer’s ear, an infection or inflammation of the external auditory canal.
  • As with using Q-tips, using hair pins and other small objects to remove ear wax can break the eardrum and/or push the earwax deeper into the ear canal .
  • However, it is okay to clean ears using a Q-tip as long as one is cautious and aware of the risks.

Candling

Candling is another method used to remove ear wax. Paraffin, beeswax, and cloth are rolled into a cone shape with the small end in the ear. An assistant lights the edges of the other end on fire and the burning supposedly draws the ears wax out of the ear and into the tube.

  • However, a 2009 study published in The European Journal of General Practice showed that ear candling is not effective and can actually cause injury.  

 

How do I safely remove ear wax?

Irrigation

Streaming water in the ear can soften the wax and make it easier to remove. Irrigation is not advisable for people who currently have, or have a history of, ear infection, ear surgery, eardrum injury, permanent ringing in the ears (tinnitus), or hearing in only one ear.  

  • It is important not to attempt removing ear wax if experiencing ear pain or discharge. These are signs that a doctor should be seen.

how to use irrigation to remove ear wax:

  1. Use body temperature water (any cooler or warmer can cause dizziness or vertigo, where you feel as if you are spinning or moving or that the world is spinning around you).  

  2. Hold your head upright and gently pull the outside of your ear upward to straighten the ear canal.

  3. Use a syringe (can be bought at the store) and gently direct a small stream of water at the wall of the ear canal next to the wax.

  4. Tip your head to allow the water to drain. Then you may need to repeat the irrigation.

  5. When the wax is removed, the ear must be dried thoroughly. This  can be done with a hairdryer on a low setting. However, when irrigating, it is important not to irrigate with a tool for cleaning teeth, or if there is another possible ear condition. Also, it is not good to irrigate too much.

oil

Olive oil, almond oil, baby oil, mineral oil, sprays, or ear drops can also lubricate and loosen the earwax. The number of drops that should be used depends on the brand and a doctor’s recommendations. With this method, tilt the head side to side for five minutes to let the drops settle.

  • A 2009 study published in The Cochrane Library showed that there may not be a difference between various ear drops and how effective they are. Therefore, while using ear drops for removing ear wax is better than doing nothing at all when earwax builds up, there are no particular types of ear drops that are recommended.

see a physician

One can see a physician who uses special tools such as a vacuum to safely remove ear wax. It is a good idea to call a physician if the earwax is tough, if the wax cannot be removed, or if  ear pain, fever, or hearing loss occur.

 

Which way is the best way to clean your ears?

A 2010 study published by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) compared the different ways of removing ear wax. While it was shown that softeners such as olive oil and sodium bicarbonate being used before irrigation might be helpful, the study was inconclusive in regards to which specific softeners are better and whether mechanical removal or irrigation was more effective in removing ear wax.   

 

bottom line 

Overall, it may be risky to clean ears using a Q-tip or the candling method. However, the ears can be cleaned safely with the use of lubricants, by applying the irrigation method, or by seeing a doctor or professional.

 

Summer 2013 | Vol. 13 | Issue 5