How to Safely Clean Your Ears
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
Ears are self-cleaning and use wax to trap dirt and debris before they make their way into our inner ear canals, but how can you safely clean your ears when the wax becomes a bit excessive? Here's how to do so without giving yourself an ear infection or causing damage.
Why do your ears produce wax?
Earwax, or cerumen, is naturally produced by our ears to help protect the sensitive skin of our hearing organs and trap and remove dirt and debris that may find its way into our ears throughout the day. It can vary in consistency and color, but is perfectly normal.
Some people produce very little wax, and some have trouble with overproduction. Cleaning your ears too often can also lead to your body producing more wax than is necessary, so it's best to tread carefully when it comes to your ear cleaning practices. Ears are pretty much self-cleaning in most cases, so the less you interfere, the better.
If you're a regular user of hearing aids, earbuds, earplugs, or headphones, you may end up having more trouble with these issues compared to the average person.
Sometimes, it's just plain necessary to do a little maintenance, so here is how to do so without causing any damage.
Safe ways to clean your ears
Ideally, you shouldn't have to clean your ears at all. Unfortunately, some of us overproduce wax, and it can become very uncomfortable. If you're noticing pressure, hearing impairment, swelling, or other discomfort, it's best to consult your physician to make sure there are no serious underlying problems. If nothing is wrong and this is simply your everyday life with no serious issues attached, you may need to clean your ears yourself sometimes.
It cannot be overstated that you should not put any foreign objects into your ears, including cotton swabs and candle wax, that may potentially push wax deeper into the ear canal or cause other damage within the ear.
Here are the safest options for removing or reducing the amount of wax in your ears:
When in the shower, let warm water run across your ears to loosen up the wax and encourage it to come out more easily.
Put a few drops of baby oil or mineral oil in your ear to lubricate it further and help the wax come out easier. Allow the drops to sit within the ears for a couple of minutes, then carefully tip your head over in the other direction with a paper towel to catch any draining oil or wax.
Use a warm, wet washcloth to gently wipe away any wax that has made its way to the outside of your ear.
Use an over-the-counter earwax removal kit, typically involving the use or an ear irrigator. However, this can be more safely done in a doctor's office with the help of a professional who can also see what they're doing better.
If regular impaction or other ear-wax related problems are common for you, your doctor may also prescribe specific ear drops to help alleviate your wax issues and provide some relief.
When is it safe to use cotton swabs in the ear?
Under no circumstances should you be putting cotton swabs into your ears and potentially pushing wax further down to cause an impaction and potential infection or damage.
The best use for cotton swabs with one's ears is to simply use them after a shower to clean all of the ridges of your outer ears to remove any lingering dead skin, oil, or other debris that may be builtup in all of those creases and crevices, especially if you're prone to sweating a lot, working outside, or wearing longer hair down on a regular basis.
When to call a doctor
Chewing and moving your jaw to speak naturally help wax move out of the ear canal and away from your inner ear organs. If you've managed to get a blockage, the majority of the time it is due to attempting to clean your ears or shove something in them, pushing the wax down further, especially since wax isn't even produced so deeply within the ear—it forms towards the outer ear.
If you've managed to push earwax deeper into the ear and are experiencing pain, pressure, discomfort, or hearing loss, you'll need to pay your primary care physician a visit and either have the blockage cleared out with a rinse or receive ear drops if you've managed to give yourself an infection. They will also be able to check for any other damage that may have been caused by putting foreign objects into the ears and potentially scratching or puncturing anything.
Additionally, if you ever see blood in your ear wax or green discharge, or are otherwise experiencing consistent pain, pressure, hearing loss, or other unusual ear-related issues, consult your doctor so they can check inside your ears and make sure everything looks okay. Sometimes, you may have caused problems by simply messing with your ears or using things like cotton swabs inside of them, but there are also other issues like allergies that may contribute to ear infections, swelling, and pain.
For more information on how to manage these issues for children, check out our posts about What Does My Child's Earwax Color Mean? and How to Clean Your Child's Ears.