How to clean ears: Why you shouldn’t use a cotton bud – and what to use instead

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Earwax is a naturally occurring substance that builds up inside the ear canal over time. Despite its thick, waxy consistency, healthcare professionals insist that earwax should be left untouched unless it is causing you problems with your hearing. When the wax builds up and doesn’t exit the ear canal on its own, it might be time to clean it out yourself – but what’s the right way to do it?

What is earwax made of?

Despite its name, earwax isn’t actually wax at all.

This thick yellow-toned substance is made up of dead skin cells from the ear mixed with everyday dirt and debris.

According to the Audiology Speciality Clinic, earwax contains:

  • Fatty acids
  • Squalene
  • Alcohols
  • Cholesterol

Mixed with dead skin cells, these four substances are a result of secretions from two main glands – the ceruminous and sebaceous glands, which excrete sweat and oil.

How do you clean out ear wax?

Cleaning earwax from your ears should never be done using a cotton bud because it can aggravate the ear canal and cause more harm than good.

While using a cotton bud to clean wax may satisfy the nerve endings in your ear, there are three main reasons why you should avoid using these small cotton tips:

  1. You could drive the earwax further into your eardrum
  2. Perforating the eardrum could lead to a burst eardrum [or an ear infection]
  3. Pushing the wax further into your ear can cause it to harden and block the ear

Cleaning earwax on a regular basis is not necessary as it provides a protective barrier for the eardrum, using antibacterial properties to trap dirt and dust in the ear canal to avoid damage to the drum.

Baking soda

When a buildup of earwax is causing you problems, there are a handful of effective alternatives to cotton buds that can be used to dislodge large clumps of wax from the ear canal and baking soda is just one of them.

According to medical website Healthline, earwax can be removed using a simple baking soda solution which uses just two ingredients.

Dissolve half a teaspoon of baking soda in 60ml of warm water – use boiled water that has been left to cool.

Pour the solution into a dropper bottle or pipette and tilt your head to the side.

Drip five to 10 drops of the solution into your ear and leave for up to an hour before flushing with water.

You should repeat this once a day for up to two weeks until the wax disappears.

If the wax persists beyond two weeks, you should seek medical attention.

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Oil rinse

Earwax is aptly named after its wax-like texture, which makes it ideal for breaking down with pure oils.

Use natural oils like baby oil, coconut oil, glycerin, mineral oil or olive oil to create an oil rinse for your ears.

Pour your chosen oil into a dropper bottle or use a pipette to apply the solution as you tilt your head.

Keep your head tilted to the side for five minutes and repeat twice per day.

The oil works by softening the clusters of earwax which can help it to fall from the ear canal more easily without penetrating blockage.

Ear irrigation

This is one of the simplest ways to flush earwax from your ear, requiring nothing but water to dislodge chunks of thick wax.

Healthline recommends combining this irrigation method with any other natural remedies, like the oil rinse or baking soda wash. Just irrigate the ear five to 15 minutes after your initial treatment.

You will need a soft rubber bulb made for ear cleaning which should be filled with warm water.

Tilt your head to the side with a thick towel or sink below the ear and gently squeeze the bulb to shoot warm water through your ear canal.

Let the water run freely through your ears to allow a thorough flush which help to dislodge trapped earwax.

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