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How should I clean my ears?

Dear Alice,

How often should I clean my ears? Is daily too much?

— Dumbo

Dear Dumbo, 

Feel free to clean the external part of your ears whenever you shower or bathe, but it's wise to resist the urge to go ear-spelunking. You may feel the desire to clear out all of that earwax, but this sticky substance actually keeps your ears healthy. Trying to dig it out usually does more harm than good. Glands in the outer portion of the ear canal produce cerumen, or earwax, which acts as a natural cleanser that protects, cleans, and lubricates your ear, while also impeding the growth of bacteria. Regular chewing and jaw movement causes the wax to migrate towards the opening of the ear, sweeping away any dead skin cells, dirt, and hair along the way. At the end of the ear canal, wax dries and falls out of the ear. Using cotton swabs or twisted paper towels to remove wax can disrupt the natural cleaning process by pushing wax further into the ear. By inserting any objects into your ear, you also risk scratching the ear canal, introducing germs, and puncturing your eardrum. 

If you must remove earwax, it's best to avoid using pointed objects and ear candles, as these methods can cause damage to your ear. Instead, a hot shower can melt and flush out earwax, and then you can gently dry off your outer ear with a towel. An over-the-counter (OTC) wax softener, mineral oil, glycerin, or hydrogen peroxide may also help dissolve wax. A few drops of these products in each ear, waiting about 15 minutes, and then lying down on a towel to let the wax and drops drain out are the outlined steps to using these dissolvers. That said, using the OTC products no more than once a week is advised. If you have an ear infection, ear drops aren’t recommended unless advised by a health care provider. In addition, you can also flush the ear canal gently with warm water and a bulb syringe. There are a lot of nerve endings in the ear, so cleaning can feel oh-so-good; just be mindful not to go overboard. Clearing out too much wax can leave your ears feeling dry and itchy, starting a vicious cycle of excess cleaning and irritation.  

Rarely, an excess amount of earwax does build up, blocking the eardrum. You may find a visit a health care provider for a check-up and a professional cleaning helpful if you notice the following symptoms: 

  • Earache, fullness in the ear, or clogged feeling 
  • Partial hearing loss in affected ear 
  • Tinnitus (ringing or noises in the ear) 
  • Dizziness  
  • Coughing 

List adapted from Mayo Clinic

If you're prone to wax blockage, wear a hearing aid, or have a damaged eardrum, it's best to let a health professional tackle any wax removal. It's tempting to try and fish out unwanted earwax, but your inner ear actually does a pretty good job of keeping itself clean. Too bad the dishes won't clean themselves, too! 

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Last updated Apr 23, 2021
Originally published Nov 01, 1994