It’s no secret that sticking a cotton swab in your ear is a pleasant sensation–at least, for most people. And we all know that we shouldn’t do that. There are much better—and safer—ways to clean our ears. We’ll discuss those ways in a moment, but first, let’s talk about an unlikely subject: earwax itself, and the role it plays in protecting our hearing.
Earwax, which is more properly known as cerumen, is a substance our own bodies make to protect our ears. Comprising substances produced by glands inside our ears, including sweat glands modified for the task, earwax’s primary job is protecting our ear canals. That means it helps keep out things we wouldn’t want in our ears. However, that’s not the only function it serves.
It also helps to keep our ears clean, by gathering debris and moving it out. Another job it’s tasked with is keeping our inner ears from drying out. It can also kill some forms of bacteria.
However, while earwax is very important to our ear health, too much of it can impede our hearing. That’s why you may get the urge to reach for a cotton swab. That is a mistake, because swabs only reach the top layer and in doing so, can compact the wax in our ears, compounding the problem.
If you’re cleaning out your ears because you think they need it, that’s also a mistake. Your ears need the wax. Removing it can put you at risk for ear infections. The only reason you should be cleaning out wax is if you have a buildup. So if you need to clean your ears, the safest way is to have a doctor do it. If that’s not a good option for you, here’s how to do it safely on your own.
First, unless you have buildup, the only earwax you should be tackling is any that’s made it out of your ear. You should be able to clean that safely in your shower. For buildup, there are over-the-counter methods you can try, like ear flushes and wax softeners. If you’ve tried these and you still have hearing problems, then it’s definitely time to see a doctor. It might be a warning sign of something more serious.