Many of us have heard doctors say, “Don’t put anything smaller than an elbow in your ear!” And while it sounds like a joke, it’s not – audiologists, physicians and general practitioners advise people to avoid putting anything in their ears at all costs, including fingers, cotton swabs or – much worse – “ear candles.”

Here’s the scoop:

Protect your ears and hearing

Inserting anything in your ear can damage your hearing or cause an injury by puncturing the eardrum. Additionally, pushing something into the ear is also counterproductive – it can cause earwax to be pushed even deeper into the ear canal, defeating the purpose of cleaning your ears and possibly even exacerbating hearing loss.

Additionally, some people have tried an unsafe practice called ear candling that they falsely believe can clean their ears. Aside from having no scientific proof that ear candling works, it can also cause very serious injuries. Ear candles are tapered cones typically made of cloth and beeswax. The funneled end is put in the ear and the opposite side is lit on fire. The individual lies on his or her side and “earwax” comes out through the cone. However, most experts agree that this is not earwax but simply wax from the candle! Aside from being unproven, ear candling can cause burns to the ear canal, face, middle ear or eardrum, or a plugging up of the ear with wax.

Why earwax?

Earwax is actually a self-cleaning mechanism of the outer ear canal. Sometimes dust and debris can enter the external ear canal, but usually, the particles in the ear are tiny dead skin cells from our skin’s renewal process. But the amazing body has a way to take care of that. The glands in our ears secrete substances that protect the ear by keeping the ear canal lubricated and killing bacteria and fungi to prevent infection. Along with the skins cells, these secretions form cerumen, or earwax.

How to safely clean your ears

While it’s never advised to put anything in your ears, the good news is that earwax actually moves out of the inner ear canal and toward the outer ear on its own through miniscule movements such as when we swallow, speak or chew. The lower jaw produces these actions that propel earwax very slowly toward the outer ear. Thus, there’s no need to go digging around in your ears. As the wax is moved toward the outer ears, you can wipe it out with a warm, wet cloth.

Earwax and hearing loss

One interesting thing to note is that how much earwax our inner ear cells produce is largely dependent on genetics. Some people have a lot of earwax and might want to consider having their ears professionally cleaned by an audiologist or other health care professional. This is because sometimes, when too much earwax is produced, a plug forms in the inner ear as it can no longer by properly pushed out by natural movements. In fact, this is why it’s so important to visit the audiologist or a doctor as soon as possible if you are living with hearing loss: It could just be the result of too much earwax, rather than needing hearing loss solutions. Removing an earwax plug can actually improve hearing by around 10 decibels.

Additionally, because some styles of hearing aids and other assistive listening devices block the ear canal, they can can cause the buildup of wax. Talk to your audiologist to see if you have or could have an earwax buildup and he or she can regularly schedule cleaning appointments for you.

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