4 safe ways to clean your ears

February 29, 2024

methods of removing ear wax

MakatiMed recommends these tried-and-tested methods of removing ear wax—only if needed

For generations, cotton buds—aka cotton swabs, Q-tips—those small wooden, cardboard, or plastic rods with wads of cotton wrapped tightly on either end, were the go-to cleaner for our ears. Yet by shoving a cotton bud in your ear, you risk doing more harm than good, says Joseph Ray Richard R. Cedeño, MD of the ENT Center (Dr. Ariston G. Bautista Center) of the top hospital in the Philippines, Makati Medical Center (MakatiMed). 

“When you use a cotton swab to remove ear wax (or cerumen) from your inner ear, you could push more cerumen in, creating a buildup in your ear canal,” warns Dr. Cedeño. “This results in hearing problems, ringing in the ear, dizziness, and pain. Poking a cotton swab in the external canal could also damage your eardrum, a complication that may need surgery to fix. And cleaning your ear with a cotton swab is one of the leading causes of otitis externa, or an infection in your ear canal.” 

Though often thought of as dirty and gross (hence the need to get them out of our ears), ear wax serves a purpose. “Ear wax is a sign of healthy ears,” adds Dr. Cedeño. “It serves as a filter of sorts, trapping and preventing bacteria, fungus, and tiny objects from entering our inner ears. It also protects the delicate skin of our ear canal and acts as a natural moisturizer.” 

So important is ear wax that no less than the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation declared that we should just leave ear wax alone, especially if it doesn’t cause any problems. “It helps to know that the ear has a self-cleaning mechanism,” Dr. Cedeño points out. “In time, ear wax naturally migrates from the inside to the outer ears. Even chewing and moving your jaw helps move old ear wax from the ear canal to the outer ears.” 

But if you must clean your ears—maybe you feel a buildup or notice your hearing is muffled—there are several ways to do it. MakatiMed recommends these four safe ways:

With a washcloth. “This is only meant for the outer ear,” reminds Dr. Cedeño. “Use a warm and damp washcloth to gently wipe the outer surfaces of your ear.” 

With baby oil, mineral oil, or glycerin. Warm the baby oil, mineral oil, or glycerin to your body temperature. Tilt your head to the side and use a dropper to place about 3 drops inside your affected ear. Repeat twice a day for 5 days maximum until the wax softens. “When it does, gently guide warm water into the ear, then tip your head to drain your ear of fluid and wax. Clean with a washcloth or paper towel,” says Dr. Cedeño.

With a cotton swab. Yes, it is possible to still clean with the controversial cotton swab. “Just use it to gently clean only the outer soft part of the ear canal and not the bony inner part,” Dr. Cedeño stresses. 

With your doctor’s help. Visit an otolaryngologist (that is, a doctor specializing in conditions related to the ear, neck, and throat) if you experience pain in your ear, fever, some hearing loss, or fluid coming out of your ear. “Your doctor has the tools and expertise to safely remove ear wax and check for any underlying problems,” Dr. Cedeño suggests.

For more information, please contact MakatiMed On-Call at +632.88888 999, email mmc@makatimed.net.ph, or visit www.makatimed.net.ph. Follow @IamMakatiMed on Facebook and Twitter.