Here's The Right Way To Clean Your Ears

Like the rest of our faces, our ears need proper care and cleaning — and unfortunately, many forget about them. Maybe because they're off to the side of our faces? In any case, our ears get used every second of our lives, and we have to take care of them if we want them to work correctly. If you've been blessed to get a pair of perfectly working ears, there are a few things that you should do to make sure they stay in good health and proper working order for as long as possible.

One of the first things most people think of when talking about ear care is Q-tips. As much as they've been marketed and sold to the masses as a form of ear care, everyone from the Mayo Clinic to Martha Stewart warns against using cotton swabs in our ears. Take those out of the equation, though, and many of us are completely lost on how to clean our ears daily. Visit a pharmacy and you'll be presented with quite an extensive shelf of options for cleaning your ears but most of them have to do with excessive earwax and getting rid of it. Earwax is not necessarily the evil that we think it is though — our bodies produce earwax as a natural cleaning mechanism and it shouldn't be totally wiped out. 

On the other hand, seeing a doctor on a regular basis just for an ear cleaning or checkup can get expensive quickly and it's just more convenient to be able to clean your ears at home, by yourself. So just what are we supposed to do, and how can we take care of our ears safely, quickly, and without causing more problems or pain?

Why do our ears make wax?

Most scientists don't know for sure why our bodies make earwax, but it generally seems to be a natural cleanser for our ears, as it moves from the inside to the outside, according to Harvard Health Publishing. The proper name for earwax is cerumen (per BBC), and it's generated when secretions from the sebaceous glands and sweat glands in the ear combine.

It also seems to have some antibacterial and antifungal properties, and if your body doesn't make enough your ears might feel itchy and uncomfortable. The BBC reported a study conducted in 1980 that found that earwax from 12 different people was able to kill off 99% of several bacterial strains and 30-80% of the strains E. coli, Streptococcus, and Staphylococcus. In another study in 2011, cerumen was able to prevent the formation of bacteria and fungi.

As the cerumen moves, it collects any debris, dead skin cells, and even hair that might be in the outer ear canal. The movement of the earwax is caused by your jaw movements as you chew and talk, and the wax eventually reaches the edges of your ear where it flakes off harmlessly, according to Harvard Health Publishing. People have either dry or wet earwax, and whichever kind you have depends mostly on your genetics, per the BBC. Your earwax texture is determined by just one letter on a single gene, and the wet type is dominant.

Why cleaning your outer ears is important

In general, any area of your outer ear that can be touched by your fingers is safe to clean, says Dr. Benjamin Tweel, an otolaryngologist at The Mount Sinai Hospital, to Martha Stewart. The folds collect most of the dirt, dust, and dead skin that sits on the outer ear, as the Hearing Healthy Club reports, but it can just as easily be cleaned away with a wet cloth or even tissues.

Cleaning the outside of your ear can help prevent the transfer or introduction of bacteria and other kinds of germs to the inner ear. Although our earwax has some antibacterial and antifungal properties, some strains of viruses or bacteria are still virulent enough to overcome their basic defenses.

And don't forget about the back of your ears — just like the t-zone on your face, the back of your ears can become oily and slick too, according to Livestrong. S. Tyler Hollmig, director of dermatologic surgery, laser, and cosmetic dermatology at The University of Texas in Austin, tells Livestrong that there are several sebaceous glands behind our ears designed to keep that area moisturized, but they can get out of control, producing either too much or too little oil. In either case, it's a good idea to keep the area behind our ears clean and free of debris. Lastly, make sure to clean with a gentle soap, since the skin behind our ears is delicate and can be irritated easily.

Everyday cleaning inside and out

Otolaryngologist Dr. Benjamin Tweel told Martha Stewart that it's pretty easy and straightforward to clean the outer ear. Simply wipe it clean with a damp cloth or tissue. The inside of the ear canal actually doesn't need to be cleaned — your earwax is accomplishing that job, grabbing any small skin flakes or other debris as it makes its way out of the ear. 

Medical News Today says that the most common method people use to clean their inner ears is by using cotton swabs — but unfortunately, that's not a good method! Using cotton swabs can slow down the natural process of earwax removal, push earwax back into your ear, and even injure your eardrum (per Medical News Today). Candling, a process that involves lighting one end of a hollow candle while the other end is in your ear, also is not recommended as a way of cleaning your ears by the United States Food and Drug Association, says Medical News Today.

Unless your ears start to feel full, you start having ringing, or you feel like you're having hearing loss, you shouldn't be removing or cleaning too much of your earwax out. Your ear wax's role as a debris collector and moisturizer is important, and earwax should not be treated as an enemy to remove at all costs.

Causes of excess earwax

The Mayo Clinic notes that symptoms of excess earwax include feelings of fullness in your ears, ringing, dizziness, and even itching. Ear infections are commonly mistaken for excess ear wax, says Livestrong, and it can be easy to confound the two as they both have matching symptoms: difficulty hearing and a feeling that something is stuck in your ear. Ear infections are accompanied by pain, though, so if you do experience pain, it's more likely an infection than just excess wax. If you feel ear pain, schedule a visit with your doctor asap.

If you actually do have a buildup of earwax, you might wonder what caused it. There are a number of potential culprits. Earwax can be aggravated by wearing in-ear buds, since doing this on a regular basis can make the skin in your ears break down faster. In turn, this will cause more earwax to be created by your ears, in an attempt to clear out the dead skin. To make matters worse, all that earwax can trap the bacteria off of your earbuds in your ear, which can lead to infections. Skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis can also increase the amount of dead skin in your ears and cause the same problems (per HuffPost).

As you age, you may also notice an increase in your earwax as well. This is because the outer ear canal sags and becomes more narrow as we get older, and because of this, earwax is more easily trapped in the canal. Lastly, even having more hair in your ear canal can cause earwax to build up, as it doesn't as easily travel out (per Livestrong).

Using over-the-counter remedies

When earwax does become a problem, most of us rely on over-the-counter (OTC) remedies first before we visit a doctor about it. That's not a problem — most earwax remedies are generally safe and consist of a few ingredients that are combined together to create a softening solution (via Healthline). These ingredients are mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, peroxide, hydrogen peroxide, or saline. To use the drops, simply put in the specified amount of liquid into your ear and then wait the specified amount of time to allow the solution to make its way all the way in. Then turn your head to the other side to drain out your ear of the solution and, hopefully, some earwax. 

Getting rid of some of your unwanted earwax can be even simpler, and cheaper, if you use some natural remedies and use things that you most likely already have around your home. The Mayo Clinic suggests using mineral oil or glycerin (ingredients in over-the-counter ear drops) to soften the wax over the course of a couple days. Once the wax has been softened, you can rinse it out. The Mayo Clinic says to simply boil some water to sterilize it, then let it cool off to a temperature that is comfortable for you to rinse out your ears with. You might need to repeat the warm water treatment a few times, a few days in a row, for your excess wax to fall out.

Irrigating your ears

Ear irrigation is the process of using water to flush out any earwax or other foreign objects in your ear canal, according to Healthline. The procedure is fairly routine and can be done either at home or in a doctor's office, whichever you feel more comfortable with. To perform ear irrigation at home, apply a few drops of earwax softener to your ear a few times a day, for a few days in a row. Once you've applied and drained out the solution the last time, use a bulb syringe to flush some warm water into your ear a few times. The procedure is pretty similar when performed at a doctor's office. However, before irrigating, your doctor will also be able to use instruments to look in your ear to verify that your problem is excess earwax and not something else like an infection. 

There are some risks associated with ear irrigation, according to the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP). For instance, by introducing moisture to the area, you could cause an ear infection or aggravate an existing one. You can also perforate an eardrum if the irrigation is done too hard or your eardrum is already fragile. It's also possible to develop vertigo or deafness — which can be temporary or permanent — due to ear irrigation, though these side effects are very rarely seen (per Healthline).

When to see your doctor

For most ear irritations, at-home or over-the-counter remedies will work just fine. But there are times when seeing your doctor is advisable to trying to treat something yourself. One of those times is if you've experienced any kind of drainage or blood leaking out of your ear. It can just be softened ear wax sometimes –- for instance, while sleeping, you can have some earwax come out and you'll see it on your pillow in the morning, according to Medical News Today

Clear fluid is usually simply water and is found as a discharge from the ears after a bath or swimming. Medical News Today says this type of fluid discharge is harmless and you can simply wipe it away. If you have any other color of discharge though, white or bloody for example, it's time to see your doctor. Such a type of fluid can mean either an ear infection or a ruptured eardrum, both of which should be diagnosed by your doctor and treated accordingly. You should also see your doctor if you have constant ringing or loss of hearing in your ears, severe pain, high fevers, swelling or inflammation behind your ears, or if symptoms of a ruptured eardrum last longer than two months (per Medical News Today). 

Lastly, Medical News Today says it is always best to see a doctor when it comes to removing ear wax from a child's ear. Since children have smaller ears and they are usually more sensitive, it's better to be safe than sorry. A doctor will be able to use more precise tools to ensure the safe removal of ear wax from a child's ear. 

How to guard your ears

The best defense is a great offense, so go on the offense by protecting your ears so you don't have to treat them later. Healthline lists a few ways that you can protect your ears from damage or problems. First off — and this may be stating the obvious — but you shouldn't insert small objects into your ears. Anything smaller than your finger has the potential to harm your ear drum or to push wax backward into your ear canal, causing it to get stuck and build up. 

You should also take care to dry your ears off after taking a bath or swimming for a prolonged time, as water that gets stuck in the ear can cause an infection. Wipe your outer ear with a cloth or towel and even shake your ears out to make sure no water is retained inside your ear canal. On that same note, be careful what you put into your ears — olive oil has been suggested as a way to get rid of wax but a 2013 study didn't show any improvement in applying olive oil to your ears for ear wax removal, as those participants did for 24 weeks, every night. Healthline suggests that it can still be a safe way to eek out some wax if used sparingly.

Finally, try to limit the amount of time you spend around loud noises. Too much exposure to loud noises can impact your hearing and even lead to a ruptured eardrum or permanent hearing loss. Keep the volume low when you're listening to music, and wear headphones or earplugs for protection if you need to be in an environment that has loud, constant noise.

What happens when you don't clean your ears

Have you ever though about what happens when you don't clean your ears every day? Forgetting to clean your ears every day may not be as unimportant as you think. Some parts of our ears we are warned to stay away from — the inner ear is self-cleaning and most of the time you don't need to worry about it — but other parts can be even easier for us to ignore or forget about. For instance, not cleaning behind your ears can lead to irritation, and you can develop skin conditions such as seborrheic dermatitis. The skin behind our ears is quite delicate and needs to be handled with as much care as our facial skin so it should be cleansed daily.

Similarly, not cleaning your earlobe area can lead to infections, especially if your ears are pierced and you wear earrings daily. The constant application of different earrings can introduce bacteria into a vulnerable opening and cause a buildup of germs that leads to infections, possibly even yeast infections. If not treated, an infection on or in your ear can become nasty really fast. If the area around your ears has a distinct odor, it's time to give it a good (gentle) scrub.