If you have childhood memories of your mother poking Q-Tips into her ears, we have bad news for you: Mothers might not always know best.
“It’s sort of an urban myth that that’s the way you should clean your ears,” says Stephen Rothstein, MD, an ear, nose, and, throat (ENT) doctor at NYU Medical Center. Even the Q-Tips box itself warns against using the cotton swabs for earwax removal, he adds.
What makes them so bad in the first place? As Erich P. Voight, MD, an otologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, explains to businessinsider.com, Q-Tips only make matters worse. Sticking one deep inside the ear actually pushes wax further inside the ear canal instead of cleaning it out. The wax then gets stuck there as more wax builds up on top of it, creating a dangerous blockage or “impaction.”
Roughly half of the population suffers from some level of impactions, which can lead to all kinds of medical problems, including dizziness and hearing loss, according to Southwestern Oklahoma State University researchers. Don’t count on other home remedies like over-the-counter ear cleaning kits, vacuum tools, and peroxide to fix the problem either, says Dr. Rothstein. Once a blockage is formed, only a medical professional can flush it out.
But that’s not even the worst part. Research shows that Q-Tip mishaps are a major cause of ear-related ER visits among U.S. adults, mostly due to cringe-worthy consequences like bleeding ear canals and punctured eardrums. Yikes!
So what is the ultimate solution to ridding your ears of wax? Just let it be, says Dr. Rothstein. “Your ear canals are designed to drain themselves” through a conveyor belt-like system that moves earwax from the inside of the ear to the outside, according to Dr. Rothstein. “For the average person, the earwax just falls out.” Not only that, some earwax is actually good for you. It provides a natural antibiotic, lubricant, and protection against dirt and insects for the eardrum, so leaving it alone can boost your auditory health.
Still, some people feel the need to clean their ears, either due to uncomfortable drainage or because it feels good. (Dr. Rothstein calls this “Q-Tripping,” because the Q-Tip stimulates the nerve-endings found inside the ear.) If that’s the case, he recommends wrapping a pinky in a washcloth and gently wiping the outside of the ear. But in his opinion, the old wives’ tale still holds true: “Never put anything smaller than an elbow in your ear.”
MORE: Here are genius uses for Q-Tips that have nothing to do with cleaning out earwax.