Have you ever read the label of your box of Q-tips—like, really read it? If not, we encourage you to head to your bathroom to read the directions for how to use them. You’ll surprisingly find those instructions have absolutely nothing to do with cleaning your ears. Cotton swabs (more commonly referred to as Q-tips, thanks to the popular brand) can be used in so many helpful ways: touching up eyeshadow or mascara, cleaning all the nooks of your computer’s keyboard, and wiping away messy nail polish, to name a few.
But let’s be honest: You’ve probably used a Q-tip to clean your ears. For some, there’s nothing quite like the satisfaction of digging out a large clump of gooey ear wax. And for doctors, there’s nothing quite like the “don’t use a cotton swab in your ear” schpiel.
But is it really that bad to clean your ears with a Q-tip? Even if you’re super careful? Read on to learn what experts have to say about this.
Yes, using a cotton swab to clean your ears really is a bad idea.
Having a lot of earwax build-up isn’t ideal, but trust us: You wouldn’t want to get rid of the sticky substance entirely even if you could. Earwax is made by glands in the outer part of the ear canal to help protect your ears from dust, germs, excessive water, and other questionable substances, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. So, if you notice a little gunk in there, it’s understandable to want to clear out the area. Enter the cotton swab.
It’s so tempting to dig out that wax yourself, but doctors say doing so is never a good idea. Your ear won’t spontaneously combust from using cotton swabs to clean them, but there is a good chance you might injure yourself, Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, an otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF. The problem is that it’s really hard to see inside your ear, meaning there’s no way of knowing what you might poke with that little stick of cotton. Think of it like this: Using a cotton swab to dig out ear wax is a little bit like driving a car while wearing a blindfold.
“We typically see complications like people losing the cotton tip in the ear, traumatizing the ear canal and causing painful infections, or poking through the eardrum with a cotton swab,” Dr. Mehdizadeh says. In addition to potentially setting the stage for an infection, puncturing your eardrum can lead to permanent hearing loss, according to the Mayo Clinic.
This may seem like a fluke, but cotton swab injuries are a common occurrence in emergency rooms, Elliott Kozin, MD, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist at Mass Eye and Ear in Boston, tells SELF. And some injuries happen for reasons that you may not even expect. “There are true stories of individuals forgetting that they have a cotton swab in their ear and then accidentally brushing the side of their head, resulting in major trauma to the ear,” Dr. Kozin says.