How to Clean Your Ears (Properly), According to ENTs

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While we might all be curious about the best plunger or probiotic tampon or cold-sore remedy, it can be difficult to discuss these more personal items. That’s why we’re tackling Things We Don’t Talk About, a series in which we track down the best hygiene-, sex-, and bodily function–related things we all need but might be too embarrassed to ask about. In this installment, we consult experts on the proper way to clean your ears.

Cleaning your ears is often a private, gross moment between you and a Q-tip, but according to ENTs, if you know what’s good for you, you’d stop fussing with your ears completely. Maura Cosetti — an otolaryngologist at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai — explains that wax already self-regulates, and even carries health benefits. “Having wax is a sign of a healthy ear. It combines lubricating, antibacterial, and even antifungal properties. It’s not like brushing your teeth, or something you have to think about cleaning all the time. It’s quite the opposite.”

The real cause for concern is when ear wax becomes impacted, partly blocking the ear canal and causing symptoms like ringing in the ears (tinnitus), hearing loss, or pain. For what it’s worth, it’s often caused by people digging around in there in the first place. Here, we talk to Cosetti and otolaryngologist Eric Smouha of ENT and Allergy Associates about how you can gently clean your ears at home if you sense you have a blockage.

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“Ear wax normally forms in the ear canal and finds its way to the surface. If it gets to the surface, it’s okay to swab around there with a soft washcloth or something along those lines,” says Smouha. A soft muslin baby washcloth will be small and soft enough to do the trick.

Cosetti says that even using a Q-tip is helpful here so long as you’re guiding it along the outer part of the ear or the opening of the ear canal, but making sure not to prod it inside.

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There are also a dozen different metal tools, swabs, and syringes that can be purchased for clearing your ears, but for issues like swimmer’s ear (when water gets trapped behind the wax) or blockages, Cosetti says ear drops should be your first call to action before buying anything that involves inserting something into your ear canal. “Drops are both more effective and safer.”

She says you can either work with something over the counter or a homemade solution. “The environment of your ear is naturally acidic, so it’s usually a good idea to use some sort of acidic solution or a mixture. I have a lot of my patients use a half-and-half alcohol solution with alcohol and water, or hydrogen peroxide and water. Apple-cider vinegar is a really good idea to use, too.”

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Smouha also suggests using over-the-counter ear drops to help dislodge wax, but sparingly. “Using things like Debrox once or twice is fine, but most of those drops have peroxide, which can irritate the skin. It’s fine to use it if the wax comes out, but if the solution sits around in the ear canal, skin can become macerated like if you’ve been in the bathtub too long.”

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If you’re concerned about ear irritation, Cosetti says you can also try using a moisturizing oil to soften up the earwax. “Any kind of oil — mineral oil or olive oil or lavender oil or any essential oils — is fine because itchy ears can also be a sign of dry skin, and that’s often made worse by using something that’s a really drying agent like peroxide.”

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A more ambitious person might try solutions like syringes and systems that flush out the ear, which Smouha says are fine if people are exercising caution, “but if it doesn’t work the first time, it’s probably better to see a doctor and not persist.”

To administer an at-home solution, you can use a bulb syringe to pump a little bit into your ear canal, but remember to avoid jamming the tip directly into your ear. You can work around this by tipping your head to one side and squeezing your solution directly above the ear-canal entrance.

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Here’s another popular ear-irrigation system, developed by a doctor, that might be helpful. It uses a hose attached to a spray bottle to flush your ear with water or a solution of your choice to soften up the wax.

Grafco Goldnamer Ear Basin
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Some people who are using syringes and ear drops also find that it’s helpful to have one of these ear basins handy, which fits under the ear to collect any wax buildup or excess liquid that might come tumbling out.

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How to Clean Your Ears (Properly), According to ENTs