As it turns out, just like how it is for babies, we shouldn’t clean our ears either. According to recent guidelines from the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS), no matter how gentle we are or how seemingly harmless the hygiene tool of choice may be (like your cotton ear buds), we should skip cleaning our ears during our daily shower.
“Accumulation of cerumen (or ear wax), caused by a failure of the self-cleaning mechanism, is one of the most common reasons why patients seek medical care for ear-related problems,” says the guidelines. About 90 percent of adults believe that ears should be cleaned, says AAO-HNS citing a study. Respondents of the study add that they regularly clean their ears as well as their children’s. The AAO iterate that "the practice of cleaning once's ears has a strong familiar influence" -- it passes from the parents to the kids and continues throughout the child's adulthood.
But, why shouldn’t you clean your ears? Simply put, our ears are self-cleaning. And, ironically, they do this by utilizing the very thing we try to get rid of each morning. Earwax cleans, lubricates, and protects the ears by trapping dirt and bacteria. It also acts a waterproof lining for the ear canal, protecting the delicate skin from irritation whenever water gets inside.
Many of us think that if we don't clean wax it will pile up inside our ears, and cause problems. But our ears have tiny microscopic, hairlike structures called cilia that prevent this from happening. Cilia slowly carries the earwax out of the ear canal. Activities like talking, eating, and regular bathing already help in pushing the earwax out as well.
So, getting rid of the naturally occurring ear wax can cause more problems than it solves. Inserting objects into the ear to clean it is more likely to push the wax deeper into the ear canal. The wax then gets lodged inside, builds up, and causes a blockage. A blocked ear canal due to cerumen accumulation can lead to problems like hearing loss, itching, discharge, odor, or worse, infection.
AAO-HNS adds that excessive earwax build up happens to one in 10 children, and one in 20 for adults. More so, inserting sharp objects, like a fingernail, into the ears can cause skin abrasions as the skin of the ear canal is very delicate. Some injuries due to ear cleaning even report damage to the eardrums, says the guidelines.
The paper also reveals the surprising things adults use to clean their ears. Cotton buds are typical but people have “inserted ballpoint pen covers and tips, matchsticks, chicken feathers, and bobby pins into their ear canals to clean them.”
Ideally, the ear canals should never be cleaned, says the AAO-HNS. To clean the ears -- and this applies to grown-ups and children -- washing the external ear with a cloth is enough. Never insert anything inside the ear canal. If your wax build up is bothering you, as some people produce more earwax than others, consult a physician.
For minor wax build up, home remedies can be effective. If your ears are healthy (you don’t have problems with your eardrums, for example) then you can try placing a few drops of mineral or baby oil in the ear. “I prefer mineral oil to baby oil since it is inert and does not have any fragrances that people with allergies or sensitive skin may react to,” Dr. Boris Chernobilsky, assistant clinical professor of otolaryngology at the Icahn School of Medicine in the U.S., toldHealth.com.
Place towel over a pillow and lie with your ear facing down for a few minutes. The wax should slip out with the help of the oil. If symptoms persist or for any concerns with your hearing and ear health, please talk to your doctor.