The Dangers of Using Q-Tips for Earwax

Every year, about 12 million Americans head to their healthcare providers with “impacted or excessive cerumen,” which means their ears are just full of earwax. All those checkups lead to about 8 million yearly earwax removal procedures performed by medical professionals (a.k.a. not the ear candle specialist at the salon on the corner), according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery.

A woman cleaning her ear with a q-tip
solidcolours / iStock

Purpose of Earwax

The purpose of earwax really is to keep your ear canal clean. While excess, hard, or obstructive earwax can be problematic, most earwax (cerumen) is much more beneficial. It is a normal, protective coating for the sensitive skin of the ear canal. A canal coated with ear wax will repel water and help prevent external ear infections. Not only does earwax help to keep dust and dirt away from the eardrum, but it also provides some antibacterial and lubricating perks.

For most people, the ears are self-cleaning. Once earwax dries, every motion of your jaw, whether chewing or talking, helps move the old earwax out of the opening of your ear. When you dig it out with your cotton swab you leave your ear very vulnerable.

The more you rub the skin of your ears, the more histamine you release, which in turn makes the skin irritated and inflamed just like how that mosquito bite gets itchier the more you scratch it. Plus, because of the lubricating nature of earwax, removing it can simply make your ears drier, motivating you to keep sticking swabs in there in a mistaken attempt at relief.

Dangers of Using Cotton Swabs

Cotton swabs (commonly called "Q-tips") are frequently the go-to choice used to clean the wax out of the ear canals of people, which initially seems like a good idea unless you understand the anatomy and physiology well.

Only the outer one-third to one-half of the ear canal makes cerumen (wax) which functions to moisturize the skin and help prevent foreign bodies from entering deeper into the ear canal. The body also has hairs and the natural growth of canal skin is from the inside out, so it is normal for cerumen to (very slowly) "flow" out of the ear.

When people use cotton swabs they frequently clean out some of the wax, but also push some of it back deeper into the medial canal which cannot remove it well. It can get pushed up against the tympanic membrane (eardrum) and cause impactions that can impair hearing, can lead to infection and can be painful/difficult to remove.

Think of a cotton swab like the plungers used to load cannons. They can pack softer wax deeply in the ear canal against the eardrum.

If you use a cotton swab and create a formidable plug, preventing the eardrum from moving normally, it is quite easy to cause some significant hearing loss. Water can also be trapped behind these self-created wax dams and you may hear the water moving around in the ear.

The eardrum is very delicate, so you can puncture it with a cotton swab. As if a punctured eardrum isn’t enough of a deterrent, if you touch the eardrum you may press on the little bones of hearing underneath—the hammer, the anvil, and the stirrup (incus, malleus, and stapes). They’re the tiniest bones in the body and they’re right under the eardrum, attached to it. And if you press on those, it sends vibrational waves into the inner ear (remember, the inner ear is responsible for hearing and balance). So, if you tap on the eardrum, you’re sending shock waves into the inner ear and can cause problems with your hearing and balance.

When this happens, the ear will need to be lavaged—washed out by a gentle stream of warm water. Or, you will need to see your audiologist or healthcare provider, someone who can look inside your ear and remove the impaction professionally.

How to Remove Excess Earwax at Home

If your eardrum doesn't contain a tube or have a hole in it, these home remedies are a much better option than cotton swabs:

  1. Soften the wax. Use an eyedropper to apply a few drops of baby oil, mineral oil, glycerin or hydrogen peroxide in your ear canal twice a day for no more than four to five days.
  2. Use warm water. After a day or two, when the wax is softened, use a rubber bulb syringe to gently squirt warm (body temperature) water into your ear canal. Tilt your head and pull your outer ear up and back to straighten your ear canal. When finished irrigating, tip your head to the side to let the water drain out.
  3. Dry your ear canal. When finished, gently dry your outer ear with a towel or a hand-held hair dryer.

You may need to repeat this wax-softening and irrigation procedure several times before the excess earwax falls out. However, the softening agents may only loosen the outer layer of the wax and cause it to lodge deeper in the ear canal or against the eardrum.

If your symptoms don't improve after a few treatments, see your healthcare provider.

Earwax removal kits available in stores also can be effective at removing wax buildup. If you're unsure which one is right for you, ask your audiologist or ear, nose, and throat specialist for advice on how to properly use other earwax-removal methods.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it bad to clean your ears with Q-tips?

    Yes and no. It is safe to clean the outer folds of your ears with a Q-tip, but you should not put the Q-tip inside of your ear canal. You can safely clean around the outside of the ear canal with a Q-tip, but it should not go inside the hole.

    Using a Q-tip inside your ear can cause problems. Instead of cleaning earwax from your ear canal, using a Q-tip can push the wax further in your ear, where it can put pressure on your eardrum. In addition, putting a Q-tip too far into your ear can damage the eardrum.

  • Why does cleaning your ears with a Q-tip feel good?

    Your inner ear is lined with nerve endings. Putting a cotton swab inside your ear canal can stimulate these nerve endings causing what is sometimes referred to as an eargasm.

  • How can you clean wax out of your ear?

    To clean wax from your inner ear you need an agent to soften the wax and a rubber bulb syringe. You can use ear drops, like Debrox Earwax removal aid, or baby oil, mineral oil, glycerine, or hydrogen peroxide, and an eyedropper. 

    Apply a few drops into the ear canal twice a day for up to five days. After a day or two, use the bulb syncing to gently squirt warm water into the ear. Tilt your head to the side, so the ear you are cleaning is facing up, and tug on your outer ear to straighten the ear canal. Then tilt your head in the other direction, so the ear is facing down, to let the water out. It may be helpful to hold a bowl or plastic container under your ear to catch the drips. 

    If this method does not work or is too uncomfortable, you can also have your earwax cleaned out by an otolaryngologist. The doctor uses a micro-suction machine that acts like a tiny vacuum to remove the wax. The procedure is quick and painless.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Melissa Karp, AuD
Melissa Karp, AuD, is a board-certified audiologist and the owner of a private audiology clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina.