As Spring slowly makes her rise, many of us begin to feel the urge to shake out our rugs, tuck away our bulky winter clothes, and clear out the cluttered cabinets that have languished on our to-do lists for too long. In this same spirit we should also include our very own often-forgotten nooks… our ear canals.
While there are certainly those who tend to these important byways into our heads, there are also those among us who entirely forget the need to occasionally clean these canals. And despite the bad rap that earwax can occasionally get, it’s actually an important element of our ears’ protection mechanism. But like everything else, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.
In fact, a buildup of too much earwax can actually cause temporary deafness, pain and discomfort, and even permanent damage to the ear drum if left for too long. However, the many methods currently promoted for self-cleaning out earwax are not created equal. Below is a review of some of the more popular approaches, and helpful information about each of them so that you continue to take care of your ears while they continue to take care of you.
By far the most common approach to cleaning our ears out and perhaps the least effective! In fact, on closer (magnified) analysis of an ear canal after having been “cleaned” with a cotton swab, it’s clear that cotton swabs actually push more earwax into the ear canal than they pull out. The reason for this is because earwax is formed in the outer third of our ear canal, to provide protection from debris and pathogens, but the large cotton swab smooshes that wax deeper into the canal while pulling just a fraction of it out.
Another widely used method is to rinse the ear canal out with hydrogen peroxide. It helps soften and loosen any hardened earwax buildup which can then be either (carefully) removed with a cotton ball (not swab), or allowed to drain out of the ear. It’s important to note that frequent use of hydrogen peroxide, however, has been known to irritate the ears and create itchy, red skin, which can actually prompt the ears to produce even more earwax. So when using this method, do it no more than twice a week.
The ear canal is designed to be self-cleaning and under normal and healthy conditions we won’t even have enough ear wax in our canals to be concerned about. But in the instances where we do need some extra support, creating a simple ear flush can be a safe and effective way to help the natural cleaning process of the ear. A common recipe is to mix equal parts of white vinegar, warm water, and rubbing alcohol, and then to use a dropper to put a few drops of this solution into the ears. After letting it sit in the canal for a few minutes, simply turn your head and allow the softened wax to drain out of your canals.
The majority of the contents of earwax itself are fat-soluble molecules (hence its namesake, “wax”), which is why using an oil like mineral oil is so effective at loosening and removing extra earwax buildup. You can actually use any pure liquid oil for this method (i.e. olive oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, etc), but it’s important not to use oils with added perfumes or chemicals (like baby oil, for instance). Similar to the irrigation method, the oil of your choice is placed in your ear canal (just a few drops will do the trick), allowed to sit for a few minutes while it softens the ear wax, and then drained out by turning your head. Using oil that is just slightly warmer than your body temperature works faster at dissolving any extra wax.
Despite the claims made by manufacturers and adherents of ear candles, there has been a strong warning about them issued by the FDA, which, simply put, is that they are dangerous and potentially harmful if used as instructed by the packaging. The reason for this is that ear candles are designed to have one end of a hollow, wax-covered trumpet inserted into your ear canal, while the other end of the trumpet slowly burns. There have been cases of the hot ash falling into the trumpet and burning the ear canals of the user. It’s definitely better to pursue the safer methods listed above!