Cotton swabs are the most effective tools we have to clean our ears besides soap and water, but you should rethink how you’re using them. A recent study from Henry Ford Hospital directly links cotton swabs to inner ear damage. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still use them to clean the rest of your ears.
The foremost brand of swabs says on its website to “stroke cotton swabs gently around the outer ear, without entering the ear canal.” This is advice worth listening to. Sticking swabs in your ear canal can result in hearing loss from impacted cerumen, a.k.a. ear wax, or worse—a ruptured eardrum. Atlanta Hawks guard Jeffrey Teague, who lost all hearing in his left ear last month and required a doctor to remove built-up wax, could probably attest to this.
“Cerumen naturally lubricates and protects your inner ear from outside elements,” says Rachel Pritzker, M.D., a Chicago-based dermatologist. So you won’t want to rid yourself of all of it. But if you want an extra bit of cleanliness, the study recommends mixing cool peroxide or vinegar with warm water and using an eyedropper to irrigate your ear canals with four to five drops each.
If you don’t want to end up hard of hearing or at your doctor’s office, take it easy on your ear canals, and rinse them out instead of swabbing every day.