Why Putting A Q-Tip In Your Ear Doesn’t Do What You Think

Don't stick cotton swab q-tips in your ear

When we’re children first learning about hygiene, one of the first things we learn is that it’s important to clean the parts of ourselves we can’t see. Number one? The proverbial “behind the ears”— and, if you’re like most people, in your ears, too. And chances are, you used Q-tips to get the job done.

Just one problem with this lifelong habit: putting a cotton swab into your ear in the hopes of cleaning out that pesky, hearing-impairing earwax is just about one of the worst things we can possibly do for our health. Seriously. If there’s one thing you can take away from our site today, it’s this:

Stop putting Q-tips and other cotton swabs in your ear! In fact, stop trying to clean out earwax in general!

Granted, this warning probably isn’t new to you. If you’ve paid any attention to the box of Q-tips itself, in fact, you’ve probably notice this warning directly from the manufacturer:

WARNING: DO NOT INSERT SWAB INTO EAR CANAL. ENTERING THE EAR CANAL COULD CAUSE INJURY. IF USED TO CLEAN EARS, STROKE SWAB GENTLY AROUND THE OUTER SURFACE OF THE EAR ONLY. KEEP OUT OF REACH OF CHILDREN.

Yes, those all-caps are necessary. Believe it or not, putting a cotton swab – of any brand – directly into your ear can cause serious damage. As Dr. Stephen Rothstein, an ear-nose-and-throat (ENT) specialist at NYU Medical Center, told Reader’s Digest, “Never put anything smaller than an elbow in your ear.”

Putting anything smaller than an elbow into your ear is dangerous because our ears are such delicate instruments. If you stick a cotton swab or other thin materials into it, you run the risk of irritating the sensitive skin, causing the ear canal to bleed, or worst of all, puncturing your eardrum. In fact, cotton swab accidents are a major cause of ear-related emergency room visits in the United States, as a 2014 study in the medical journal of otolaryngology The Laryngoscope shows.

Considering the dangers, the manufacturer warnings, and the fact that no doctor has ever recommended it, nobody really knows for sure how attempting to clean ears with cotton swabs even started. The Washington Post traced the evolution of the product’s marketing, noting that the popular Q-tip brand was originally invented for the purposes of gentle baby care, and eventually included the idea of cleaning the outside of the ear in their ads. Deep cleaning in the ear canal was never part of the plan, although warnings against the attempt didn’t start to appear until around the 1980s or 1990s.

“OK,” we can hear you saying. “But I’m careful. I’ve never punctured my eardrum before, and I’m certainly not going to start now.” While that might be true, those more dramatic injuries aren’t the only risk you’re running. It turns out, you’re actually interrupting your ear’s natural cleaning process.

It’s true. That earwax we all hate? It’s actually called “cerumen,” and its entire purpose is to help clean, protect, and oil our ears for our health and safety. When you try to clean it out, you’re not only preventing it from doing its job, you’re also probably just pushing it deeper into your ear, where it can clog up and cause harmful impactions.

Don’t believe us? Curious to learn more? Watch this video from Geobeats below!

Are you finally ready to stop using cotton swabs this way? Be honest— how often do you perform this harmful-but-common “hygiene” practice? Did you learn it from your parents? Tell us your thoughts!