In 1923, a Polish immigrant in New York City named Ziuta Gerstenzang was wrapping cotton wads to the ends of toothpicks to clean hard-to-reach places, such as her baby’s ears. Her husband Leo watched her work, and he conceived the idea of marketing a ready-to-use cotton swab to the masses under his company name, Leo Gerstenzang Infant Novelty Co. By 1926, the name Q-tips was established, according to the official Q-tips website.
So it’s no surprise that everyone thinks of Q-tips, generically known as cotton swabs, as the perfect ear cleaner; that’s literally what they were invented for. But when reports came out that cotton swabs should *not* go anywhere near your ear canal, most people responded in confusion. How else were you supposed to clean the gunk out of your ear?
Get to Know Your Ear Wax
A buildup of grimy, sticky stuff is usually a sign that it’s time to clean. The grease on the hood of your oven and the grime on the walls of your shower mean you’ve neglected your cleaning spray for too long.
But that’s not necessarily the case with ear wax, or cerumen. This oily substance is actually not a sign of bad hygiene; it’s even beneficial to have ear wax.
Your ear canal has hair follicles and wax-producing glands; both of these features help keep dust and germs from entering the ear and causing complications. For example, it could reduce your risk of ear infections or developing swimmer’s ear.
The ear wax also protects the thin and delicate skin in your ear canal, which can easily become irritated.
The only time ear wax is actually a *bad* thing is if your ear produces too much and blocks the ear canal. This can inhibit your hearing—more than you’d expect. (Find out if loud music actually damages your hearing here.)
So, Why Is it Bad to Clean Your Ears with a Cotton Swab?
Here’s some cold, hard truth: Every single day, an average of 34 children in the United States visit the emergency room for a cotton swab injury, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). We repeat: Every. Single. Day.
In a 2017 study, among almost 270,000 reported visits to the ER due to cotton swab injuries, the most common problems were “foreign body sensation,” bleeding, presence of a foreign object, and ruptured eardrum—all from an innocent little cotton swabs.
Even if you don’t injure yourself swiping your ear with a cotton swab, there’s a risk in regularly clearing away all your precious ear wax. Having “too clean” ears will make the skin dry and lead to a common phenomenon: itchy ears.
You want to look presentable—we get it. It’s totally fine to do some basic maintenance of your ear hygiene, as long as you keep the cotton swabs away. Consider this recommendation by the AAP: Don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.
Most of the wax hangs out in your ear canal, but some bits may push outward and be visible to your coworkers and friends (ugh). These parts can be wiped away gently with a towel after you shower.
As for the wax deeper in your ear? Nobody is looking in there, so let your wax do its job (and save the cotton swabs for your makeup routine and kiddie craft projects).