In healthy people, earwax is self-cleaning.
“It’s a useful thing,” says Fuad Baroody, an ear, nose, and throat specialist at the University of Chicago Medicine.
The yellow-ish sticky secretion traps microscopic bits of dust and other particles to help protect the eardrum from the outside world.
It helps fight off bad bacteria, and without it, our ears would be more vulnerable to damage or infection.
Baroody says glands in the ear produce earwax, and as we chew or talk, it very slowly moves from deep in the ear canal to the outer ear and eventually falls away.
That’s about it. But should we be trying to manage what’s going on in our ears?
“You shouldn’t be messing with them,” Baroody says. “Let them clear themselves out.”
If you think earwax is clogging your ears, or your ears itch, or the wax smells funny, Baroody says, maybe get it checked out. But for the most part, earwax can be left alone to do its thing.
That’s also the official stance of the American Academy of Otolaryngology, a group of ear, nose and throat specialists. The organization published updated earwax guidelines this year, which reiterate that unless you have a serious condition like an ear infection or hearing loss, the best thing to do with earwax is leave it alone.
Baroody says even using a Q-tip or other tools can cause problems.
“There’s a disadvantage and there’s a potential danger,” Baroody said. “You sometimes push the wax further in and cause it to impact and then it really becomes harder to clean and has to be done by a professional.”
The potential danger is injuring your ear canal or rupturing your eardrum, which is easier to do than you might think. Baroody says people shove all kinds of things in their ears to clean them.
“Pencil erasers are a favorite,” he said, but also the lead of the pencil, or small pieces of paper.
Other people go further, turning to alternative methods, like mini-vacuums, which you can Google and buy online. There’s also candling, a treatment that uses the heat from a hollow candle to draw wax out of the ear. Baroody says he has seen a few burned eardrums in his day and he does not recommend it.
His strategy is simple.
“I never clean my ears,” Baroody said. “After a shower I put my finger on a towel and make sure the water gets out of my ears and then I’m done.”
Still, many people say they feel earwax is gross, unsightly, unhygienic, and needs to be taken care of on a daily basis.
We did an informal survey on a street in Chicago, and lots of people are aware of the recommendations against using cotton swabs for ear cleaning – there is a warning clearly printed on the Q-tip box, but they do it anyway.
Baroody says for some people, cleaning their ears just feels good.
Taking a peek at the glob on the end of a cotton swab is a little bit like looking into a tissue after blowing your nose. It’s a weird habit, but a lot of people do it.
Baroody says he may be a little desensitized to earwax, but he wants people to remember it’s supposed to be there. It’s just doing its job.
“You can quote an ear doctor saying it’s not dirty,” Baroody says. “Wax is not like other things that come out of body orifices.”
So there you have it. Technically, earwax is not gross.