Are Q-Tips Bad For Your Ears?

Closeup of a bunch of q-tips

You've probably heard, “Don't put anything in your ear smaller than your elbow.” Just like you were told to “Eat your vegetables”, you probably didn't listen.

It seems like the more we are told NOT to do something, the more likely we are to do it. But, there is good reason why these sayings are repeated often.

I'm not sure whose fault it is that Q-Tips became so popular for cleaning ears. Maybe they were originally marketed that way, or maybe Doctors recommended using them before they realized the consequences.

Whatever the reason, a lot of people still think it is OK to clean the inside of their ears with Q-Tips. It's not.

Here are some reasons why it's not OK to clean your ears with Q-Tips.

1. You can injure yourself.

The skin lining the ear canal is very thin and can easily be injured just by something touching it or rubbing it the wrong way. A Q-Tip can cut the ear canal or cause a sore.

Not to mention, if you are sticking a Q-Tip too deep in the ear, you can rupture or damage the ear drum. This is very painful and can effect your hearing. Even if you are very careful when putting the Q-Tip in your ear, there have been numerous cases where an arm is accidentally bumped when the ear is being cleaned causing significant injury to the ear.

2. A little wax is a good thing.

A little wax is a protection for the ears. The wax is there for a purpose and it doesn't all need to be removed. Having some wax lining the ear canal will help to keep dirt, dust, and bugs out the ears. With the ears cleaned completely, the ears lose some of their protection from the environment.

3. It can make your ears itch.

As mentioned before, the skin of the ear canal is very thin and sensitive. Constantly putting Q-Tips in the ears will dry the skin of the ear canal. Dry skin leads to itchy skin. This is one of the most common reasons why people complain of itching ears.

4. You can make it worse.

When you put a Q-Tip in your ear canal and remove it, you are likely to see some yellow or brown wax on the end of the Q-Tip. Yes, that means you did get some wax out of the ear canal, but it also means that you likely also pushed some wax deeper into the ear canal.

Even though you are removing a small portion of the wax, there is also wax that is getting pushed further in. This can cause wax to become impacted deep into the ear canal. Once this happens, you will have to see a physician to have it removed.

In addition to the above DONTS the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation published an updated clinical practice guideline in their January 2017 issue. You can read it in full here. If you don't want to read the full medical journal article, you can read a layman's summary here.

The following was the key takeaway from their update:

“Patients often think that they are preventing earwax from building up by cleaning out their ears with cotton swabs, paper clips, ear candles, or any number of unimaginable things that people put in their ears. The problem is that this effort to eliminate earwax is only creating further issues because the earwax is just getting pushed down and impacted further into the ear canal,” Dr. Schwartz said. “Anything that fits in the ear could cause serious harm to the ear drum and canal with the potential for temporary or even permanent damage.”

So, how do you clean the inside of your ears?

The best answer is…don't. You can use a wet wash cloth to clean the outside and behind the ear, but nothing should be put into the ear canal for self-cleaning.

Some people produce more wax than others. This can depend on ethnicity, diet, family history, and other factors.

For the people who develop a lot of wax that eventually impacts the ear, they may need regular visits to the physician for an ear cleaning. This is the only “safe” way to clean the inside of your ears if needed.

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  • Joe M
    Complete nonsense. It amazes me at the amount of information people are still parroting back and forth due to the status quo of the medical industry. Doctors are dead wrong about Q-tips. They thrive on theory here. You COULD injure your ear. You COULD push wax further back. you COULD dry out your ears. Blah Blah Blah. I have been cleaning my ears with Q-tips for 35 years. I am 44 years old. When I was around 18 I tried using a bulb syringe to clean my ears. Due to the water pushing a wax buildup against my ear drum, I couldn't get it out. So I went to the doctor. He used a machine to flush it out. Upon inspecting my ears, he said I had the cleanest ear canals he had ever seen. I told him it was due to cleaning them with Q-tips. He didn't lecture me. Wax does have it's purpose. But it gets dirty rather quickly and needs to be removed. Along with it goes the dirt, hair, and whatever else. And the ear immediately begins to make more wax. It is a cycle. My children have loads of problems if I do not clean out their ears. Cleaning the ears with a Q-tip is something that requires understanding and coordination. Yes. you COULD push back the wax. If you don't do it right. What I do is dip the Q-tip in almost hot water, and stick it to the edge of my ear canal to make the water go into it. I do this quickly and repeatedly to get the canal wet and warm. Then I dip a new Q-tip in the water and stick it down into the canal, while rotating it. I keep it as centered as possible in the canal. This and the rotation helps to "cut through" any wax instead of pushing it back. Once it goes in far enough. I push to the side of the canal, making a slight pulling motion, working it around the canal walls to pull ALL wax forward. I work it all around to one side and pull it all out at once. The Q tip looks horrible when it comes out. I repeat the process and then its done. I do the other ear the same way. To complete it, I take a sheet of toilet paper and drape it over the end of my pinky finger and stick the finger into an ear and vigorously shake the canal like an earthquake while rubbing the back of my tongue vigorously across the soft palate. Its an old trick for getting rid of an ear itch. When I remove the finger from the ear, the toilet paper has wax on it. Ear is clean and dry. Feels much better and cleaner. I usually do this a couple times a month. In the winter, I sometimes get ear itch and will do this just for ear relief. Always works great. I think 35 years is plenty of time to PROVE this is safe and effective. What matters is figuring out ways to make something WORK for you instead of against you. Doctors will always give you the DUMMY way of doing something. Ultimately costing you money and filling their pockets.
    • Ethan Knighton
      Well my entire family must be a bunch of geniuses because we have all used q tips safely for all of our lives. This is another battle where the stupid and anxious have won over common sense. Doc it’s not that you have some hidden agenda, it’s that the risk management department rules the game.
    • Matt
      I agree that it needs to be done right. Don't put the tip further in than the very edge of your ear. It's that simple. Just get the outer stuff that shows. The rest is fine. And be sure to do so after a hot shower. Moisture is important so that you don't make a mess with the cotton swab.
      • Matt
        I'm 43 and have been using Q-tips for years. NEVER had impacted wax.
        • John
          I stopped using Q-tips a month back and now, for the first time ever, ive got impacted wax. Guess im one of those with super-human wax production.... Ill visist the doctor for a proper rinse-out then go back to the Q-tips.
    • Leo
      You are obviously a super genius. But for a normal person Q-tips do more harm than good. Disclaimer: I am a physician so I must have a sinister agenda, right?
      • Demarke
        No sinister agenda, but I would assume that if the one percent of people who can’t figure out how to use them properly are going to the doctor frequently, it might make a doctor think this is a bigger problem than it is and create recommendations that no one use them even though the other 99% are getting along just fine.
      • Clear Living
        In addition to what Leo mentioned, we've updated the article with the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation recommendations, which can be found here: