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People Are Learning The Hard Way That Removing Your Own Earwax Isn't Healthy

Put the cotton bud down, stud.


Rachael Funnell


Rachael Funnell

Digital Content Producer

Rachael is a writer and digital content producer at IFLScience with a Zoology degree from the University of Southampton, UK, and a nose for novelty animal stories.

Digital Content Producer

ear cleaning

Cleaning behind your ears, however, is a must.

Image credit: udomsup sukarnjana /

Earwax might look gross, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad for you, in fact, it carries out an important role in the delicate ear canal. Unfortunately, it’s become the norm to wage war against earwax and many people are unknowingly making their ear health worse by over-cleaning with unsafe tools. 

Put the cotton bud down and listen up: it’s time to make peace with your earwax.


What is earwax?

Earwax is a natural secretion that comes from a combination of glands in the skin cells that line the ear canal. It’s known as cerumen in clinical settings, and you’ll find it in every person’s ear regardless of their hygiene regimen.

While the orangey-brown goop might not look very clean, it keeps the skin of the ear canal soft and healthy while also forming a protective acidic layer. This kills potentially harmful pathogens like bacteria and fungi, contributing to an environment that’s healthy and infection-free.

Earwax is a combination of benign ingredients including oil, sweat, dead skin cells, and the occasional dust particle, but it can cause problems. Too much can lead to impaction, causing hearing problems – but, ironically, the steps that people take to get rid of earwax can actually make this worse.

Earwax blocking the ear canal

Impaction is more common in people with narrow ear canals, those who wear things in their ears often such as noise-canceling plugs or hearing aids, or use cotton swabs. That’s right, shunting that cotton gladiator baton down your ear canal could actually be making earwax build up rather than getting rid of it.


The body naturally clears ear wax, shedding cells that shift it gradually closer to the exterior of the ear until it either falls away or gets swept up during normal washing. When you charge in with a cotton bud, you force the gradual conveyor belt of ear wax and dead skin cells back into the ear canal where it’s more likely to build up and cause problems.

So, that begs the question…

Do you need to clean your ears?

“It is important to remember that earwax is natural and helpful to the body. It does not always need to be removed,” suggests an article published in Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery. “You do not have to do anything unless you have earwax buildup that causes symptoms or prevents your health care provider from examining your ears.”

Ironically, a lot of cotton bud brands mention the fact that they’re not suitable for ear cleaning on the packaging, but we humans do love to ignore safety warnings. Beyond encouraging impaction, there’s a risk you could slip too far and damage the ear drum – a paper-thin membrane that separates your outer from your inner ear and helps you to hear.


Symptoms like itching, fullness, muffled hearing, fluid, or pain in the ear are worth checking out with your healthcare provider, but when it comes to keeping your ears clean, it seems less is more thanks to good old earwax.

[H/T: Popular Science]

The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.   

All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current


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