Like armpit hair and nose boogers, earwax is just one of those annoying things you'd love to get rid of. Unfortunately, there's no way to say sayonara to the sticky stuff in your ear canals entirely. And you shouldn't try to, either.
"Some earwax is a good thing: It keeps your ears moist and clean and prevents your ears from itching and feeling uncomfortable," Ksenia Aaron, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
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Because earwax also helps keep water and germs out, it reduces your chances of developing a nasty ear infection, too, she says.
Here are the best ways to remove earwax at home, what not to try and when you should see a professional (aka your doctor).
Symptoms of too much earwax are similar to having water in your ear, so if you've recently been swimming, bathing or even sweating profusely, consider whether wax or water is causing your issues.
2 Safe Ways to Remove Earwax
1. Over-the-Counter Ear Cleaning Drops
These work well if you just have a small amount of wax, says Yin Ren, MD, PhD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio.
"Look for one that contains hydrogen peroxide or another form of peroxide, like Debrox," he recommends. "This softens earwax and breaks it down gently, without causing any skin damage." Note: Don't use a product that contains more than 10% hydrogen peroxide.
- Place five to 10 drops in your ear, then wait several minutes (you can either lie down or put a cotton ball in).
- Sit up and let the liquid flow out. Most of the time, the earwax should be completely removed, Dr. Ren says.
- If it's not, you can use the bulb syringe sold in the wax removal kit to flush out your ear with very lukewarm water, Dr. Ren says.
Don’t use a bulb syringe to flush your ears if you have a hole in your eardrum, or if you’ve ever had ear surgery (like putting in ear tubes). It can damage your eardrum.
2. Baby Oil
Instead of ear drops, you can use baby oil or mineral oil, says Zan Mra, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.
- Use an eyedropper to apply a few drops of the oil into your ear canal.
- After a day or two, once the wax has softened, use a rubber-bulb syringe to squirt lukewarm water into your ears.
- When you're done, tip your head to the side to let the water and earwax drain out.
- Dr. Mra recommends you finish up by gently drying your outer ear with a towel, to avoid residual moisture that provides a breeding ground for bacteria to grow.
3 Methods to Avoid
"We have a saying in our office: Don't put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear," Dr. Ren says.
Using a Q-tip in your ear may seem benign, but it can actually do a lot of damage: "It often just pushes the earwax in further, which makes it harder to come out," Dr. Ren explains. "We've even seen cases of ruptured eardrums from someone pushing too far."
Cotton swabs can also just irritate your ear canal more, Dr. Aaron says, so you produce more earwax as a result.
2. Ear Wax Removal Endoscope
You may have seen these thingamajigs on Amazon: Ear-wax removal endoscopes that include a camera so you can view the inside of your ear canal on your iPhone (because everyone wants to do that, right?).
But these actually have the potential to freak you out unnecessarily. "I had a patient once who came to me in a panic convinced that he had a dangerous black fungus growing in his ear," Dr. Mra recalls. "When I looked in his ear, everything was normal. He hadn't put the camera in straight, so it cast a shadow."
While the ear spoons they come with may also look benign, they still have the potential to scratch or otherwise damage your eardrum or ear canal, Dr. Ren says. "If your hand moves just a few millimeters in the wrong direction, it can cause damage" he says.
In other words? Give this device a hard pass.
3. Ear Candles
Ear candling — where a lit, hollow candle is placed into your ear canal — is touted as a natural way to remove earwax at home.
"The theory is that if the candle is hollow, the heat creates a suction that withdraws the wax from your ear," Dr. Ren explains.
But use them at your own peril: A 2017 review in Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery concluded that ear candling is both ineffective and dangerous, with reports of burns, obstruction of the ear canal with candle wax and ear canal damage.
When to See a Doctor
Earwax generally falls into the category of nuisance rather than major health crisis. But Dr. Aaron says there are three scenarios when you should get medical attention:
- You try to remove earwax at home with drops and it doesn't work.
- Your ear hurts.
- You have trouble hearing.
Either your primary care provider or an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist can check your ear and see if there's any wax gunking it up.
If there is, it's easy enough to get rid of: Your doctor can use a small, curved instrument called a curet to gently pluck it out, suction it out with a vacuum-like device or flush it out with a water pick and rubber-bulb syringe, Dr. Aaron says.
But if wax isn't the issue, it's good that you sought medical attention. "You could have an ear infection, or be experiencing hearing loss," she says. "In either case, it's key to get diagnosed early, before there's any permanent damage."
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.