Cleaning Ears with Cotton Buds

Mothers seem to have an inexplicable obsession with cleaning their children’s ears. Toiletry companies do nothing to change this behaviour by advertising “ear buds”.

The truth is, ear buds are not meant to clean ears at all! Whatever other use they may serve, cleaning ears is not one of them.

The ear canal is lined by very sensitive skin. This skin produces wax of variable colour, smell and taste. Wax serves an important function in moisturising and protecting the ear canal. Dust and debris that enters the ear is trapped in the sticky wax, which is then propelled out of the ear in a natural physiological process.

The problem with cotton buds is that repeated use alters the physiology of the skin. Repetitive trauma from the buds causes the skin to cease propelling the wax outwards, with the result that wax accumulates in the ear canal. Buds also mechanically push the wax deeper into the canal. This sets up a vicious cycle, where the wax now remains trapped in the canal, and the patient feels the need to “clean” the ear. Once the wax is impacted in this manner, the only way to remove it is by physically removing it using special instruments or syringing. This process can be painful, especially if the wax is dry and hard.

The truth is that nature, God or evolution (whichever you believe), blessed us with wax glands, and the means to clean it out bu natural means. I always tell my patients that if we were meant to “clean” our ears by pushing things into them, one of our fingers would be designed for this purpose!

To summarise, do not use cotton buds to clean your or your children’s ears. If you really must, use a soft cloth to clean the outside of the ear only. If wax has already become impacted, sweet oil, olive oil, or any commercially available wax removal solution may soften it sufficiently for it to come out naturally. Failing this, a visit to your ENT will resolve the problem.