There is an old piece of medical advice that suggests putting nothing in your ears smaller than your elbow. The real point of that saying is to use extreme caution when cleaning in and around the ears. It is far too easy to insert small objects into the ear canal itself and cause painful infections or even perforation of the eardrum.
Ears do suffer from the same hygienic problems as other body parts, but extra care must be used when addressing those problems. Cleaning ears properly can be a multi-step grooming process, so a general routine should be established. Here are some pointers on how to clean your ears safely, and when NOT to clean them:
- The outer portion of the ears (the connection between the scalp and ear)is usually exposed to the same conditions as the hair and scalp. Glands around the hair follicles generate a waxy substance called ‘sebum’, which is generally responsible for the oiliness of hair. This sebum is also produced along the hairline, which means the area of the outer ear attached to the scalp may be coated with excess sebum. Because this substance is sticky, dust and dirt may also be trapped. In order to clean this part of the ear, take a damp, soapy washcloth and gently scrub the perimeter. You might actually see a waxy residue on the cloth. Go back over the area with a portion of the washcloth soaked in clean water until the soap residue has been removed.
- The outer canals of the ear. The external ear contains small folds that can trap dirt, sebum, and earwax. While showering, it may help to use a damp washcloth in a light scrubbing motion, following the natural curves of the folds. Between showers, cleaning the external ear may involve the only approved use of a cotton swab, such as a Q-tip.
To clean the outer ear canals, gently insert a cotton swab into a natural fold and apply pressure while moving the swab across the skin. If the tip becomes clogged with the material, use the other side, or get a fresh swab. Do NOT attempt to clean the outer ear if an obvious wound exists.
You could accidentally rupture the skin or introduce contaminants. In the case of an outer ear injury, it might be best to loosely bandage the ear and consult a physician. The doctor may use a topical solution to clean out debris around the injury.
- The inner ear. Now we’ve arrived at a very controversial part of the ear cleaning process. The inner ear is a delicate piece of equipment. In the same way, the nasal passages use mucous and hair to filter out dust and other contaminants, the inner ear generates a waxy substance supported by tiny hairs. This wax is designed to protect the eardrum and auditory nerves from outside contaminants. Unfortunately, the glands responsible for earwax production don’t always know when to stop, creating an uncomfortable buildup.
The inner ear also leads to the Eustachian tubes, which are designed to maintain normal pressure in the ears and help drain off excess fluids. A problem arises whenever sinus infections or cold block these tubes and create a feeling of fullness or itchiness in the ears.
The natural instinct is to poke something into the ear until the Eustachian tube is prodded open or the wax buildup has been removed. This practice of using objects to clean or clear the inner ear has lead to a number of warnings from health care professionals.
The general advice is to avoid using household objects such as car keys, paper clips or toothpicks to clean out the inner ear. Even cotton swabs are not recommended for deep ear cleaning, because they can push the excess earwax deeper into the ear instead of removing it.
In order to clean out the inner ear safely, you must purchase a special cleaner designed for use in the ear. Usually, this is a liquid product designed to soften the hardened wax and emulsify the excess buildup. The process usually begins with a few drops applied directly to the inner ear. You’ll want to lie flat with the affected ear pointed upwards.
There may be a slight warming or bubbling sensation as the cleanser reaches the wax itself. After a few minutes have elapsed, you may sit up and allow the excess cleanser to flow out of the ear canal. A small hand towel held under the ear may be very useful.
Most of these ear-cleaning systems include a separate syringe for applying clean water. Carefully squirt this water into the ear canal and allow it to drain out naturally into the towel or sink. Do not use a cotton swab to remove any remaining wax- repeat the process with the cleanser if the need arises.
Swimmers may also experience a condition known as ‘swimmer’s ear’ after long sessions in the water. The chemicals used for water sanitation can irritate the sensitive inner linings of the ear canal. For this condition, look for a commercial product designed especially for swimmer’s ear.
This is usually an alcohol-based solution that will evaporate quickly in the ear and take out excess water along with it. If you notice any significant loss of hearing or a burning sensation in the ear itself, consult a healthcare professional as soon as possible. Some earwax buildup must be removed with professional equipment not readily available to consumers.