Cleaning your ear with a cotton swab can be gross, but it's also satisfying, isn't it? When you scrape gunk out of your head, you might feel like you're scraping gunk out of your existence. You're clean both inside and out. Right?
Not even a little bit.
Here's the problem: Using cotton swabs to clean your inner ear is really, really bad for you, and Today reported this week that doctors see thousands of children with serious ear injuries every year after attempts at self-cleaning gone wrong.
The truth is that, in the absence of infection or other health problems, the human ear is a self-cleaning system: Earwax and other secretions work together to keep dirt away from the eardrum, and the movement of the jaw pushes that wax out of the ear canal to prevent blockages. When blockages do occur, it's best to use eardrops or irrigation (ear-igation?) products to soften the wax and let the excess run out.
Jamming a swab or a finger inside to make a manual attempt at scraping it out often pushes the wax further into the ear, where it is compacted and creates a blockage that wouldn't have existed at all if not for the attempt to clean it. And, because it's often hard to tell how deep a person is inserting the swab, it can break off inside the ear or damage the eardrum.
Manufacturers of cotton swabs like the Q-tip have actually warned against using these products for inner-ear cleaning since at least the turn of the century, but it remains the most common household application of such products.
Our advice if you need that grotty, satisfying feeling of getting gunk out of your head? Take care of your own ears safely. Scratch the itch by watching earwax extraction videos on YouTube. It's a thriving, yucky and strangely compelling subgenre that won't damage your hearing.
Or just, you know. Find a new hobby.