How to Clean Your Ears

A person cleans holding a blue bulb syringe to their ear.

Doctors, especially otologists, are getting a little gruff when it comes to our hard-dying ear cleaning habits. They lose their gift for empathy – their bedside manner – when a patient comes in with a ruptured eardrum caused by tooth picks, car keys, bobby pins, and of course…cotton-tipped applicators (cotton swabs). These well-educated individuals are reduced to using vulgar language towards their patients – especially those with self-inflicted hearing loss. Perhaps our doctors have a right to be upset. People usually clean ears out to get rid of earwax, which is counterproductive.

Earwax (cerumen) is a natural ear cleaning agent, and it also waterproofs ears, lubricates the ear canal, and protects against infections. Our attempts at ear cleaning are usually due to vanity; however, is seems like a well-founded vanity. Seeing a sloppy chunk of earwax in someone’s head is enough to make me want to jam an icepick in my ear. I know we are supposed to allow earwax to leave on its own accord, but it’s not easy. There are situations where cleaning ears to remove earwax makes sense. Excessive ear wax – or impacted ear wax – can lead to hearing loss, pain, itching, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), or just plugged-up ears. If your earwax is giving you symptoms like these, it’s time to clean your ears.

How to Clean Ears Safely

  1. johnson's baby oilThe first step in ear cleaning is moistening the earwax using mineral oil and an eyedropper. If you don’t have mineral oil, baby oil (same thing) or olive oil will do. With your head tilted almost parallel to the ground, place the tip of the eyedropper at the edge of the ear canal. Gently pull on your ear with your free hand as you administer two drops of the fluid. Do this once in the morning and once in the evening for 4 – 6 days, but no more than a week.
  2. Spraying shower headAfter 2-3 days of softening up the wax, a gentle, warm (not hot) shower should leave your ears clean. Simply tilt your head and allow water to stream into your ear, and then tilt your head the opposite direction to let the water, and hopefully some earwax/sludge fall from your clean ears. If the nasty globs (also known as plugs) don’t come out, keep at it for awhile, but don’t prune up. Ear cleaning may take a few days.
  3. blow dryerOnce you have clean ears and the wax is gone, dry them thoroughly. Leaving moisture in the ear canal can increase your risk of developing swimmer’s ear (otitis external). Dry your outer ear with a towel and then grab a hair dryer. Keep the hair dryer several inches away from your ear and keep it on low for a minute or two. If someone finds you doing this, they may worry about your mental health, but it is actually the safest way to dry your ear. You have learned how to clean ears. Now you’ll hear everything people have to say… Wonderful?
  4. bottle of rubbing alcohol(Optional) Using an eyedropper, apply several drops of rubbing alcohol to dry ears. A doctor must examine your ear before you use rubbing alcohol. If you have prior ear damage – a hole in your eardrum or sores in the ear canal – rubbing alcohol could cause extreme pain and even severe damage. If you’re given the OK by a doctor, this method will leave your ears clean and dry. Simply tilt your head to the side and give your ear several drops. Let the alcohol settle for a few seconds, and then tilt your ear towards the ground to let it drain.
  5. diagram of inner earIf this method didn’t work, purchase a commercial earwax softener and bulb syringe. These ear cleaning kits can be found at any drugstore. The bulb syringe may provide more concentrated, accurate flushing of the ear canal. If your showerhead boasts pressure that could skin a rhinoceros, or randomly fluctuating temperatures, the bulb syringe is a great safe alternative. Flushing with water that is too hot or too cool can cause discomfort, dizziness and nausea.
  6. picture of ear and sideburnCleaning the outer ears is also important. The grooves and recesses of the ear provide for great places for natural oils, dead skin, dirt, and even earwax to collect and fester. Ever have an ear zit? Yes, unsightly and painful. Cleaning the outer ear requires only a wash cloth, warm water, and a mild soap. Gentle scrubbing should do the trick, and this can be done in the shower; just be careful to keep soap out of the ear canal. You can also clean ear folds using a Q-tip; just don’t go mining for yellow nuggets inside the ear canal.

When to Visit Your Doctor

Our ears are sensitive and complicated. They also happen to be very useful. Play it safe by getting an examination before starting an ear cleaning treatment at home. If you’ve had previous ear problems or an ear surgery, it’s better just to let a doctor deal with a wax buildup. If the above methods fail to clean your ears in a week or two, it is also time to visit (or revisit) the doctor. There are a variety of ear problems that may make your ears feel full or stuffy with wax, and these problems require a doctor. If you are experiencing pain, a clear or pussy discharge, ringing in the ears, redness, or swelling – seek medical treatment.

More Ways to Clean Ears

dry ear deviceDryEar. This device shoots a warm stream of water into the ear canal to get rid of moisture. It is superior to eardrops and a hair dryer in some aspects. The risks associated with a drying alcohol are avoided, and unlike a hair dryer, this machine emits a stream of air that is designed for the ear; it emits the right velocity and is at body temperature. Dorky? Yes. An effective ear cleaning tool? Certainly.

food pyramidDiet. Some studies suggest that a diet rich in saturated fats and poor in good fats may cause earwax buildup. Cut back on the processed foods and red meats, and start eating more fish, nuts, and foods rich in Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids. Seafood, salmon, and fish oil are specifically noted for reducing earwax buildup. Besides helping to develop clean ears, such a diet has many long-term health benefits.

bottle of tea tree oilTea Tree Oil.This is another oil that can be used to loosen up earwax. It loosens wax just as effectively as mineral oil, and it may be better at cleaning ears. Tea tree oil is a natural astringent; it can kill the bacteria and fungi that would love to develop into an ear infection. We’d recommend Artnaturals Tea Tree Oil from Amazon.