For decades, cotton swabs have been fixtures in the average American's medicine cabinet. Take a couple out, a quick dab in one ear, a quick dab in the other... what's the harm?
Admittedly, nothing overly harsh, but about 7,000 people are hospitalized with injuries from cotton swabs each year -- more than razor blades. To rub salt in the wound, all those ear-cleaning efforts are for naught! For the most part, swabs merely condense and impact the earwax further into the ear canal, where it can cause pain, pressure, and temporarily poor hearing.
"There's no need to clean your ears with a cotton bud," writes Dr. Rob Hicks. "The ear has its own internal cleaning mechanism. Fats and oils in the ear canal trap any particles and transport them out of the ear as wax. This falls out of the ear without us noticing."
Much of this cascade occurs while we eat. The movement of the jaw massages wax out of the ear canal. Along with the wax comes any particulates or dirt that were gumming up the hearing works.
And by the way, earwax, physiologically speaking, is pretty darn awesome. Composed of layers of shed skin, long-chain fatty acids, cholesterol, and alcohols, it protects the inner ear from water and infections. At least ten antimicrobial peptides are present in the stuff, preventing the growth of bacteria and fungi.
In medieval times, earwax was used to modify the color and texture of pigments for illustrating manuscripts. Additionally, the 1832 edition of the American Frugal Housewife recommended earwax as a wonderful remedy for chapped lips. Considering that earwax contains a healthy amount of moisture-retaining lipids, it might actually work pretty well in this respect! Though I can't imagine that it would taste all too pleasing. (Just ask RealClearScience editor Alex Berezow, who admitted to eating it when he was a kid in our latest podcast.)
Occasionally, earwax can build-up in excess and harden. When this happens, it's best to head to your doctor for a brief cleaning. Be aware that lot of the do-it-yourself cleaners are relatively ineffective and may actually be harmful. (Ear candles, pictured above, are an example of the kooky, harmful variety.)
As an effectual home remedy to excessive ear wax build-up, the American Hearing Research Foundation recommends putting a couple tiny drops of clean olive oil or baby oil in your ear every other week or so.
All in all, earwax is a substance to be desired, not eliminated. So leave your ears alone!
(Image: Ear Candling via Shutterstock)