Plastic Q-tips have been a regular part of hygiene for the last hundred years and a major source of ocean pollution, even though many physicians have advised against their use. “You shouldn’t put anything in your ears smaller than your elbow” – the old saying goes, but some habits die hard. However, new studies and researches only continue to confirm the truth of this old saying. American Academy of Otolaryngology issued a revised list of ear wax care guidelines in 2017, which warns about the dangers of Q-tips and advises against their use. It turns out that the use of cotton swabs pushes most of the ear wax deeper into the ear canal, preventing the eardrum to vibrate properly. The head of a Q-tip is about the diameter of the ear canal, which means that anything in front of the Q-tip will be pushed deeper into the ear canal. Also, if the Q-tips are inserted too deep into the ear canal (which can happen quite often due to their shape and structure) they can puncture the eardrum and cause permanent hearing damage.
Having ear wax may seem gross, but it’s a totally normal thing; its secretion is a natural process that cleanses and protects the inner parts of the ear from dirt and potential pathogens. Removing this protective layer increases susceptibility to fungal and bacterial infection, and the process can cause mechanical damages to the ear canal and the eardrum. Besides, the use of Q-tips increases the amount of waste produced – plastic bodies of billions of Q-tips are now lying scattered in landfills or polluting aquatic and terrestrial environments. Is there a safer, healthier, more sustainable and eco-friendly solution? According to experts, the best way is to avoid cleaning your ears altogether. But if you can’t get rid of this habit, here are some alternatives that are healthier and eco-friendlier.
1. Finger & Tissue
This is one of the easiest and most obvious solutions. Cover your index finger with a clean piece of tissue or cloth and gently remove the excess wax from the ear, but without inserting the finger into the ear canal. Only scope out the wax that has already moved into the outer parts of the ear. This method is most effective when performed after showering because warm water loosens the wax and helps the excess to move out of the ear canal. After removing excess wax, gently dry the outer ear with a towel or a hairdryer. Keep in mind that this method might not work if the wax got too hard and crusty.
2. Baby Oil, Mineral Oil or Glycerin
If you need something more effective to soften the wax and avoid the need to dig deep into the ear canal, you can use some home remedies like baby oil, mineral oil or glycerin. Using an eyedropper, apply a few drops (5-10) of warm oil or glycerin in the ear canal. Carefully massage the skin at the ear canal entrance to help the oil spread inside. Lie on your side for 5-10 minutes and wipe off any extra oil if it starts leaking when you sit up. Depending on the amount and hardness of the ear wax, it may take some time for it to soften. After it finally becomes soft and starts moving out of the ear canal, the wax can be easily removed with a clean tissue or towel. Repeat on the other ear if necessary. Doing this once a week should maintain your ears clean and healthy.
3. Hydrogen Peroxide
Hydrogen peroxide is also a very effective solution for softening ear wax, but it requires a more cautious use compared to baby and mineral oils or glycerin. Hydrogen peroxide is a strong antimicrobial agent, but considering that it’s not that selective in its action, it can also cause harm to human cells. This is why it is very important to apply a diluted solution (3% or 4%) only. Otherwise, the skin in the ear canal may get irritated and begin to dry, which may result in a problem bigger than too much ear wax. Apply two or three drops of diluted hydrogen peroxide into the problematic ear and let it sit for 10-15 minutes. The solution will probably start fizzing, but don’t worry – it is a normal process and it means that the solution is doing what it should. After you let it sit, tilt your head to drain the solution along with the wax, and wipe them off gently using a tissue or a towel.
4. Other Tools
If you are looking for something that is similar to a Q-tip, but a lot healthier in terms of safety and sustainability, ear loops may be the thing for you. They are usually made of stainless steel, which makes them reusable, recyclable and easily disinfected. They also have a safety cap, which prevents them from getting too deep into the ear canal, avoiding potential damage. Earloops are safe, eco-friendly and cost only a few dollars, making them an excellent alternative to traditional Q-tips. However, if you are looking for cutting-edge ear wax removal technology, there are also some automated products available on the market.
5. Ear Wax Drops
If you are not too keen on using home remedies for ear wax removal or any hard tools that might damage your ears, there are various ear wax drops that are available over the counter at your local pharmacy. Most of them already include some of the aforementioned substances (hydrogen peroxide, oils) and the application method is identical, but they are somewhat more optimally formulated.
Finally, if the abovementioned methods don’t work, it is best to seek the help of the experts. Make an appointment with your ENT doctor, who can give you a correct diagnosis and professionally remove excess ear wax. Don’t forget that ears are very sensitive parts of our body and should be treated with great care.