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Ditch the Cotton Swab! This Is the At-Home Earwax Removal Technique Doctors Recommend Instead

It turns out a few drops of baby oil can loosen buildup and reverse muffled hearing

When it comes to earwax removal, you’re probably familiar with what not to do. (Your mom’s old warning about never putting anything smaller than your elbow in your ear might come to mind!) So if you feel like you’ve got excess gunk in there, what’s the right way to get it out?

“Earwax is a normal thing that everyone should have,” says A. Morgan Selleck, MD, assistant professor of otolaryngology at the UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, NC. But for some people, it can build up and potentially cause annoying symptoms. That’s when you can try to get rid of earwax at home.

The key is using an expert-approved method that won’t run the risk of making the problem worse or injuring your ear. The good news: Getting rid of earwax is quick and easy, and you likely already have the supplies right at home. Here’s everything you need to know about how earwax removal, plus what to avoid.

Why do we even have earwax, anyway?

Most of us think of earwax as a brown, sticky goo. But it’s actually a protective substance that repels water, dirt, bacteria, germs and even bugs from entering your ear and causing an infection or injury.

“It’s normal to have earwax — having earwax is a good thing,” says Courtney Voelker, MD, PhD, a board certified neurotologist and Director of the Adult & Pediatric Cochlear Implant Program at Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, CA.

The oil-producing glands in your ears are responsible for making earwax, which experts call cerumen. The wax normally makes its way out toward the opening of the ear, usually from opening and closing your jaw throughout the day when you talk and eat, Dr. Selleck says. From there, little bits might fall out unnoticed, like when you’re sleeping or when you’re washing up in the shower or bath.

When you should (and shouldn’t) get rid of earwax

Most people don’t need to make a dedicated effort to remove their earwax. “As long as you’re not having symptoms, you shouldn’t do it,” says Dr. Selleck. “It can actually cause problems if you remove it incorrectly.” (More on that in a bit.) In other words, it’s not the kind of thing you need to do once a week as part of your regular grooming routine.

That said, some people just seem to make more earwax than others. And sometimes the stuff can build up or get smushed into your ear, particularly if you use a hearing aid or headphones, if you use cotton balls or cotton swabs in your ears, or even if you have a lot of hair in your ears.

The buildup isn’t actually harmful to your ears — think of it like an extra layer of protection! But it can be unpleasant. “It can cause itching, [temporary] hearing loss, a sense of fullness in your ear or even ringing in your ears,” Dr. Selleck says.

A woman with her eyes closed touching her ear, which is in pain due to excess earwax

If you’re having any of those symptoms and you suspect that earwax buildup is the culprit, it’s worth trying to do an at-home removal, she adds. But again, if the wax isn’t bothering you, don’t try to remove it.

Is at-home earwax removal safe?

Getting rid of earwax at home can be safe, but only if you do it the right way. “I don’t recommend cotton swabs or any other over-the-counter products that you stick in your ears,” Dr. Voelker says. You should also avoid sticking things like bobby pins, paper clips or matchsticks (yes, doctors have seen it all!) in your ear.

It’s a common mistake, but it can actually make symptoms worse. How? Prodding around in your ears can push wax further inside. Also, it can increase your risk for ear irritation or infections, or even damage your eardrum. “I’ve seen tons of injuries from people doing it that way,” says Dr. Voelker.

You also shouldn’t try at-home earwax removal if you’ve recently had ear surgery or if you have a history of ear problems like frequent ear infections, adds Dr. Selleck.

Earwax removal: How to get stubborn earwax out

So what should you do when excess earwax is driving you crazy or muffling your hearing? Apply gentle irrigation to soften and loosen the wax. This will help it come out on its own, Dr. Selleck says. According to both Dr. Selleck and Dr. Voelker, you can try any of the below:

  • Baby oil
  • Mineral oil
  • A 1:1 mix of saline solution and hydrogen peroxide
  • A 1:1 mix of rubbing alcohol and white vinegar (see more brilliant uses for white vinegar)
  • An over-the-counter solution like Debrox (which is like watered-down hydrogen peroxide)
A clear bottle of mineral oil against a green background

Once you’ve got your liquid, put it into a small bulb syringe so you can drop the liquid right into your ear. “I like to use the little blue pediatric nasal bulbs, which fit nicely into the ear,” Dr. Voelker says. Over-the-counter solutions like Debrox will usually come with a bulb syringe. Grab a washcloth or a tissue, too, for easy cleanup afterwards.

Then, lie on your side so the affected ear is facing up toward the ceiling. Use the bulb dropper to put a few drops of liquid into your ear. “I recommend laying there for 30 seconds to a minute or so,” to let the liquid penetrate your earwax, Dr. Selleck says. The mixture might bubble or fizz if you’re using hydrogen peroxide, but it shouldn’t hurt. If it causes discomfort or pain, rinse your ear out and contact your doctor.

After 30 to 60 seconds, sit up and let the fluid run out of your ear. Use washcloth or tissue to dab the area dry. If your other ear is also affected, switch sides and repeat. You may need to repeat the process several more times (once or twice a day for up to four days) before you notice an improvement.

When to call your doctor for help with earwax removal

If several days of at-home irrigation aren’t doing enough to get rid of your earwax, give your doctor a call, Dr. Selleck recommends. Your primary care doctor may be able to remove the wax with slightly more forceful irrigation.

“They’ll put the liquid straight into your ears at a higher speed to physically flush the wax out,” Dr. Selleck explains. Or if you’re seeing an ear-nose-throat doctor, they might use a small scraping instrument or a tiny vacuum to extract the wax, she adds.

Note: Your doctor might recommend softening the wax at home first with baby oil before your visit, which can make the wax easier to remove. “I’ll sometimes have patients soak for 10 minutes before their appointment,” Dr. Voelker says. But you shouldn’t do this if you’re not having your wax removed by a doctor. “Using oil for that long can often end up plugging up the ear and make it harder to ear. It’s just good preparation for me to suck it out in the office,” she adds.

For more ways to sharpen your hearing and protect your ears:

MD-Approved Tricks to Sharpen Hearing Naturally — No Hearing Aid Required

Top MD Warns That Even Slight Hearing Loss Can Increase Your Risk of Dementia — 8 Natural Ways to Improve Hearing Today

Heardle Is Like Wordle For Songs: How This Daily ‘Name That Tune’ Game Can Boost Brain Power + Improve Hearing

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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