First things first: ears are self-cleaning. To clean your ears you don’t actually have to do anything. In fact, the best thing you can do is nothing: no Q Tips, no unfurled paper clips, no pinky nails. But, it’s so satisfying to get all that ear wax out — we know. Unfortunately, you’re not removing “gunk,” you’re taking away your ear’s natural layer of protection and lubricant. Without it, you may have dry, itchy ears.
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Best practice is to wait until the wax moves out on its own — the regular movements of your jaw will achieve this! When the wax is near the outside of your ear (it’ll get there about as fast as your fingernails grow) it’ll most likely dry out and flake off without you even noticing. If you do notice it, you can simply wipe it away with a washcloth. So handy, so mindless, so automatic. Sadly, wearing earbuds or hearing aids can get in the way of this automatic removal. And if you have an abundance of wax or an impaction, your genetics may be to blame.
Do not go mining for it.
Unless your wax (or cerumen) is causing problems, you should leave it in there — it’s protecting your inner ear from dirt, bugs, and bacteria. There are basically two ways to clear the wax out of your ear: soften it and let it work its way out itself or soften it then irrigate it.
DIY ear drops
equal parts vinegar and rubbing alcohol
How to Clean Your Ears
Step 1: Softening
You can soften the earwax — and help it work its way out — with a few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, or ear drops. Equal parts vinegar and rubbing alcohol work too.
- Soak a cotton ball with your softening solution.
- With your ear tilted toward the ceiling, squeeze a few drops into your ear.
- Wait 5–10 minutes to allow the wax to soften.
- Place a towel on your shoulders and tilt your ear toward it, allowing any excess to drain out.
- Wipe your outer ear with a clean cloth.
Step 2: Irrigation
After you’ve softened the wax, it may be able to work its way out on its own. But, it may also need a little bit of coaxing. Ear wax removal can be as simple as tilting your head in the shower or as intense as using a battery-powered water jet.
How to remove ear wax:
The Shower Method
Try tilting your head in the shower for a few minutes, allowing the water to enter your ear. The water may loosen the wax.
Cotton Ball and Water Method
Soak a cotton ball with body temperature water or saline (1 t salt in ½ cup water). If you use cold water you might feel vertigo or nausea; you’ll definitely feel like you’ve got cold water dripping into your ear.
Then tilt your ear to the ceiling and put the soaked cotton ball on your ear. Wait five minutes. After your time is up put a towel on your shoulder and tilt your ear toward your shoulder to let the water drain out. Wipe your outer ear with a clean cloth.
Same ear wax removal method as above — you’re basically syringing water into your ear and letting it drain out. Fill the syringe with the body-temperature water or saline solution and allow it to dribble out of your ear. Tilt your head to allow as much water to stay in the canal as possible. Then wipe your outer ear with a clean cloth.
Some people suggest doing this sitting down with a bowl under your ear, but we think it’s easier just to pop into the shower.
Use this method to unclog ears no more than once per week. And don’t use this method if you have a perforated eardrum or a history of ear issues. Mix equal parts water and 3 percent hydrogen peroxide. Drop it in your ear (towel on the shoulder recommended here) and wait 5–10 minutes, or until the mixture stops fizzing, before you tilt your ear and let it drain.
What’s In the Store for Ear Cleaning
Bionix OtoClear Portable Ear Irrigation System
How it works: This is a handheld water blaster, basically. Fill the resevoir with water or saline and hold the spout to your ear. (There’s even a handy cup to hold under your ear for the excess.) The water will spray out from multiple openings in the water head, surrounding and dislodging any impacted earwax. It’s about $150 and some doctors say the jet power is too much and may be damaging.
Acu-Life Ear Wax Removal Syringe
This non-powered syringe has a similar tip as the OtoClear — tri-tip to shoot water on all sides of the impaction with a little spout for the water to drain back out. It makes the process more time effective.
Debrox Earwax Removal Aid
This is a $6 kit that includes a ear dropper solution of carbamide peroxide and mineral oil that’ll foam up in your ear and soften the earwax. You’ll add a few drops to your ears twice a day for up to four days. After that you’ll remove any remaining wax with the included soft rubber bulb ear syringe.
Elephant Ear Washer Bottle System by Doctor Easy
Just like the OtoClear except it’s a hand pump spray bottle (think Windex bottle) and it’s only $30. Fill it with a mix of body-temperature water and hydrogen peroxide, insert the tip into the clogged ear, tilt your head and squeeze the handle to let the water shoot into your ear. Best done in the bathtub or bathroom, since there’s going to be water draining out.
Electric Vac Vacuum Cordless Ear Cleaner Wax Remover Earpick
These ear vacuums are about $15 and they’re generally useless. If a gentle amount of suction could get the ear out, then your jaw’s own natural motion would be able to do the same.
Why You Should Never Stick a Q Tip In Your Ear
You can safely use a Q Tip to remove wax that’s on the outer edge of your ear — just don’t jam it inside. When you use a Q Tip to remove the wax any deeper, you’re actually pushing more of the wax into your ear canal than you’re pulling out of it.
Putting something into your ear, especially something long and firm, also puts you at risk for jamming that thing right through your eardrum. You’ve heard about the person Q Tipping and sneezing right? Let’s just pause for a second and think about how close our brains are to our ear canals and make a pact: Our brains are more important to us than anything. Right? Right.
Does Ear Candling Work?
No, it doesn’t work and it’s dangerous. Don’t go this route. These hollow candles claim they’ll coax the ear wax right out of you with heat — simply stick the candle cone in your ear, light it, and the center of the cone will fill with your ear wax.
The American Academy of Audiology is adamantly against it: “Clearly, ear candling is not reasonable, rational, safe, or effective, and indeed, it should simply never be done.”
In one 1996 study, the researchers noted that if ear candling did work it’d be great since it’s inexpensive: “If effective, significant savings could result from the use of ear candles.” Alas, they measured 8 ears before and after candling and found that there was either the exact same amount of wax — or more (since the wax from the candle dripped into the ear canal). They then asked 122 otolaryngologists about their experiences and found 21 ear injuries.
This Can Fam Physician article goes in depth about an ear candling gone wrong. It’s easy to picture: hot wax, inner ear, then a gob of dried wax in the inner ear, a removal, resultant hearing loss.
We’ll admit that we once bought a pair of ear candles to help our college roommate out of a similar bind. (Sure, lighting a wax torch balanced in our roommate’s ear sounds like a ridiculous burn risk, now that we’re older.) And from first-hand experience, we can attest it’s not effective. The ear candle melted but that’s about all that happened.
So, it doesn’t work, it might add wax to your ears, you could hurt yourself, and the FDA says don’t try it at home. Alright, that’s settled.
Symptoms of an Ear Wax Impaction
Your ear hurts
Your ear feels full
You can’t really hear well out of that ear
Your hearing is getting worse in that ear
You hear a ringing noise, called tinnitus
Your ear is itchy or smelly
You feel like coughing (there’s a nerve in your inner ear that can activate with an earwax jam)
If you have any of these symptoms, you may want to head to the doctor. You won’t really know if it’s wax impaction that’s causing your symptoms unless a doctor checks it out.
Step 1: Soften the wax with a few drops of mineral oil, olive oil, or an ear drop solution (to make your own mix equal parts alcohol and vinegar)
Step 2: Let it sit for about five minutes
Step 3: Irrigate your ear. This can be as simple as hopping in the shower and tilted your ear toward the shower head, or using a syringe or a soft rubber bulb to gently stream water in
Step 4: Tilt your ear to the side to let the water drain
Step 5: Wipe the outside of your ear with a towel