Nothing Smaller Than Your Elbow: Your Ear Canal is Self-cleaning!

February 1, 2016

Did your mother ever tell you, “don’t cross your eyes or they’ll get stuck that way”? Or, how about “don’t swallow your chewing gum, it takes seven years to pass through your digestive system.” What about, “don’t put anything in your ears that’s smaller than your elbow”? Unlike the first two, this old wives tale is actually true. There are some very delicate structures at the end of your ear canal, including the eardrum and the three smallest bones in the body, which are housed in the middle ear behind the eardrum. Cleaning your ears can potentially cause damage to the middle ear system. And, using cotton swabs, a hair pin or your house key to clean your ear canals might feel good or give you a sense of accomplishment but can actually cause earwax to become lodged in the far reaches of the ear canal, requiring removal by your physician or audiologist.

So, if I my elbow doesn’t fit, what do I use to clean my ear canals?

Believe it or not, your ear canals are self-cleaning. Glands in the ear canal produce oil and earwax (cerumen). These secretions are meant to coat the ear canal in order to prevent dryness, trap dirt and dust particles and they act as a natural bug repellant, too. The secretions will gradually move out of the ear canal on their own. If you must, you can use a home remedy of a 50/50 mixture of warm water and white vinegar dropped gently into the ear canal with a bulb syringe. If done regularly, this mixture can keep earwax from building up but may dry out the skin of some people. If you happen to have dry skin anyway, earwax and sloughing skin may stick to the canal wall if not managed regularly. A drop or two of olive oil or mineral oil placed in the ear canal each day can help earwax stay moist and will keep it moving in the right direction: out of your ear canal.

For those who wear a hearing aid, having the ear canals checked regularly by an audiologist is a great way to make sure excess wax doesn’t develop. The last thing you want is for wax to get in the way of sound getting through to the rest of the system. But let your provider take care of the wax and leave the cotton swabs for art projects, the hair pins for holding a ballerina’s bun and your house key for opening your mail. Your mother would be proud you did.