Ear Cleaning at Home: What to Know

Expert review by Dr. Megan Gerhart Redon

Many of us want to clean our ears at home, as part of our personal-care routines. That’s why so many bathrooms have packs of cotton swabs at the ready. But the truth is, most healthcare professionals don’t believe in at-home ear cleaning at all—it’s not easy, and there’s the distinct possibility that you will do long-lasting damage to your ear if you go too deep.

When using a Q-tip or cotton swab, you risk pushing earwax further into the ear, which can cause wax to compress against your eardrum (wax impaction) or worse, you may end up perforating your own eardrum. Worse still, it’s possible to do permanent damage to the tiny hearing bones that lay behind your eardrum.

Removing Earwax

When using a Q-tip or cotton swab, you risk pushing earwax further into the ear, which can cause wax impaction or perforation of the eardrum.

That said, if you do want to do your part to de-gunk your ears, you should know how to do so safely and gently. Follow this advice, checking with your healthcare provider for their approval.

First, a word about earwax

The goal of ear cleaning is to remove excess earwax, also known as cerumen, an oily substance our bodies secrete. The wax, however, serves a valuable purpose: It protects the ear canal and helps remove dirt, dead skin cells and the like. But too much earwax can become impacted, blocking the ear canal and causing hearing loss. This problem is especially prevalent among older people and those who wear hearing aids.

Home ear care explained

If you do want to do your part to keep your ears clean, it’s best to ask your trusted medical professional for guidance. Never try to clean your ears at home if you have a known perforation, or hole, in your eardrum, have an active ear infection, or a history of ear surgery.

“In some cases, home care might be part of a comprehensive overall ear management plan,” said Danica Billingsly, AuD, Assistant Professor of Audiology at Northern Illinois University. “However, such a plan should be led by a provider with experience in ear care and with knowledge of your specific ear health. Without such a plan, it is possible to do permanent damage to your ear or hearing.”

Providing you do not have an ear infection or other ear injury, there are home techniques your doctor might prescribe to help remove excess earwax, as noted above. One warning before exploring these options: Don’t jab anything into your ear canal, even a cotton swab.

Avoid Q-Tips and try these safer techniques

Softening ear wax

To soften the earwax for removal, use an eyedropper to apply a few drops of mineral oil, glycerin, baby oil, or hydrogen peroxide into your ear canal. (Be especially careful with the amount of peroxide you use, as it can cause irritation.) Wait a day or two for the wax to soften and use a bulb syringe to gently squirt clean, fresh, room-temperature water into your ear canal. You should avoid using warm or cold water as, depending on how much water you use, this can activate the balance system and cause vertigo. Tilt your head so that your outer ear is facing up when the water goes in, then tip your head so that the ear faces down to let the water drain out. Then, gently dry your outer ear with a towel or hand-held dryer from a safe distance. Many patients like to do this over a sink or in the shower for easy cleanup.

This method is not entirely without risks and may not be effective, depending on the severity of the issue. You may need to repeat the procedure more than once before the excess earwax is flushed out, or the solution may only soften the outer layer of wax while the deeper layer is lodged further against the eardrum. Be careful about using only the amount of water recommended by your healthcare professional. If too much remains in the ear, it can create a breeding ground for an infection.

If your symptoms do not improve after trying this method a couple of times, contact your healthcare provider for an evaluation.

Over-the-counter ear drops

These drops can be effective in cases where there is only a small amount of wax. To use them, tilt your head so that the ear you are cleaning is facing up and use the drops as directed. (It may be easiest to do this while lying down). In most cases, you will need to let the solution settle in your ear canal for several minutes to soften the earwax. Then, tip your head so that the solution and any dislodged earwax can drain out. It is not uncommon to hear bubbling in the canal while the wax is softened. There should not be pain during this process.

Bulb syringe

This method is riskier than using ear drops and should be approached with great caution, only if recommended by your healthcare professional. Irrigation of the ear should never be attempted if the eardrum is damaged, if you have an ear infection, or if you have ever had surgery on your eardrum.

To use this method, fill the bulb syringe with clean, fresh, room-temperature water. Tilt your ear over a sink and insert the syringe into your ear and gently squeeze the bulb to squirt the water into your ear canal. Repeat a few times to dislodge and flush out the earwax.

When speaking with HearingTracker, Billingsly again cautioned to only try this technique if guided by your ear-care medical professional. In most cases, earwax removal is best left to those who are fully trained and can complete the process without risking damage.