How do you keep your ears clean in 2016?
January 20, 2016 8:11 AM   Subscribe

Responsible mefites, how do you keep your ear canals clean without the illicit bliss of cotton buds?

I am an inveterate cotton-bud-user despite a long history of ear infections and knowledge that 'you shouldn't put anything in your ear except your elbow' (thanks, Dad).

My two main drivers are:
1. don't want any other human beings noticing my gross waxy ears
2. oh god scratching the ear canal feels so good

But what should I be using if not cotton buds to prevent #1?

How do you keep your ears clean in 2016?

Help me change my ways now, while I'm at the tail end of a particularly horrific bout of both external and inner ear infections* and super motivated to never ever feel like this again.

*the inner having been exacerbated by compacted ear wax that I must have caused, not giving my poor ear drum room to move, and causing vertigo, puking, a trip to A&E, half a stone in weight loss and two weeks off work
posted by citands to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
I just use the liquid earwax removal stuff you can get at the drugstore. The brand I have now is called Debrox. You drop a few in the ear, lie on your side for a few minutes, and then use a bulb with warm water. Usually after a few squirts you get a really nasty plug of earwax out. The kit usually comes with the bulb you need.
posted by selfnoise at 8:18 AM on January 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

You can use q-tips, just don't stick em in your ear hole. They're totally fine for cleaning the ear hole rim.
posted by phunniemee at 8:20 AM on January 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

There is a product called Clinere that I use to carefully scoop out my kid's waxy grossness. Qurlyjoe, maybe you should pick up a box. Available at Walmart and Amazon.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 8:40 AM on January 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Ototek! Ototek! Ototek! It's the best. Just, you know, be careful. IANAD. But this solution saved me many trips to the doctor, and has made my life way better. It's particularly great after a shower.
posted by violetish at 8:41 AM on January 20, 2016 [7 favorites]

Do you ever have problems with water getting stuck in your ears? If the answer is no, here is what I recommend: In the shower, pull one ear back with the opposite hand and point it back at the shower head. Move your head enough to get the spray into the ear canal at several angles. It feels almost as good as a q-tip. Then when you are drying off, put a towel covered finger in your ear and wiggle it to dry out what you can. The rest will air-dry.
posted by soelo at 8:44 AM on January 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I use a cotton swab. Like anything, there's good and bad technique. My general physician ex-bf had a hobby of lightly chiding me, "what are you doing, don't use those!" while he himself was cleaning his ears with a swab.

There's also an awareness that accidents happen, and that's why those of us who enjoy the untold pleasure of using cotton swabs should never rush the process. I mean this very seriously when I say that when I'm swabbing, I'm only swabbing--no talking, no hurrying it up, no distracted thoughts. I'm looking in the mirror, moving slowly, paying attention to what I'm doing. Last year I was nervous about a month-long complicated international work trip I was about to take, so I ended up making a quick movement and jabbing my left eardrum. It was so painful I had a moment of panic that I'd have to cancel the trip. I didn't cancel it, but it was definitely uncomfortable getting up to altitude and staying in an airplane for 12 hours.

One last trick from my ex-bf: if you have a really itchy ear canal, you may be "over-cleaning" and stripping out the oils that keep your skin supple and itch-free. He occasionally puts a very (very) tiny amount of olive oil on a swab and rolls it around his ear canal opening. I have no idea how establishment-accepted this practice is, but he certainly has a thing for it (I've tried it once or twice, but I don't really have itchy ears).
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 8:58 AM on January 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I use old-fashioned hair pins (the curved end, not the pointy one) and my Dr. said they were okay, assuming I didn't try to jam the whole thing in my ear.
posted by Ideefixe at 9:00 AM on January 20, 2016

I use a bulb syringe in the shower, with warm water.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:02 AM on January 20, 2016

The ototek does a good job of removing wax and scratching! It has a guard so it's near impossible to hit your ear drum.
posted by littlewater at 9:21 AM on January 20, 2016

I previously used a Q-tip every day. It felt so good. I decided that probably wasn't such a good idea. Now I use a Q-tip dipped in mineral oil about once a week (carefully). My ears don't itch any more and I still get the occasional eargasm.
posted by H21 at 9:24 AM on January 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I also use the hooky end of a hair pin to clean things out, once every two weeks maybe. I've been doing this for years now and my ears have been healthy. Also, (unrelated to cleaning) If I ever have minor pain or itchiness in my ears, I put a drop of olive oil in and lie on my side for one minute to let it coat the inside of my ear. it does wonders.
posted by hannahelastic at 9:26 AM on January 20, 2016

I'm 42. I've been cleaning inside my ear canals with q-tips my entire life. I've never had an infection. I don't have hearing loss. I've never had compacted wax. Never needed to have my ears cleaned out by a professional.

I really question your conclusion that using cotton buds caused your infection. People do get infections sometimes, including people who don't use cotton buds to clean their ears. And it appears there are many causes of chronic ear infections like you have, including smoking, allergies, excess mucus, and problems with your adenoids.

Your infection may have absolutely nothing to do with your cotton bud use. Maybe you could improve your technique (only cleaning after a shower when the wax has been loosened, being more gentle, etc.). But if I were you, I would not be pinning all my hopes to finding a different cleaning method.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 9:28 AM on January 20, 2016 [14 favorites]

I am also guilty of blissfully using q-tips daily even though I know you're not supposed to put them in your ears: 'they' say it's not safe and it's possibly pushing wax further in.

I do it anyway. However, I used to live with a cat would jump up to my shoulders uninvited and once did so while I was cleaning and the momentary pain and lingering discomfort of the q-tip going a little too far were awful. Now I pay close attention, go slowly, and grip the q-tip between my forefinger and thumb as close to the cotton swap as possible so my (clean!) fingers will stop it from jamming in any further than I think is safe.

For what it's worth, I did the drops in the ears thing a few times and always expected the big gross results and never got them. I can hear just fine and have had doctor's look in my ears pretty regularly without comment, so I don't believe I am causing build-up. I think a lot of this has to do with the anatomy of one's individual ears.
posted by juliplease at 10:11 AM on January 20, 2016


No reason to buy that particular one, but that's what ours look like. I like the bamboo ones because they have a nice gentle curve. Of course you have to be careful with it, but it scoops and removes instead of pressing.

My mother-in-law sends them from Japan, so I don't know about US sourcing. I think you can buy plastic curettes here that are basically the same thing. But these things are EVERYWHERE in Japan. You can even get souvenir ones from your favorite tourist attraction.
posted by telepanda at 10:29 AM on January 20, 2016

Do you ever have problems with water getting stuck in your ears? If the answer is no, here is what I recommend:

I don't know why you'd take a cold shower but I feel compelled to comment anyway: DO NOT DO THIS WITH COLD WATER. Warm to hot is fine. You can also use a bucket/pitcher of clean water and a bulb while you tilt your head to the side (easier if someone else does it, and wear something you don't mind getting wet).

Anyway I use the shower technique, then use a towel or kleenex to wipe my outer ear. You get used to not using q-tips and you produce LESS wax because you're not irritating your damn ear canal all the time. It's like quitting any other habit.

Also, if you wear earbuds to listen to music, stop. They're pushing the wax further in.
posted by desjardins at 10:51 AM on January 20, 2016

Response by poster: Just to be clear, as I can see mysterious_stranger has gone off on a slight tangent - I do not think cotton buds caused my ear infection. I understand ear infections, as a person who has dealt with them frequently throughout life, so am happily in a very informed position r.e. their cause, arrival, treatment and departure. I do know that my having used cotton buds caused a giant wax plug which exacerbated the infection: hence my question.

And sorry if my question wasn't crystal clear: I am explicitly looking for solutions which are not cotton buds. I already know how I should use them; I would like them out of my life, despite that they might work for others.

Thanks everyone who has suggested none-cotton-bud solutions so far!
posted by citands at 11:04 AM on January 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'll second the Asian bamboo earpicks. I've had a few different ones, and I love them. Occasionally I'll buy one from Daiso [the Japanese dollar store chain that has branches in California now] that's a little too sharp-edged, but mostly they're perfect. If you're feeling especially fancy, there are also these cool silver African ear-spoons. I still clean my ears with q-tips every so often, mostly just to get the crumbly crud out of my outer ears.
posted by tapir-whorf at 11:29 AM on January 20, 2016

Many times I've gotten results with Debrox, but usually not immediately. It takes me once a day for several days to get out a big plug of blockage. Anything like an ear pick is for those much less clumsy than myself.
posted by Flexagon at 11:34 AM on January 20, 2016

There are two forms of earwax in humans. For those of far eastern descent, your earwax will be dry and flaky. For those of european descent, your earwax comes out sticky like wax. Because citands mentioned losing stone and a plug formation, I'm going to assume the latter.

So, to remove the sticky, waxy kind safely: You need something that can coax it out without pushing it in. The liquid ear washes are best, imho. If you miss the ear scratching, you can always gently cotton bud after doing a clean. Ear candling can work, but I've had/heard mixed results on that style.

For the flaky kind: Mimikaki. Absolutely the best feeling in the world if you like cotton buds.

So, perhaps the best solution is a wash then mimikaki. :-) Sounds like ear heaven to me.
posted by TauLepton at 12:09 PM on January 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

I use steel "Ear picks" like these. The honeycomb end is good for itchy canals, and the tiny scoop is good for wax removal. I clean them with a baby wipe.

Just don't go shoving them deep into your ear. Listen to your body, if you're pushing the pick in (slowly!) and your ear starts to hurt, stop pushing it in that far.

Prior to the discovery of the ear picks, I use to use q-tips day in and out. I have never listened to my doctors who tell me "only stick items bigger than your elbow in your ears", and I have yet to cause a blockage or puncture an eardrum.
posted by INFJ at 12:13 PM on January 20, 2016

Cotton balls and witch hazel.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:49 PM on January 20, 2016

Please don't do ear candling. It doesn't remove wax and can burn you/your dwelling.
posted by Hactar at 1:09 PM on January 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

Holy shit, I couldn't wait to come in and recommend Ototek, I am so glad others beat me to it.

It is the best feeling ever (I have forced it upon friends by describing it as a "tiny ear orgasm"). I hate q-tips so much and they've always made my ears feel awful, plugged, and not clean. Ototek works and bonus, shows you clearly the gunk you're getting out, which I won't wax on (get it?) about too much because it's a shameful secret joy of mine.

Pro tip: keep it in your shower.
posted by the thorn bushes have roses at 1:19 PM on January 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You guys are all making your poor resident audiologist here very sad!

Look, my professional advice to folks is to not stick anything in the ears. Things I have seen caused by using q-tips/hair pin/nails/keys/etc:

-Wax impaction. This is by far the most common, and you have experienced it yourself. People think they are pulling wax out, but they are actually pushing it in. They end up pushing the eax back to the bony portion of their ear canal (not as far as you think!), where there are no glands to help move the wax out, and it gets stuck there, turns hard and black, and causes a conductive hearing loss.
-Tips of q-tips falls off and get stuck in the ear canal.
-Perforated ear drum. Not common, but common enough. Somebody has a hair pin in their ear and their kid opens the bathroom door which clams their arm and now they have a hole through their ear drum.

Infection can also absolutely be introduced into the ear canal by a q-tip.

All of that said, most people who use them are not going to experience any ill effects, at least until they are older. Even I have been known to use one.

The truth is that you don't need to 'clean' your ears. Your earwax is what cleans your ears. It keeps hairs and dirt and wax moving out of your ear (it traps dirt and the wax moves in an upward and outward motion and eventually pushes out of the ear).

If you have a lot of wax that builds up, your best bet is to use Debrox and to wash out your ears in the shower with warm water. That's it. If it's really, really bad - it's best to have your audiologist or ENT or nurse remove the wax.

If you must stick something down there, get the Ototek. Not only does it have a loop, which is way more effective at removing wax than a cotton swab, but it keeps you from pushing the wax back to the bony portion of the canal.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:27 PM on January 20, 2016 [24 favorites]

I was having ear canal pain and went to my ENT who told me to stop using ear buds when I was listening to music. And for good measure to stop using q-tips (though he admitted to using them himself sometimes). He also said that I could go to see him once a year and he would would clean my ears for me.

So maybe you could just go have them cleaned by a medical professional on the regular. Assuming your co-pay isn't too egregious.
posted by rdnnyc at 1:49 PM on January 20, 2016

Then there's this timely article from the Washington Post:

"If it were up to me, they wouldn't be on the market," he [otolaryngologist Dennis Fitzgerald] said. "When I treat people with recurring ear problems, I make them promise they're going to throw away their Q-tips and never buy them again. The ones who keep coming back with infections are the ones who don't listen."
posted by Flexagon at 1:52 PM on January 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm going to take a step back...

1) People noticing your waxy ears: this is not really a thing! Unless you are a weird mega-wax-producing mutant, this seems like a made up problem.

2) Scratching your ear canals: lots of things that might feel good, like unprotected sex with strangers and eating the whole half-gallon of ice cream, are not good for us. You will not find a good substitute. You might have to get over this. You can't bargain your way to a solution.

After a warm shower, take the edge of a towel and dry your outer ears. That's it. No more anything in your ear. You will want to scratch, and you will also eventually stop wanting to scratch.

You have damaged your body with a bad habit. It's time to go cold turkey.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:32 PM on January 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

As I've discussed elsewhere on Metafilter, I use soft foam earplugs for sleeping. Change them every week or sooner. Removing them from my ears each morning removes a small amount of wax, and this gradual wax reduction has been sufficient that I no longer feel compelled to use q-tips, ever. My ear canals are coated in a very thin layer of wax (I think?), but I don't ever get weird buildups. This approach got the okay from MeFi's resident audiologist in this thread on the blue (yes yes not my audiologist, not medical advice), so I'm sticking with it.
posted by deludingmyself at 8:11 PM on January 20, 2016

oh and I see Lutoslawski has commented above me, carry on
posted by deludingmyself at 8:13 PM on January 20, 2016


No Q tips! You have to go cold turkey on the q tips! You can't have any in the house, just as some alcoholics can't have mouthwash or perfume or vanilla in the house.

You can get ear drops with hydrogen peroxide in. Over here it's called Otex. Tilt your head andnput 5 drops in, wait a few minutes, plug with a wedge of cotton wool and do the other ear. Every couple of years ask if your doctor can get a nurse to syringe your ears if necessary.

The Otex drops make a satisfying snap, crackle, pop because of the peroxide. They may irritate your ear canals but you'll probably enjoy that too.

Ignore all the pornographers on this thread who are telling you to stick pointy things in your ears in a more enlightened way. GROSS
posted by tel3path at 12:48 AM on January 21, 2016

I've seen this used at an urgent care by medical professionals. It might be safe for home use?
posted by poopdbq at 5:49 AM on January 21, 2016

I really don't understand why the mimikaki should be better than Q-tips - you're still poking stuff into your ear, except now it's not even padded!

(This from a guy who regularly uses his house key to scratch inside the ear.)

I have a lot of sticky ear wax according to my ENT doc and have previously had to go to my GP twice to get wax plugs washed out. To avoid poking the wax inwards, I've taken to using Q-tips in the following way:

Insert the cotton part into the ear canal. Gently but firmly press it against the top. Now, rotate it slowly between your fingers while doing a slow circular motion with the handle. The idea is to complete both circular motions at roughly the same time, so there is always a clean part of the cotton swap in contact with your ear. This kinda scrapes off the wax without pushing it inwards. (Works better with wooden Q-tips over the softer plastic handles, but also runs a risk of breakage.)

This seems to have helped, as I get relief from the itching of the sticky wax (worst in the morning) without having had any problems with plugs in the last five years. However, it probably only works if you have ear canals of a reasonably large diameter.
posted by brokkr at 8:17 AM on January 21, 2016

Ear candling can work...

No, it can't.
posted by zakur at 10:59 AM on January 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

brokkr, a mimikaki is like a tiny wooden shovel, so you can stick it into your ear without hitting (and pushing) wax along the way. You can actually use a technique like the one you describe, but since the mimikaki has a hard edge you actually scrape and lift the wax from the ear canal rather than (in my experience doing this with Q-tips) having maybe 10% of the wax actually adhere to the cotton, while the other 90% just gets smeared around the ear canal.

That said, a mimikaki would easily bust through your eardrum (and possibly into your brain, I don't know the anatomy) if you pushed it too far. The Ototek looks like basically the same thing, but probably safer. And of course none of this should be necessary, as repeatedly pointed out here. Like rdnnyc, I think my earwax buildup comes from wearing earbuds, but that's not something I can see myself giving up.
posted by bjrubble at 11:11 AM on January 21, 2016

Right, so it's not unlike my house key.
posted by brokkr at 4:57 AM on January 22, 2016

Response by poster: Thank you so much everyone, and not just everyone who reinforced what I knew I wanted to hear. I can't argue with an audiologist - but I truly appreciate everyone's answers.

I am throwing away my cotton buds tonight and will just go cold turkey. If I am a waxy mutant freak, I'm sure a friend will tell me before it gets out of hand. I have bought some over-ear headphones, just in case my earbuds were a factor (they somehow do feel related, when I think about timings).

And I will just read this thread whenever I crave a delicious scratch.

Thank you especially, bluedaisy, for putting this addiction into terms that are so relatable for me that it is actually painful. I DID use to eat ice cream by the tub! I DID use to have unprotected sex! I grew out of that and am a better person because of it! I can grow out of this too! Go me!
posted by citands at 10:34 AM on January 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A quick follow up for anyone who may be reading this in the future - it turns out that my lifelong problems with ear infections and deaness (and the most recent bout of absolutely awful infection + crippling vertigo, which prompted this question) weren't anything to do with my guilty Q tip use.

It's actually caused by an underlying weakness in my eardrum which has caused it to grow abnormally and create a sort of 'pocket' for dead skin cells to fester in. Left untreated it will cause potentially permanent deafness, inner ear infections and - if these infections follow the path of the pocket - infections in the brain and meninigitis.

So maybe you just have a normal ear infection.

But maybe you should also see an ENT specialist the first time this happens and not ten years later, like me, so that an actual expert can do some nice surgery on you to correct it.

Lay off the Q tips either way xx
posted by citands at 4:32 AM on March 11, 2016 [7 favorites]

« Older 90th birthday party activities?   |   Ugh, Fine, I'll Go to Hawaii (If You Think That's... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.