Wax on, wax off? Why cleaning your ears might do more harm than good
Are you the type who loves to dig your ears? It might feel enjoyable but there's a danger to it. And guess what, you might not need to clean your ears, after all.
Hands up, if you enjoy scraping out your ears and seeing the amount of wax extricated. I’ll admit, I belong to the club, even though I know better than to insert anything into my ears.
There’s something relaxing about the sensation when you gently drag a scraper down the ear canal. Like a light massage for your ears, if you will, or an ASMR experience that sends tingles up and down your spine.
"It's like scratching an itch," said Dr Lim Keng Hua, consultant ear, nose and throat surgeon from Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre’s Ear Nose Throat, Head & Neck Surgery – Singapore ENT Specialist Clinic. "The more you scratch, the itchier and more satisfying it feels."
Even more satisfying is seeing what the scraper scoops out. And I’m sure I’m not alone in this. The fact that YouTube’s Wax Whisperer (aka UK-based audiologist Neel Raithatha) has 1.3 million followers watching his wax extrication videos shows that people love doing a Marie Kondo on their ears – even when it’s not their own.
But what makes such videos satisfying for some and disgusting for others? It is about how your brain processes the visual information, according to Professor Heather Berlin, a neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
To some people, scraping out ear wax or watching others do it may stimulate the reward centre in the brain that receives dopamine and gives them a sense of pleasure. On the other hand, the activity may seem disgusting for those who have their insular cortex activated instead, said Prof Berlin.
But whether you enjoy cleaning your ears or see it as a chore, do you actually have to clean them in the first place? CNA Lifestyle spoke to Dr Lim to find out.
HOW EAR WAX FORMS AND WHY WE HAVE IT
Why do we have ear wax in the first place? There’s actually a reason for it – ear wax can prevent dust and dirt from reaching your ear drums. It’s your own built-in lint filter, if you will.
“Ear wax is formed as dead skin migrates outwards from the inner part of the ear canal. At the hair-bearing area, sebaceous glands produce oil. When mixed with the dead skin and trapped particles, they form ear wax,” said Dr Lim.
The consistency of ear wax varies from person to person, depending on the amount of oil your ears produce, which may have to do with either our stress levels or even ethnicity. “When we are stressed, we may produce more oil. Oily earwax could also be seen in certain ethnic groups.
Dry wax is usually seen in Asians, whereas in Caucasians, we see more oily and sticky wax. Children also tend to have softer earwax as well,” said Dr Lim.
But whether you have dry or wet ear wax, how it’s produced is essentially the same – dead skin cell migrating from the inner to outer ear canal is the body’s self-cleaning mechanism in action.
And it might be detrimental to your ear health when you try to clean it out. “You can clean out some wax but at the same time, you might push some of it back into the ear canal. Over time, it can build up and obstruct the entire ear canal.”
WHAT ELSE CAN GO WRONG WHEN YOU CLEAN YOUR EARS
For one, that scraper can scratch and bruise the insides of your ear – or a dislodged cotton bud tip can accidentally get stuck inside, said Dr Lim, who has treated a patient with seven cotton bud tips inside an ear.
"He didn’t check if the tip was still intact each time he removed the cotton bud from his ear," said Dr Lim.
As the number of cotton tips grew, so did the itch as cotton traps moisture and encourages bacteria and mould to grow.
Each time the patient felt the need to scratch the itch and clean his ear with a cotton bud, he inadvertently contributed to the problem by depositing yet another cotton tip in his ear.
Dr Lim admitted that this was a rather unusual case as the patient had a wider-than-usual ear cavity because of surgery and it trapped more ear wax than the average person. So, the sticky wax might have caused the cotton tips to dislodge.
Still, it's no reason to continue using cotton buds to clean your ears. “Cotton buds are not invented for the purpose of cleaning the ears. People think that they’re nicely shaped to clean the ears but they’re not," he said.
WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO CLEAN OUT THE WAX (IF YOU MUST)
As we chew or talk, cartilage movements where the ear's hair-bearing part is, together with head movements, will cause the wax to eventually drop out of the ear canal.
The occasional itch you get inside the ear? It’s the wax on its way out, said Dr Lim, who encourages a gentler approach. “We just need to tug the ear gently to create a bit of vibration, and tilt the head slightly to allow the wax to drop out.”
If you feel you must use a cotton bud or ear scraper, limit it to just the outer part of the ear canal. That’s the hairy portion, which is less prone to injuries.
But if you put any probe, a cotton bud or ear scraper into the inner portion, you can potentially scratch the skin and cause an ear infection, injury or sometimes, bleeding, he said.
It’s also good to note that ENT experts themselves do not actually remove every single bit of ear wax, even with specialised tools such as suction and miniature grabbing jaws at their disposal. “If the wax doesn't cause the patient any problem, we may not touch it," said Dr Lim.
WHEN TO GET YOUR EARS PROFESSIONALLY CHECKED
Definitely see a doctor if there is pain or reduced hearing, said Dr Lim. A general practitioner may use saline or medicated olive oil to soften and flush out the impacted ear wax. If that doesn't improve the situation, an ENT specialist may be needed.