How can digging your ears continuously be bad for you when it feels so good?
In this instalment of CNA Lifestyle’s series on common bad habits people have, we take a look at ear digging. Whether it’s with your finger, a cotton bud, a scraper or a hairclip (yes, really), remember: Earwax is your friend.
It feels so satisfying to dig your ears, doesn’t it? After all, shouldn’t keeping your ear canals wax-free (or other orifices of your body clean, for that matter) be part of your personal hygiene routine? You most certainly don’t want flaky, Parmesan-like deposits sitting in your ears or worse, clogging your earphones, right?
But here’s why you don’t need to use a scraper or cotton bud, or even your finger: Your ear canals are self-cleaning.
“New skin grows from the deeper part of the ears and migrate outward. As it migrates outward, the earwax moves together with the new skin, and is emptied out of the ear naturally,” said Dr Ker Liang, a consultant otolaryngologist with Alexandra Hospital’s Head & Neck Surgery Department.
In other words, you don't have to do anything to get the earwax out.
In fact, earwax, which is medically known as cerumen, has a protective function. It is an oily substance produced by the hairy, outer part of the ear canal to trap, and prevent bacteria and dirt from going further into the ear canal.
Earwax’s oily nature also keeps your ears moist and has anti-bacterial properties, said Dr Ker. “It prevents the skin of the ear canal from becoming dry and flaky; skin dryness increases skin itch, irritation and infection.”
WHAT’S THE DAMAGE?
Cleaning out your ears with a cotton bud or scraper is entirely unnecessary and may even set you up for injuries, according to Dr Ker. “Most of the patients I see clean their ears daily. They do so for hygiene purpose and usually after their baths," she said, which lands them in her clinic for complications.
And there are a few that can arise. “The metal or plastic scraper may inadvertently scratch the skin of the ear canal, leading to laceration, bleeding and infection,” said Dr Ker. In some cases, the enthusiastic scraping may “lead to inadvertent injury and perforation of the eardrum”.
The cotton bud, though blunt, “increases the risk of pushing the earwax deeper into the ears, leading to impaction, pain and decreased hearing”, she said.
And those aren’t the only tools people have used. Dr Ker has seen patients using pens, pencils, hairclips – and even sewing needles and wires.
HOW CAN YOU STOP THE HABIT?
It helps to break the habit if you regard earwax as protective rather than dirty, said Dr Ker. “The commonest misconception is that earwax is unhygienic, and many patients tell me that this is the reasons why they continue to dig their ears regularly.”
“Secondly, the removal of earwax makes us more vulnerable to diseases and ear complications. With this understanding, it would be easier to break the habit,” she added.
But if you are grossed out by the thought of earwax falling out of your ears and onto your shoulders like dandruff, you could wipe the outer ear with a moist towel after each shower.
As for tackling that itch or blockage? As a guide, don’t insert anything smaller than your pinky finger into your ears, advised Dr Ker.
“If the ears feel blocked because water has entered the ear canal after a shower or swim, tilt the affected ear down towards the floor, and massage the tragus,” said Dr Ker (see image). “In this way, we use gravity to aid in drawing out the moisture from the ear canal and helps relieve the blocked ear sensation.”
If you experience pain or pressure, or your hearing is affected, see a doctor to have the earwax removed rather than doing so yourself, advised Dr Ker.