How to remove stubborn earwax at home, according to experts

You may have been doing it wrong this whole time.
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By Jillian Ortiz

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How many times have you reached for a cotton swab when it comes time to clean your ears? We’ve all done it (and probably still do), but the truth is, we’re not supposed to.

“Do not use (cotton swabs) for wax removal. All they do is remove the normal healthy wax coating the skin of the ear canal and push inward any lumps of wax you are hoping to remove,” Dr. Hilary Brodie, an ENT specialist and professor of otolaryngology at UC Davis Health, told Shop TODAY.

According to Brodie, removing cerumen (earwax) with cotton swabs increases the risk of wax becoming trapped deep inside the ear canal. Instead, he suggests opting for ear drops when attempting to clean your ears at home.

Debrox Earwax Removal Aid Drops

"Any of the ear drops on the market for cerumen removal all work to a degree," Brodie said. "Most will contain either an oil — like mineral oil — or a variation of hydrogen peroxide."

Debrox is an over-the-counter earwax removal aid that contains carbamide peroxide, an active ingredient that helps loosen wax from the ear. Not only does it have Brodie's approval, but it's also the bestselling earwax removal aid on Amazon with over 1,600 verified five-star reviews.

"For several weeks, I felt like I had water in my right ear — I was getting that squishy sound in my ear when I moved my jaw around," one verified reviewer wrote. "I was thinking I'd have to go to the doctor, but then tried this. A couple of applications and the problem solved! Great product."

Although earwax may seem troublesome, Brodie says that "the wax in the canal is healthy and desirable" since it protects the skin of the ear canal.

"Those who don’t have any earwax are more at risk of infection," Brodie said. "The most important thing to keep in mind is that wax is good, and (cotton swabs) in the ear are bad."

Methods to avoid

Most of the time, earwax does not need to be removed from your ears. According to Dr. Seth Schwartz, an otolaryngology specialist and the medical director of the Listen for Life Center at Virginia Mason in Seattle, earwax is part of the natural cleaning mechanism of your ears

“Cleaning only becomes necessary when the wax is causing symptoms such as hearing loss, a sense of plugging, pain or dizziness. Or if the patient needs the ear examined and the wax is blocking a view into the ear canal,” Schwartz told Shop TODAY.

One at-home method experts encourage consumers to avoid is “ear candling.”

“This is a homeopathic remedy that was never intended for use as an earwax removal, but somewhere along the line was co-opted for that purpose,” Dr. David Eisenman, associate professor and vice-chair of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told Shop TODAY. “There is no evidence that it promotes softening or removal of earwax, and it can be very dangerous."

When at-home methods don't yield any results, it is best to consult your doctor for professional removal.

"Patients should consult their physician if they have a known (or concern for a) hole in the eardrum, drainage from the ear (such as pus), previous ear surgery, other known ear abnormality (narrowing of the ear canal), significant pain, bleeding or inability to remove the wax with the OTC drops, " Dr. Jameson K. Mattingly, an otolaryngologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Shop TODAY.

Which ingredients should I look for?

If you’re looking to try over-the-counter drops, there are a few ingredients to make note of in the process.

“There is a limited number of ingredients I would consider safe for earwax removal or softening. This includes carbamide peroxide, baby oil, mineral oil, glycerin, hydrogen peroxide and warm water. I would not recommend any other substances for this purpose,” Mattingly said. He also notes that these drops and substances should only be used when dealing with an intact eardrum.

"The most common, and safest, have an ingredient called carbamide peroxide," Eisenman said. "This is hydrogen peroxide with another medication in it as well and it can loosen the wax." He warns that you should follow the directions closely for any method of removing earwax at home, as "leaving it in for too long can irritate the ear canal and lead to infection."

Are there any other methods?

Another method of at-home earwax removal is flushing systems, which "can be helpful if drops alone don’t clear [the wax]," Schwartz said. "People should only use systems designed for ear irrigations that are low pressure. High-pressure systems such as a water pick should be avoided, as they can lead to trauma and permanent damage."

If you aren’t looking to leave your house to purchase ear drops or cleaning systems, Eisenman says “the best way to clean your ears is simply to wash the outside with soap and water (or shampoo) and then pat it dry.” If visible earwax becomes bothersome, Eisenman says that it should be wiped away with a washcloth or tissue.

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