How to Clean Your Ears: Safety, Methods, and More

Medically Reviewed By Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
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If you experience a buildup of wax or debris in your ears, you may benefit from ear cleaning. However, it is important to clean the ears safely. Proper cleaning approaches can help protect your hearing and ear health. A buildup of ear wax may become uncomfortable and can affect hearing. While cleaning the ears may help, you should use safe cleaning techniques to avoid injury to the ear canal.

This article describes when and how to clean your ears safely, including at-home techniques. This article also discusses what not to do, when to contact a doctor, and possible risks of ear cleaning.

Why clean your ears?

A person looks down while wearing in-ear earphones.
Manu Padilla/Stocksy United (person appearing is a model and used for illustrative purposes only)

Ears have self-cleaning properties, so it may not be necessary to clean them.

The ears produce a substance called ear wax or “cerumen.” Ear wax is a natural substance that cleans the ear and protects it from infection, foreign bodies, and water. In most cases, ear wax gradually leaves the ear canal on its own.

Occasionally, however, ear wax may build up in the ear canal. Clinicians call this “impaction.”

Impaction can happen naturally, because of older age, for example. However, impaction can also occur from:

  • using hearing aids
  • inserting cotton swabs or other foreign items into the ear canal
  • using earplugs or earbuds

Impaction can cause discomfort and other symptoms, including:

  • itchiness
  • feeling of fullness in the ear
  • otalgia, ear pain
  • irritation
  • sensation of imbalance
  • difficulty hearing
  • cough
  • outer ear infections

These symptoms may make it difficult for a doctor to examine the ears. As a result, you may want or need to clean them.

Learn more about ear wax, including the causes of buildup.

How to clean your ears at home

The safest way to clean your ears is to have a doctor do it. A doctor will have the necessary training and equipment to remove excess ear wax without causing damage to your ear. 

However, if you prefer to self-clean the ears, some at-home methods and over-the-counter (OTC) products may help.

Generally, ear cleaning products work by softening the ear wax to hasten its removal. Gravity, or tilting the head, may then help to drain out the wax or debris.

OTC products may include:

  • rubber ear syringes to help administer wax softeners
  • wax softeners and ear drops containing ingredients such as:
    • olive or almond oil
    • sodium bicarbonate
    • hydrogen peroxide
    • urea
    • glycerol

Seek advice from a doctor or pharmacist before self-cleaning.

If you plan to clean your ears yourself, first seek advice from a doctor or pharmacist. They will recommend methods and products that may be safe and effective for you, and discuss potential risks.

Additionally, impaction may not be the underlying cause of your symptoms. You may require further diagnosis or different treatments.

Always use products as instructed by the product label, or following the doctor’s or pharmacist’s advice.

Do not self-clean the ears if you have ear tubes or an eardrum perforation.

How to clean your ears with hydrogen peroxide and other ear drops

Hydrogen peroxide solutions and other wax softening products may help clean your ears.

Follow these steps to remove ear wax using hydrogen peroxide or ear drops:

  1. Tilt your head to the side and place the recommended number of drops of the wax softener into the ear. This is usually only a small amount of liquid, such as a few drops. Make sure the tip of the applicator does not enter the ear.
  2. Wait a few minutes for the wax softener to work.
  3. Afterward, rinse the ear with water, or a mild solution of water and hydrogen peroxide. Take care not to push debris back toward the ear canal.
  4. Repeat this process twice daily for up to 4 days to maximize its effects.

Only use hydrogen peroxide products that are labeled as safe for use in the ears.

How to clean your ears with sodium bicarbonate

The use of sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda, is another popular home remedy for ear cleaning. Sodium bicarbonate can be an ingredient in OTC ear-cleaning drops or wax softeners. Some people may mix a solution at home.

You can use sodium bicarbonate to clean the ears using the following steps:

  1. Make a 15% solution of sodium bicarbonate and water by adding 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda to 2 teaspoons of boiled and then cooled water. Make sure to wait for the water to cool to room temperature. Alternatively, you can use OTC drops.
  2. Tilt the head to one side and place the solution into the ear.
  3. Leave the solution in the ear for about 1 hour. Then, wash the outside area with water or a solution of hydrogen peroxide and water.
  4. Repeat the process several times until the liquid that comes out looks clear.

How to clean your ears with oil-based products

Follow these steps to clean your ears using oil-based products:

  1. Tilt the head to the side and put a few drops into the affected ear.
  2. Wait a few minutes for the solution to work.
  3. Rinse the ear with water or a solution of hydrogen peroxide and water. Wipe the outside area gently with a tissue.

Some products may recommend warming the oil before use. However, only do this if the instructions suggest it. If warming the oil, do not overheat it. Make sure that the oil is warm, not hot. Test the oil before use to check that it is at a safe temperature.

How to flush your ears using ear irrigation

Ear irrigation involves using an ear-safe bulb syringe to flush out wax from the ear.

Some people may find that applying a wax softener to the ear beforehand helps the process. After this, the following steps describe how to irrigate the ears:

  1. Boil some water and then wait for it to cool to body temperature. Always check the temperature of the water before use.
  2. Draw the warm water into the syringe, and bring the syringe close to your ear.
  3. Gently squeeze the bulb to flush out your ear, and turn your head to the side to let the water drain out.
  4. Rinse the surrounding ear with water or a solution of hydrogen peroxide and water.

A bulb syringe can be a safe and effective way to clear unwanted ear wax. However, as with other methods, a doctor should perform this procedure to avoid injury to the ear.

Contact your doctor before attempting the procedure to see if bulb syringe ear irrigation is the right option for you.

Ear irrigation may not be suitable for people with additional conditions, including:

  • diabetes
  • skin conditions affecting the ear, such as eczema
  • a weakened immune system

How often should you clean your ears?

Cleaning your ears too often is ‌not advisable. 

In fact, habitual ear wax removal can increase the risk of ear-related conditions, such as:

  • earache
  • injury and bleeding 
  • perforation of the eardrum
  • weakened ear defense against infection

As a result, healthcare professionals recommend minimal ear cleaning, and only when you notice symptoms of ear wax buildup.

What not to do

Many people use cotton swabs, sticks, and other objects to clean their ears. However, this practice carries various risks and can worsen ear wax buildup.

Other potentially harmful ear-cleaning practices include:

  • cleaning the ear too often
  • using too much force
  • using products that are not approved for use in the ears, such as non-medical hydrogen peroxide products
  • ear candling

Ear candling is a popular home remedy that involves using a candle or hollow tube covered in beeswax. Researchers say it is falsely claimed that a “chimney effect” can pull ear wax and debris from the ear.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), ear candling is ineffective and is a hazard. The FDA strongly recommends against the practice because of the risk of injury.

Do not use products that are not approved for use in the ears. If you are unsure, check with a pharmacist or doctor before use.

Complications and risks

Impaction may cause temporary hearing impairments and increase the risk of outer ear infections. Hearing loss, in turn, may lead to social isolation and depression.

However, cleaning the ears can cause complications, especially if not done safely. Complications and risks of self-cleaning include:

  • irritation
  • infection
  • changes to the skin lining of the ear
  • injury or damage to the ear
  • hearing loss

People with certain conditions may have a heightened risk of complications from manual ear wax removal. These conditions include:

  • diabetes mellitus
  • a weakened immune system
  • persistent use of anticoagulants, anti-blood-clotting medicines
  • ear damage or middle ear infections

Having a doctor clean your ears may help reduce risk of complications.

When to see a doctor

Contact your doctor as soon as possible in one or more of the following circumstances:

  • You find yourself wanting to clean your ears regularly.
  • You experience symptoms related to the ears, or you have symptoms of impaction.
  • You experience new symptoms after ear cleaning.
  • You experience symptoms that do not improve, worsen, or improve and then return after ear cleaning or treatment.

Seek emergency care if you experience pain, bleeding, or hearing changes, or if you believe you have developed an injury or complication.

If your symptoms linger after preliminary clinical treatment, your doctor may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor.

Read more about the symptoms of ear conditions.

Summary

Your ears are self-cleaning and rarely require manual cleaning. However, ear wax can occasionally build up, causing discomfort, difficulty hearing, or other ear-related symptoms.

It is preferable for a doctor to clean the ears to help reduce the risks of injury, infection, and other complications. However, some people may choose to use at-home remedies. These methods can include using OTC hydrogen peroxide, sodium bicarbonate, or ear irrigation. Do not insert cotton swabs or other foreign bodies into the ear canal to clean the ears.

Seek medical attention if you experience symptoms that relate to the health of the ear, especially after self-cleaning the ears.

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Medical Reviewer: Nicole Leigh Aaronson, MD, MBA, CPE, FACS, FAAP
Last Review Date: 2022 Dec 25
View All Ear, Nose and Throat Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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