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What is the purpose of cotton swabs?

In this age of hyper-awareness, it can be easy to focus on things that require less attention. For instance, there are a plethora of gadgets available that are incredible at solving problems, but sometimes those problems don’t need a solution.

Even worse, there are many sites that train us to believe that truth is a democracy — whichever answer gets the most votes must be correct. This can be dangerous for your health. To keep you safe, we talked to a doctor about earwax and if cotton swabs should ever be used to clean the inside of your ears.

All about earwax

What is earwax?

The medical term for earwax is cerumen. It is a waxy substance that may be brown, orange, yellowish or even gray. The purpose of earwax is to trap dust, bacteria, fungi and more so it can’t damage the ear.

Do you need to clean earwax?

Over time, the body naturally clears earwax from the ear. The skin grows from the inside out, and motions such as chewing help move earwax along. When earwax reaches the outside of the ear, it dries up and flakes off. In short, for the average person, earwax does not build up, and the inside of the ear should be left alone when performing daily hygiene routines.

When is earwax a problem?

Earwax only becomes a problem when something causes it to build up inside the ear canal and it stops moving forward. If earwax becomes impacted, then it may cause problems that affect your quality of life. When this happens, seek medical attention. However, it is important to reiterate that the average person may never have a problem with earwax if they let the body perform as it was meant to perform.

What are the symptoms of an earwax problem?

When earwax becomes impacted, you will know something is not as it should be. Your ear may feel full, itchy and ring or ache. You may experience hearing loss and feel dizzy. Sometimes you can develop a cough and notice an odor or discharge coming from the ear. Since you can’t tell on your own what these symptoms mean, the best course of action is to make an appointment with your health care provider if any of these symptoms come about.

Are cotton swabs good for cleaning out earwax?

According to Dr. Michael Huynh, who is a hospitalist affiliated with Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, cotton swabs are made to clean the outer part of the ear, just the exposed part that you can see. However, most of the population uses this product incorrectly. “If you shove a cotton swab down into your ear canal and dig, even though you are getting some wax out, you’re shoving a lot more wax deeper into the ear, which can lead to impaction of the earwax.”

This practice can lead to muffling and hearing loss. In fact, Q-Tip, the leading brand of cotton swabs, advises: “Do not insert swab into ear canal. Entering the ear canal could cause injury. If used to clean ears, stroke swab gently around the outer surface of the ear only.”

Dr. Huynh echoed the company’s safety warnings, stating “do not use a cotton swab beyond the recommendations of cleaning outside the ear.”

What should you use to clear earwax?

If you suspect you have impacted earwax, Dr. Huynh advises seeing a specialist who can dig out that earwax using special tools. If you want to try clearing your ears at home, the only substance he recommended was mineral oil — “Mineral oil is best because it’s a benign substance.” Put a few drops in one ear and allow it to soak for about five minutes. Then, tilt your ear over to the side and let it ooze out by itself.”

Best cotton swabs

While cotton swabs should never be inserted in the ear canal, they have many other useful purposes that range from cleaning your computer keyboard and using them in crafts to serving as a makeup brush or a cleaning tool. Here are some of the top cotton swab offerings.

Q-tips Cotton Swabs (750 Count)

Q-tips Cotton Swabs (750 Count)

This brand name is so recognized that people mistake it for the product name. These Q-Tip cotton swabs are 100% cotton with paper sticks sourced from sustainable forests. 

Sold by Amazon, Home Depot and Staples


Amazon Basics Cotton Swabs

Amazon Basics Cotton Swabs (500 Count)

The multi-purpose cotton swabs in this pack are tipped with soft cotton, making them suitable for beauty needs and a baby’s skin. Full money-back guarantee within a year of purchase if not satisfied. 

Sold by Amazon


Sky Organics Organic Cotton Swabs (Four-Pack)

Sky Organics Organic Cotton Swabs (Four-Pack)

No pesticides, insecticides or chemicals were used in the manufacturing of these organic cotton swabs. They are fragrance-free, hypoallergenic and biodegradable. 

Sold by Amazon


Q-Tips Anti Microbial Cotton Swabs (Two-Pack)

Q-Tips Anti Microbial Cotton Swabs (Two-Pack)

These antimicrobial-treated Q-Tip cotton swabs are biodegradable and come in recyclable packaging. They can be used as an alternative to makeup brushes, making them ideal for a portable makeup kit. 

Sold by Amazon


Best Johnson's Safety Swabs (185-Count)

Johnson’s Safety Swabs (185-Count)

These delicate cotton swabs feature a bulb design to make them safer for use around the outer surface of a baby’s ear. They are made of 100% pure, non-chlorine bleached cotton. 

Sold by Amazon and Staples


 Natulane Premium Biodegradable Bamboo Cotton Swabs

Natulane Premium Biodegradable Bamboo Cotton Swabs (500 Count)

Natulane’s cotton swabs are made from renewable bamboo wood, and they are packaged in an unbleached, plastic-free recyclable pack. 

Sold by Amazon


Best Sephora Collection Organic Cotton Swabs

Sephora Collection Organic Cotton Swabs

Sephora’s ultra-soft cotton swabs can be used on any type of skin. They are a plastic-free, vegan option with both the cardboard packaging and the swab sticks made from materials that have been sourced from sustainably managed forests. 

Sold by Kohl’s and Sephora

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Allen Foster writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money. 

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