Some warning labels address activities that could pose a true danger to our health, like the grim images on cigarette packs. Others are more questionable, like the Parental Advisory Label program that used to indicate which CDs had explicit language (back in the days when we bought actual CDs). Less well-known is the warning label on the Q-Tip box. “Do not insert swab into ear canal,” it instructs, which serves to prevent us from going too far in the quest for wax-free ears.
Q-Tips can be used to clean the outside part of the ear, but once the cotton swab disappears inside your head, you’re playing the otolaryngological version of that dangerous game, Just the Tip. “Q-tips have a tendency to either pack wax in the ears or irritate the canals,” says Dr. Gordon Siegel, an otolaryngologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. If pushed too far, Q-tips (or anything else you shove in there) can even create a hole in your eardrum.
Another reason to leave the ear canal alone is that it’s set up to be a self-sustaining ecosystem, and ear wax plays an important role. “Ear wax serves as a defense against bacteria and fungus,” Siegel says. “It lubricates and constantly refreshes the ear canal.” The right ear wax can even cure chronic ear infections.
So before you dismiss the Q-tip warning as about as useful as the required mattress tag, remember that your ears are designed to take care of themselves, without meddling from your fingers or a cotton swab. If you still have the urge to dig in, feel free to redirect your energy to your belly button.