How (not?) to clean your ear with a bobby pin (Updated)

(UPDATE: Click here for comments about the dangers of cleaning your ears with any kind of pick, provided by otolaryngologist Grant S. Hamilton III M.D. -- Mark)

After reading my recent posts about ear cleaning in Asia, Zee says:

bobby pin It's not just an Eastern thing. I'm Black and my parents are from the South (Mom St. Louis; Dad, Alabama); they taught all of us kids how to clean our ears from the time we were toddlers. (Well, actually they cleaned them until we were old enough to do it ourselves). We use a plain black bobbypin and it's true what they say: once you go black, you'll never go back. ;)

Stay away from the gold and decorative bobbypins, they're too big to comfortably insert in your ears and the experience will not be pleasant. Sterilize your tool with some soap and hot water, rinse it, dry it off, and insert into your ear. Gingerly work your way from the outer ear to the inside scooping out small bits of wax as you go. Wipe the wax on a nearby kleenex or sibling and continue until you've reached as far as you can comfortably go. Some tips:

1. The first time you clean your ears, you may start to cough as you get deeper inside. This is common and nothing to worry about; just be prepared so you can either stop moving or quickly take out the hairpin so you don't inadvertently jab yourself.

2. Never clean your ears if there are sick people around you; the waxy buildup actually protects you from their cooties. No kidding! I can't tell you how many times I've been perfectly healthy only to get the flu from somebody at work shortly after cleaning my ears. This goes for allergies, too; wait for the pollen to die down before cleaning your ears or you will suffer more than usual.

3. Never clean your ears on a bed. Murphy's Law dictates that once you've gone in good and deep, some fool will take the opportunity to dive bomb the mattress and assist you in your quest to puncture your eardrum.

4. Don't clean your ears too often or you risk irritating the inner ear and causing an infection. As with all other pleasurable pursuits, moderation is key. Once every week or two is plenty.

5. Have a friend with a videocamera nearby the first time you clean your ears. It will undoubtly be a memorable event. The first time I cleaned my boyfriend's ears, I pulled out a massive inch and a half blob of dark black wax; it was the exact size and shape of his ear canal! I nearly fainted from shock. He said he actually felt suction when I removed those wax plugs and his hearing improved dramatically.

As an aside, my friend recently bought me a Japanese ear cleaning kit while she was on vacation and I didn't care for it. It's very pretty, but the scooping end has a rough, serrated edge to it. I found it too painful to use and have since gone back to my trusty black bobbypins.

Grant S. Hamilton III M.D., says:

As an Otolaryngologist, I am compelled to comment on your recent ear cleaning posts. The last one is full of errors and I thought you might want to amend the post too avoid spreading misinformation. I have also added some comments that may be of interest...

It's not just an Eastern thing. I'm Black and my parents are from the South (Mom St. Louis; Dad, Alabama); they taught all of us kids how to clean our ears from the time we were toddlers. (Well, actually they cleaned them until we were old enough to do it ourselves). We use a plain black bobbypin and it's true what they say: once you go black, you'll never go back. ;)

First of all, earwax is good. It is a moisturizer and has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. It is not "dirt" that needs to be cleaned from the canal. Earwax varies amongst different ethnicities. Asians have very dry, crumbly wax and Africans have moist wax. Caucasians are somewhere in between.

Stay away from the gold and decorative bobbypins, they're too big to comfortably insert in your ears and the experience will not be pleasant. Sterilize your tool with some soap and hot water, rinse it, dry it off, and insert into your ear. Gingerly work your way from the outer ear to the inside scooping out small bits of wax as you go. Wipe the wax on a nearby kleenex or sibling and continue until you've reached as far as you can comfortably go. Some tips:

Washing with soap and water has no chance of sterilizing anything. And even if it did, your ear canal is certainly not sterile. It would not take much to break the skin of the ear canal and infect it with a wide variety of bacteria that colonize the external auditory canal. Near the ear drum, the skin is paper thin and rests right on the bone. If you see blood while cleaning, you have broken the skin.

1. The first time you clean your ears, you may start to cough as you get deeper inside. This is common and nothing to worry about; just be prepared so you can either stop moving or quickly take out the hairpin so you don't inadvertently jab yourself.

This is true. A branch of the Vagus nerve runs through the ear canal and can stimulate a reflexive cough.

2. Never clean your ears if there are sick people around you; the waxy buildup actually protects you from their cooties. No kidding! I can't tell you how many times I've been perfectly healthy only to get the flu from somebody at work shortly after cleaning my ears. This goes for allergies, too; wait for the pollen to die down before cleaning your ears or you will suffer more than usual.

This is a coincidence. Upper respiratory infections are just that. Upper RESPIRATORY infections. The enter through the mucus membranes of the upper respiratory tract.

3. Never clean your ears on a bed. Murphy's Law dictates that once you've gone in good and deep, some fool will take the opportunity to dive bomb the mattress and assist you in your quest to puncture your eardrum.

This is sure to be absolutely true.

4. Don't clean your ears too often or you risk irritating the inner ear and causing an infection. As with all other pleasurable pursuits, moderation is key. Once every week or two is plenty.

If you are irritating the inner ear with a bobby pin, you should worry that you are now deaf. The inner ear contains the cochlea and is entirely encased in bone. The middle ear is between the inner ear and the ear drum and contains the ossicles (hammer, anvil and stirrup). The outer ear is everything lateral to the eardrum.

5. Have a friend with a videocamera nearby the first time you clean your ears. It will undoubtly be a memorable event. The first time I cleaned my boyfriend's ears, I pulled out a massive inch and a half blob of dark black wax; it was the exact size and shape of his ear canal! I nearly fainted from shock. He said he actually felt suction when I removed those wax plugs and his hearing improved dramatically.

If people are this interested in cleaning their ears, an eyedropper with some saline and peroxide mixed together will dissolve or loosen most chunks of wax. Despite what your family doctor may recommend, never use pressurized water to irrigate your ears. That is a great way to perforate the ear drum.

As an aside, my friend recently bought me a Japanese ear cleaning kit while she was on vacation and I didn't care for it. It's very pretty, but the scooping end has a rough, serrated edge to it. I found it too painful to use and have since gone back to my trusty black bobbypins.

Most likely the reason the Japanese are interested in this is because of the dry nature of the wax. It is a little less likely to work its way out on its own.

Hope this helps.

Grant

Grant S. Hamilton III M.D.

Assistant Professor
Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery
Division of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics
200 Hawkins Dr.