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Cotton Swabs Are Devil-Sticks

Never, ever put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear

Among the many seemingly innocent things that could jack your shit up, consider cotton-tipped applicators. A new study in the Journal of Pediatrics has verified the old adage that you should never put anything smaller than your elbow inside your ear, especially when that smaller thing is a cotton swab. Looking at ER visits between 1990 and 2010, researchers found that cotton swabs were responsible for the visits of some 34 children a day, and 73 percent of those injuries were from attempts at cleaning their ears with them, leading to the feeling that something was stuck in there, bleeding and perforation of the tympanic membrane. Oof.

Translation: Q-tips are bad. Do not use them. Sure, that study is about children, but 16 percent of those cases were parents administering the cotton swab themselves, proving that even the most well-meaning adults are only only somewhat less irresponsible than children. Incidentally, by informally polling the MEL office I found that every person up in this place claims an absurdly loyal allegiance to cleaning their ears with Q-tips, science be damned.

Before we ruin our hygienic lives with the only medically approved earwax removal methods, let’s revisit why we use Q-tips to clean our ears in the first place. Answer: That’s what they were invented for. Company founder Leo Gerstenzang got the idea in the 1920s when he saw his wife invent a makeshift Q-tip to clean their infant’s ears — a toothpick with a wad of cotton stuck to it. According to the study, it would take the medical community another 50 years to start pointing out that inserting a sharp stick into a delicate hole might not be the greatest idea. By the early 1970s, manufacturers begin advising consumers not to use them for this purpose.

But by then, it was too late, because as everyone knows, the feeling of rimming your inner and outer ear with a cotton swab after a nice hot shower is among the most pleasing sensations in life you can possibly experience in a shower-related setting (aside from maybe a shower beer).

But here’s the trouble: Earwax feels gross and looks gross and is gross, and how are you supposed to walk around with that stuff in there? Turns out, we have been deeply, deeply misled on this one.

“Some parents put ear cleaning right up there with brushing your teeth as a hygiene practice,” study author Kris Jatana told Live Science. “This is a misconception being taught to children,” he said. “It’s not something that needs to be done, and this study shows how important it is that these products are not used to clean the ear canals.”

So what the hell are we supposed to do? Brace yourself: The answer is nothing. Ears are self-cleaning. That’s right: They clean themselves. You’re not supposed to do anything. You’re not supposed to clean your ears, ya morons! Live Science writes:

The ear is self-cleaning and the presence of earwax is normal, [Jatana] said. It has protective, lubricating and antibacterial properties. Visible wax in the outer portion of the ear can be wiped away with a wet cloth.

Other reports on this explain that earwax is supposed to keep dirt out of your ears, so cotton swabs either remove wax you need, or push it deeper in, which actually makes it worse, creating blockages. (Wearing earbuds or ear plugs can contribute to the issue.)

Actually, there is one instance where you should do something to your ears, and that’s if you get any wax buildup. For this, you can try the aforementioned wet cloth (not satisfying), use ear drops (weird sensation), or those ear candles, which you insert one end into the ear, light it up to warm it, and it’s supposed to melt the wax so you can drain it out. There’s also ear irrigation, which I have to say is incredibly satisfying but not super easy to do alone.

Of all these methods, a study found that drops and irrigation are your best bet. There is no scientific proof ear candles work (one theory is that all that’s melting and dripping out is the paraffin from the candle itself) and ear irrigation is safest if done by a doctor. There’s also an earwax extraction, which requires a doctor, but based on these videos, it is obvious that it feels fucking amazing.

At any rate, cotton swabs are terrible, your life is a lie, and it’s time to radically update your understand of basic ear care. You don’t have to throw out that lifetime supply of Q-tips just yet. Just use them for much safer activities, like cleaning guns or lighting campfires.