Read before buying: How to safely participate in the viral #EarCleaning trend

Scope looking in woman's ear

Tempted to buy a popular ear cleaning kit? Read this first.

Lately, there's been a rising interest in – wait for it – ear wax removal. The topic is taking the internet by storm, from ear seeds and candling salons to earwax removal TikTok videos. Although this trend has seemed to create lucrative sales for online ear cleaning kits, the question remains: Is it safe?

Ear wax 101

Everyone's ears produce wax to some degree. The medical term for this oily substance is cerumen, an ordinary, self-cleaning function of the ears. The glands in the ear canal's skin produce cerumen, along with flakes of dead skin - the same kind of skin flaking that occurs on other parts of the body. 

Some people aren't bothered by ear wax, while others battle an overabundance. Too much ear wax has the potential to block the ear canal. If left untreated, it can lead to an infection. In severe cases, it can even cause damage to the ear canal bone. Why? In a word, genetics. Everyone produces different types and amounts based on their biology.

"Cotton swabs or any other instrument used to manipulate the ear canal blindly can cause damage to the lining. Damage can lead to bleeding, infection and pain. There can also be damage to the eardrum by using any object including cotton swabs, ear cleaning devices, bobby pins, etc.," says Samuel K Pate, MD, Nebraska Medicine ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. 

Are DIY wax removal kits safe?

According to Dr. Pate, think twice before buying these kits as an at-home fix. Most are a blind way of cleaning and will cause more harm than good.

"Patients should refrain from any ear wax treatment that involves blind manipulation of the ear canal. Reasonably safe methods for the home include solutions that come as a dropper and flushing technique," says Dr. Pate. "But take caution. Flushing should be used with great care as too much pressure can cause severe damage to the eardrum. It can also lead to infections of the ear canal due to increased moisture content in the canal. Solutions containing peroxide, isopropyl alcohol, or glycerin are best for cleaning the ear canal."

We asked Dr. Pate to review some of the top-selling online ear wax removal kits. Many of these kits claim to clean out the wax, relieve the itch or massage the ear canal, but the vast majority still require poking around with pick tools. 

Here is a summary of what to avoid and what to use with caution:

Avoid kits containing any tools you stick in your ear, including:

  • Steel pick tools that are pointy, spiral, or otherwise being poked down into the ear
  • Spiral pick tools, even if they claim to be safer with soft silicone
  • Kits with smartphone cameras (endoscope, otoscope), pick tools, and light. Even though they give you somewhat of a visual, it still requires poking an instrument into the ear canal without sufficient training to understand what you're seeing
  • Ear candles – these are not backed by science, are more likely to cause harm, can deepen blockages, and put you in danger of burning your face or ear

Use the following types of kits with extra caution, as even these can cause eardrum or ear canal problems: 

  • Ear wax removal kits using dissolving drops and rinsing bulb
  • Ear wax removal kits using drops and a water and peroxide combination for irrigation

If you suffer from an overproduction of ear wax and develop hearing loss or pain, it's time to see a specialist for removal. "We remove the excess wax under direct visualization. We use fine instruments using magnification to remove the wax without trauma to the skin of the ear canal or eardrum," says Dr. Pate.
Excess ear wax can be annoying, but the best plan is to let the body do what it can do itself. While online kits and other ear cleaning fads may seem convenient, it's best to stick to a warm washcloth and leave wax removal to the medical experts.