Here’s How Often You Should Really Clean Your Ears, According to Expert Ear Doctors

Updated: Jun. 16, 2024

Doctors specializing in multiple areas of ear care explain how to maintain optimal ear health without overdoing it.

Earwax, medically known as cerumen, is a substance naturally produced by glands in the ear canal. It serves critical functions: Trapping dust, dirt, bacteria, bugs (really!) and other foreign particles to protect the sensitive inner ear, and moisturizing the ear canal to prevent dryness and irritation. Despite its essential role in maintaining ear health, many of us rush to remove earwax—understandably, as nobody likes the idea of excessive wax buildup.

We spoke with an otorhinolaryngologist (commonly known as an ear, nose, and throat or “ENT” doctor) with more than four decades of experience: Greg Roscoe, MD, DMD, MBA, from DuBois, PA. Responding to how often to clean the ears, Dr. Roscoe highlights the need for regular ear examinations. He draws a comparison to regular optometry checks, stating, “Just as you regularly have your eyes checked, your ears also need routine examinations.” This is particularly important to monitor and manage earwax.

Brian Taylor, AuD, the senior director of audiology at Signia, reassures that having earwax is completely normal, but issues can arise “when wax obstructs the eardrum or becomes impacted within the ear canal.”

Often, these complications are ironically caused by our own attempts to clean our ears. Ear doctors widely discourage the use of objects like cotton swabs inside the ear canal. Maybe you’ve heard that in severe cases, this can cause a punctured eardrum—but Dr. Roscoe adds that these objects can actually defeat the purpose of cleaning your ears by pushing the wax deeper, which may potentially cause compaction and blockage.

These two ear health experts share the best practices for ear hygiene and identify the safest approaches to cleaning your ears.

Should you clean your ears at all?

The human ear is a self-cleaning organ equipped with tiny hairs called cilia, which help move wax particles out of the ear. “Using soap and water with a washcloth to gently clean the outer ear is usually sufficient to keep your ears clear of excess wax,” advises Dr. Taylor.

Dr. Roscoe recommends against trying to remove earwax from within the ear canal on your own. Instead, it’s safer to have a healthcare provider inspect and assess your ears to determine the best course of action. This perspective is supported by the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, which recommends that, in the absence of any complications, earwax should not be removed manually. If your ears are functioning normally, there’s no need to interfere with the natural process. Over-cleaning the inside of the ear can strip away your body’s natural oils, leading to dryness, irritation, and possible infection.

If you don’t clean your ears, there is a risk that wax can accumulate and lead to discomfort or hearing problems. To know if your ears need cleaning, watch for the following signs outlined by Daniel Troast, AuD, an audiologist at HearUSA:

  • Pain in the ears
  • A sensation of fullness or pressure
  • Feeling as though your ears are plugged or underwater
  • Decreased hearing ability
  • Tinnitus, or ringing in the ears
  • Itchiness in the ear canal

If you experience any of these symptoms, consult your healthcare provider for an evaluation. Sometimes, what may seem like an earwax issue could actually be an underlying hearing problem.

How often should you clean your ears?

You should clean your ears daily, focusing solely on the outer part with a washcloth. Dr. Roscoe adds, “Periodic examinations by an ENT, ranging from every three to six months, are ideal.” The need for these visits can vary, as some individuals may produce more earwax than others. Regular check-ups ensure that any potential issues are addressed quickly and prevent the risks associated with over-cleaning. For those without earwax problems, an annual check-up is adequate. When removal is necessary, your healthcare provider will use clinical methods like manual extraction with a curette or gentle irrigation.

Factors that can increase the need for more frequent ear cleaning include having narrow ear canals, which are more likely to trap wax, or being over age 75, as the ear’s natural self-cleaning abilities can decline with age. Regular earbud users also face a higher risk of wax buildup, as inserting earbuds can push wax deeper into the ear canal. (Also, never share your earbuds.) Individuals with certain skin conditions, such as eczema or some autoimmune diseases, might require more frequent cleanings.

How to clean your ears safely

“The big takeaway is that you want your healthcare provider to look in your ears because it’s very hard to see in your ear canal,” explains Dr. Roscoe.

Below are some tips from experts on how to manage and soften earwax safely between professional visits:

1. Use a washcloth

During your daily hygiene routine, gently wipe around the outer ear with a washcloth. This is especially important for parents to do for their children, as inserting any object into the ear poses a risk of puncturing the eardrum.

2. Natural jaw movements

Dr. Troast points out that what helps draw earwax out of the canal are the natural movements of your jaw from talking and eating. Often, these natural motions are all that’s needed for the wax to expel itself.

3. Soften wax with over-the-counter drops

Consider using over-the-counter earwax softeners that contain hydrogen peroxide, which helps dissolve the wax. Apply these drops two to three times a day for five to ten minutes. Afterwards, gently flush the ear with warm water. This routine can be followed for about four to five days.

The side effects of flushing your ears with water include discomfort or dizziness if the water is not at body temperature. Always use warm water to avoid stimulating the vestibular nerve, which is associated with balance and motion.

4. Opt for different headphones

Switch from in-ear buds to circumaural headphones that sit around the ear. This change can prevent the direct pressure on the ear canal that often leads to wax buildup.

5. Consult your healthcare provider

They can evaluate the effectiveness of your at-home cleaning methods, assist with thorough cleaning if necessary, and develop strategies to prevent future wax buildup.

For more wellness updates, subscribe to The Healthy by Reader’s Digest newsletter and follow The Healthy on Facebook and Instagram. Keep reading: