This Is Why You Shouldn't Use Q-Tips

March 7th 2016

Lucy Tiven

The Q-Tip has been long equated with hygiene; removing earwax can feel cleansing, and even pleasurable. But it turns out there's more to this swab than meets the eye (or ear).

lena dunham ear

In this Business Insider video, William H. Shapiro, an audiologist and clinical associate professor at NYU Langone, delves into the danger of Q-Tips and why wax gets such a nasty reputation.

Waxing Poetic

Cerumen, the medical term for earwax, actually serves a crucial physical function. Shapiro explained that earwax protects your ears from insects and fungal growth. "It traps hair, dust, and dead skin which is carried out of your ear by chewing or yawning," the video noted.

ear wax fungus

Ears are self-cleaning, editor Sarah Klein pointed out over at The Huffington Post. Wax, however viscerally icky, shields your eardrum from intruders, and acts as an anti bacterial agent and lubricant.

"The purpose of earwax really is to keep your ear canal clean," Douglas Backous, M.D., chair of the hearing committee of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNSF) and director of hearing and skull base surgery at Swedish Neuroscience Institute in Seattle, told the Huffington Post.

You Might Be Using Q-Tips Wrong.

Doctors agree that while Q-Tips are not inherently evil, most people use them incorrectly. Shapiro warned that sticking a Q-Tip into your ear can damage your ear drum and result in a loss of hearing.

William Brennan explained the difference between proper and improper use on Slate:

"There is a proper way to use Q-Tips and there is an improper way. If you’re putting them in your ears, you’re using them the improper way. Even Unilever, the company that makes the cotton swabs, warns that, when using them to clean the ears, you should “stroke ... gently around the outer ear, without entering the ear canal.” The word “ear” appears only eight times on the Q-Tips website, which emphasizes the cotton swab’s non-aural uses: From polishing your silverware to “cleaning the small crevices of your dog or cat’s face,” it seems you should do anything with a Q-Tip but put it in your ear."

When you push a Q-Tip too deep in your ear, you may even push the wax further in, causing an earwax impaction. Symptoms of impacted earwax include dizziness, ringing, pain, and even hearing loss, Slate notes.

Wax Impaction

Oddly enough, actress Lena Dunham also depicted the dangers of Q-Tips after she featured a Q-Tip ear injury in an episode of "Girls." She tweeted:

"Q-Tips are one of the only, if not the only, major consumer products whose main purpose is precisely the one the manufacturer explicitly warns against," Roberto A. Ferdman observed on the Washington Post. Ferdman explained that it wasn't until the 1970s that the company warned against sticking the swabs in your ear.

He continued, "while Q-Tips were never sold for use deep inside the ear, it took around half a century for manufacturers to explicitly warn against it." Many people remain uniformed about the dangers of overzealous swabbing.

Why can't we stay away from Q-Tips? Otolaryngologist Dennis Fitzgerald weighed in on why cleaning our ears the wrong way feels so right on NPR.

"Well, there are a lot of nerve endings in the ear," Dr. Fitzgerald stated. "And a lot of those nerves are hooked up to other parts of our body, especially internal organs." You can watch the full video below.

[H/T Business Insider]