How it works: Stop – don’t put that in your ear

Madeline Bombardi

(Graphic by: Kate Knapp)
(Graphic by Kate Knapp.)

What do recent showers, late-night concerts and itchy ears all have in common? A buildup of earwax. It’s kind of a gross thing to think about and definitely an awkward thing to write about.

Yet, as you go to relieve your ear of that irritatingly full or sticky feeling, you are doing more harm than good.


The craze for using the Q-tip started in 1923, when Leo Gerstenzang discovered his wife applying cotton balls to toothpicks, according to the Q-tips corporation. The product has sold successfully ever since.

Although there is arguable convenience, the wax that is produced by the ear has significant beneficial properties that protect our ears. The ear produces wax for specific reasons other than to annoy you. Ear wax is antibacterial and anti-fungal — this protects the very delicate parts within the ear from becoming dry and flushes the waste that is built up in the ear canal, according to The Heart Soul, an online health website.

It’s probably not the best idea to use a Q-tip to clean your ear, especially when the product prints a warning label stating not to put product in ear canal. The damaging effects are somewhat obvious: Sticking a foreign object in the extremely delicate ear canal could result in a variety of problems.

When you try to clean out the ear with a seemingly perfect tool, you are likely to puncture the eardrum, push the wax further into the ear canal and cause possible vertigo, according to an article written by Carey Goldberg for WBUR’s CommonHeath.

When examining a drawing of the ear, it’s clearly demonstrated that the ear canal is actual very short. By inserting an object into the ear, you run the risk of pushing against the eardrum.  

Leah Stone, a Ph.D. candidate studying journalism and communication media, said she loves Q-tips and uses them all the time.

“I don’t believe I have ever pushed it in too far to hurt my ear canal, but I worry about Violette (her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter) doing it. I won’t let her near them and hide them from her ’cause she always wants to do what I am doing,” Stone said.

So, if you must use a Q-tip, be careful and don’t be like Lena Duham’s character (Hannah Horvath) in “Girls” and roughly massage your ear because it itches. The consequences are dire.

Collegian Science Beat Reporter Madeline Bombardi can be reached at or on Twitter @madelinebombard.