Whenever your ears feel stuffed or clogged, it feels like second nature to reach for a cotton swab.

Like an errant hangnail or a song that’s stuck in your head, clogged ears are one of those little — and universal — annoyances in life.

While your first instinct may be to use a cotton swab (or Q-tip, which is the most recognizable brand of cotton swabs) to clear out whatever’s causing the blockage, it may not be the best course of action. In fact, it might even do more harm than good.

That’s because while earwax may be a little gross, especially when there’s excess, it also has the important role of protecting, lubricating and keeping clean the ear canal. Plus, earwax both traps dirt and grime and inhibits the growth of bacteria within your ear canal.

“A person without it is far worse off than someone with an excess,” said Dennis R. Maceri, MD, professor of clinical otolaryngology-head and neck surgery and neurosurgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

That’s great, but if you have a blockage, earwax can be both uncomfortable and annoying. That’s why you might reach for a cotton swab, which seems like it would come in handy for digging out any earwax. But due to its shape, a cotton swab isn’t actually doing much to remove earwax. Instead, sticking a cotton swab into your ear can actually push that hardened earwax farther into your ear canal, which could potentially damage your eardrum and cause hearing loss.

There are alternatives to the almighty cotton swab, but Dr. Maceri, who also is a surgeon at the USC Tina and Rick Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Keck Medicine of USC, recommends seeing a doctor to evaluate your ear, ear canal and eardrum to rule out other issues before you use them. Some gentler solutions involve actual removal of the earwax by softening and dissolving it.

Using an eyedropper, you can deposit a few drops of baby oil, mineral oil, glycerin or hydrogen peroxide into the ear canal, which will soften it. Then, after one or two days, squirt a small amount of warm water into your ear canal with a rubber-bulb syringe. Lean your head to the side and move your outer ear up and back to straighten your ear canal, and then tilt your head again to let the water (and dissolved ear wax) seep out. Then, pat your ear dry with a soft towel.

Repeat this a few times if you need to, and if that still doesn’t help, you may want to visit your doctor. They can then assess your problem and recommend earwax removal kits.

As for those cotton swabs, save them for cleaning your outer ears only. There are safer ways to remove excess earwax, and while using a cotton swab might seem convenient — and more satisfying in the moment — it’s not work risking long-term damage to the lining of your ear canal and inner ear. Resist the urge!

By Deanna Pai

If you are suffering from excess buildup in your ears, make an appointment with one of our otolaryngology specialists at Keck Medicine at USC. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.