Q. I’ve heard Q-tips are bad for my ears, what about foam earplugs?
A. Many people reach for cotton swabs to get wax out of their ears, but doctors recommend avoiding that temptation. For one, wax isn’t all bad. “It’s not good to have an ear that’s too clean,” says Donald Keamy Jr., an otolaryngologist at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. “Wax helps prevent certain infections in the ear canal.” Secondly, it can have the opposite of the intended effect. “You can push the wax all the way to the ear drum where the ear doesn’t have a way of getting rid of it,” he says. Finally, some people end up pushing too far, damaging their ear drums. Cleaning the outer ear is fine, Keamy says, but he cautions against sticking a swab into the ear canal.
Foam earplugs are generally seen as safe for ears: They are soft and not as likely to damage ear drums, and most don’t reach deep into the ear. Use clean ear plugs to avoid infections. “For people who use ear plugs short term — an hour or two at a time — it is unlikely that this will lead to chronic wax build up,” Keamy says, and it’s worth the benefit to protect hearing in noisy situations. Frequent wearing — such as sleeping with ear plugs at night — could prevent wax from being cleared, a problem that can also plague hearing aid wearers. If ear wax becomes impacted because it’s not being cleared naturally, a doctor can remove the wax safely.