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  • Mitch Adair

Happy 100th birthday to cotton buds - and why we shouldn't put them in our ears...

Photo by Alexander Grey on Unsplash

This year marks a century since the invention of the cotton bud.

Cotton buds were developed in 1923 by Polish American inventor Leo Gerstenzang. He had observed his wife using wads of cotton on toothpicks to clean their baby’s ears, inspiring him to develop the cotton-tipped swab that would later become the Q-tip.

Mr. Gerstenzang's invention has turned out to have many uses, but people primarily think of cotton buds as ear cleaners. However, we don't use them in people's ears, and neither should you.

3 good reasons to keep cotton buds out of your ears:

The size and shape of your ear canal

Every ear canal is different. As a rule, normal ear canals have 2 bends, but while some bend so slightly that the ear canal is almost straight, others bend at nearly 90 degrees. On top of this, ear canals are almost never round. Most have an oval shape, with some so narrow and elongated that they would be better described as a slit than a canal. Lastly, the ear canal doesn't stay the same width along its length. Many are funnel shaped, becoming much narrower from the outside in, and some even have an hourglass shape, becoming narrower in the middle and flaring out again on the inside. The point is, once you start putting a cotton bud in your ear, you have no idea what it's about to hit.

From "Anatomy and orientation of the human external ear" (Alvord & Farmer, 1997)

Potential for injury

If you manage to successfully navigate the twists and turns of your ear canal with a cotton bud, you will eventually reach the tympanic membrane, or eardrum. The average ear canal is about 2.5 cm long, but this varies between individuals. The eardrum is an extremely delicate structure so thin that you can see through it. Behind the eardrum are the equally delicate ossicles, or middle ear bones - the smallest bones in the body, responsible for conducting sound to the inner ear. It is easy to damage the eardrum and the ossicles by inserting a foreign object into the ear.

Perforated eardrum

Potential for impaction

Your ear canal might not be much wider than the cotton bud you are using. The scale of the picture below is not unrealistic, and it is clear that the cotton bud has no way of getting past the wax and pulling it out. It is only going to push the wax further into the canal. At the conclusion of this exercise, if you are lucky enough not to have injured your eardrum, you will probably have pushed wax right up against it, causing a complete impaction and a temporary hearing loss, which is most safely resolved by a professional using microsuction.

As always, we are here to help and are usually able to fit you in at short notice for emergency earwax removal. We have an easy online booking system as well - just press the button:

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