There's a reason Q-tips come with a warning to never use them in your ears—and it's about time we heeded the advice, says the American Academy of Otolaryngology. The academy's new guidelines for dealing with earwax, the first in almost a decade, stress that the wax is as beneficial as nose mucus or eyelashes and should be left alone as much as possible. While it might seem icky, earwax traps dirt, dust, and other stuff that might get into our ears; the wax is slowly pushed outward by new skin growth and jaw movement and washed away with normal bathing, reports Reuters and CNN. That means there's no reason to get rid of earwax with cotton swabs, your finger, or any other tool. Doing so is actually a really bad idea.
You might "push the wax in further, and there also is the potential for damage to the ear drum," says Dr. Seth Schwartz, who helped draft the new guidelines. You might also scratch the ear canal, which "can lead to pain and infection," he says. "Wiping away any excess wax when it comes to the outside of the ear is enough to keep it clean." Doctors say you should seek medical help if your ear feels full, painful, itchy, or if you're experiencing hearing loss, drainage, ringing in the ears, or bleeding, rather than using a cotton swab to poke around. In fact, they say you shouldn't put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear—including ear candles, which are supposed to remove wax with heat, though there's no evidence they really work, per Quartz. (It turns out your earwax says a lot about you.)