I. My Favorite Home Solution So Far
1. Buy a Water Pik. I recommend the WP 450 Cordless Plus. Available at Amazon for $42 (free shipping with Prime), or right away at Target for $55. You can also use it to replace daily flossing, saving time there as well.
2. Buy three bottles of hydrogen peroxide. Also at Target, or your local supermarket. 50 cents a bottle. Charge the Water Pik, put the peroxide in the reservoir, and set the pressure setting on low.
3. Kneel over your tub and irrigate your ear. It takes just 2 minutes (two 45 second reservoirs full with peroxide) to clear a typical impaction, in my experience. As long as you use common sense (see below), it is totally safe.
If you are one of the 6% of people (18+ million Americans, 400+ million worldwide), like me, who have to live with excessive ear wax buildup (we are “overproducers”), and who get clogged ears and ear wax-caused tinnitus at least once a year, I think you’ll love this solution.
If you have someone who can look in your ear before and after you irrigate it, to visualize the wax and your eardrum, feel free to get an otoscope too. Dr. Mom Slimline Otoscope is a popular one on Amazon, $27.
Common Sense Warning:
If your ear is painful, or you’ve had a blocked ear for days, one that might be inflamed, I’d use one of the other much slower home solutions below, or go your doctor. An inflamed eardrum can be delicate, and you might perforate it with a jet of high pressure liquid in your ear. Even doctors cleaning out ears with syringes or scoops are reported in the medical literature (in the few studies that exist on this) to perforate the tympanic membrane in the eardrum in up to 1% of cases. So be careful. But if you’ve just recently blocked your ear with wax, and you don’t use this in any way that will cause you pain, I think the Water Pik is your best solution by far.
Don’t put the Water Pik deeply into your ear, just get the tip into the canal, set it on low, and let the rapid flow and the peroxide strip away the ear wax. Again, in my experience it takes at least two reservoirs of peroxide to clear a typical impaction. Take a break every 10 seconds to clear your ears, and stop as soon as your hearing clears up. If you still hear faint ringing an hour or more later, you may still have some wax stuck to your eardrum. If so, do it again for another 10-40 seconds, wait an hour, and listen again. Soon even the faintest ringing will stop and you’ll be hearing wonderfully again. Also, be sure not to use cold peroxide. It should be room temperature or even a bit warm (feel free to put the peroxide you’ll be using, not the Waterpik, in the microwave for 10 seconds) if you want it even more efficient. Cold water in your inner ear can make some folks nauseous or dizzy. For people with really hard wax plugs, you might want to take a 20 minute sauna or steam room visit before you use your WaterPik. That makes it the most efficient. Most of us don’t need that, fortunately, when our ears get plugged.
Want to spend a whole lot more for very little extra value? There’s an older model Water Pik with a tip that directs the water to the sides of the ear canal, rather than directly at the eardrum. Its called the Bionix OtoClear Ear Lavage system, and it costs $230 (!). Here’s a video of it in action. Most of us would never pay that, and fortunately we don’t have to. Just use your Water Pik on low, and direct its jet at the side of the ear canal rather than the back. YouTube now even has a few videos of Water Piks being used for ear wax removal by physician assistants, so I see what I thought was my own little secret is out.
If you overproduce ear wax you may end up using your Water Pik for a minute or so every few months, just to manage wax buildup before it becomes a problem. If you are a swimmer, you might use it for just 5-10 seconds in each ear when you get home after a swim, to keep your ears clean and infection free. Just be sure not to use this device to clear out all the wax, which is there to protect your ears from bacteria. Again, use your common sense.
Feel free to ask your doctor about the WaterPik solution. Some physicians now OK this solution for their patients when they tell them about it (see reader comments below). Others, not wanting their patients to risk even minor self-inflicted harm, wouldn’t recommend their patients use either the $230 Bionix or the $42 Water Pik for their ears. I’ll be curious to see what kinds of formal guidelines eventually emerge. Ideally, the AMA would get involved in offering a set of guidelines for users and manufacturers for home irrigation, rather than leaving us to figure them out for ourselves. Fortunately, regardless of what they eventually do or say, you can still do it yourself. If you are a responsible human being, who has good common sense, I think you deserve to have the most powerful and affordable tools at your disposal. For ear wax removal, that’s definitely the Water Pik. So I hope the more independent-minded readers will take it upon themselves to try this the next time they have a blockage, rather than take their problem to a physician. You deserve to be able to solve this problem yourself, immediately, whenever it occurs. Good luck!
Below is some additional info on ear wax removal. You can skip it, unless you want more and alternative removal tips:
1. Q-Tips. These are both ineffective and dangerous. As almost all of us know, Q-Tips will very occasionally get the wax out, but most times they just compact it deeper in the ear canal, creating a plug. The big problem is that if you push too hard, you’ll rip your eardrum. An ear wax removal startup called Clear Ear, pitching in minutes 21-28 in this video, estimates that 20,000 people perforate their eardrums with Q-Tips every year worldwide. Think of how many people dig at their ears to get this level of injuries, and you see the magnitude of the ear wax removal problem.
III. Other Home Solutions
1. Ear Wax Removal Syringe. Acu-Life makes a great Ear Wax Removal Syringe, $5, with a tip that diverts the liquid to the sides of the ear canal, so you can push the plunger as hard as you want. But the flow ends up being pretty mild, so even if you load it with peroxide it will take up to an hour, sitting in the shower with it, using it 40+ times on your ear, to dislodge heavy plugs. If you have that kind of time and want to save money, go this route. If you don’t have that kind of time, I’d get the Water Pik. Again, use warm peroxide, as cold water in your inner ear can make you dizzy or nauseous.
2. Debrox, or Murine ear wax removal systems. These cost $6-$8 a pop, and use carbamide peroxide (a relative to hydrogen peroxide), but in very small amounts. You are supposed to use them for several days in a row to soften the plug before you irrigate it with the ineffectual little squeeze bulb (forget that, use a syringe instead). They’ll eventually work, but they take days of effort. I’d use this very slow and inefficient solution only if your ear is painful or has been impacted for several days, and you’re worried it may already be infected. Alternatively you might use it for a few days (or the cheaper homemade solutions below), if you have a hard plug, to soften it up, and then use the Water Pik.
3. Homemade solutions. Commonly recommended are vinegar, mineral oil, isopropyl alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide. Some recommend mixing these, in various ratios. Hydrogen peroxide will dissolve the ear wax (it attacks bacteria and other oxidizables in the wax, and the heat of oxidation dissolves the wax), isopropyl alcohol will also dissolve ear wax (though I find it a bit harsh to use regularly), and oil or vinegar will slowly penetrate behind the plug, making it easier to pop out. To use the oil or vinegar, lay down for awhile with them in your ear (30 minutes) then use a syringe or the Water Pik to flush out the plug. The hydrogen peroxide takes only 3-4 minutes before the bubbling slows down and you can put in a new batch of hydrogen peroxide. I’d recommend using the isopropyl alcohol even more briefly, if at all. Topical alcohol can actually penetrate into your cells when you apply it, and it’s mildly toxic to them when concentrated.
4. Sauna or steam bath visit. Taking a 20 minute sauna or steam bath before any of the above will soften up your ear wax quite a bit, sometimes enough for it to come out when you flush it even with the weak syringe. For really hard plugs you might combine the 20 minute vinegar or mineral oil ear soak, the sauna, and then the Water Pik with hydrogen peroxide.
IV. Two-Person Solutions
1. Ear wax scoops. These are popular in Asian cultures, though their ear wax tends to be crumbly and easier to scoop out than Caucasian ear wax. If you want to try this, you might use Jobar’s Lighted Ear Wax Scoop on Amazon, $4. If the person using the scoop wears a lighted magnifier, $5, it may also help them visualize the wax while they are working. I’d also use an otoscope before and after. I wouldn’t use the scoop yourself, as you can’t see the wax.
V. Physician Removal Solution
Going to your physician is a common response to a blocked ear, and ear wax removal is a surprisingly big business. Wikipedia says about 150,000 ears are irrigated each week in the US alone, by doctors and their aides, and 40,000 in the United Kingdom. Health Care Blue Book says the average cost of an ear wax removal treatment is $88. Thus in the US alone, there’s a $690 million dollar business here, waiting to be eliminated. Globally, that’s perhaps $1-2 billion of annual health care expenditures that could be prevented with a good cheap home ear wax removal solution. Ideally it would be a quarter of the cost of the one I’ve got here. I’ve been to my physician a few times in my life to get ear wax removed, after my shenanigans couldn’t get it out. Each time I’ve asked if the heavy duty syringe they used in the office was something I could purchase. No dice. Fortunately you don’t need a prescription or a medical license for the Water Pik, and if you use it, consider it a small step you can take to combat the developed world’s epidemic of out-of-control health care costs.
VI. More on Water Pik
Water Pik is a smart little company. It was founded in 1968 by engineer John Mattingly and dentist Gerald Moyer, and is presently owned by private equity firm The Carlyle Group. They introduced the first massaging showerhead in 1974, a very cool innovation for its time. Recently they figured out that cordless Water Piks are way more desirable for most people than countertop Water Piks, which take up far too much space, can’t be used in the shower, and don’t deliver much extra value for all their added complexity. Their new line of cordless Water Piks are not the best built, but they are better than their earlier ones. The WP 350 Cordless, for example, had a recharging terminal that corroded rapidly, so the unit needed to be replaced after a year or two. The WP 450 is apparently better built, but we’ll see.
Also, Water Pik finally got its act together with respect to doing scientific studies, and now they state on the box that they are “clinically proven to be twice as effective as string floss for improving gum health,” and that they are “proven in laboratory tests to remove 99.9% of plaque with a 3 second application to the treatment area.” For years people had no idea whether these devices actually worked, and their reputation suffered. I’m sure it will take them several years before people start using these for flossing, as they went so many years without quoting any good studies on their packaging. What may have saved the category was kids with braces. Water Piks are quite good at getting food out of braces. So they’ve been a success even in spite of themselves, as is often the case in many businesses.
My hat is off to Water Pik for steadily improving their product, and sticking around long enough for us to find a great new application for it. I expect we may see warnings on future Water Piks not to use them for cleaning your ears, just like with Q-Tips. Unless Water Pik embraces this use and gets usage and safety studies for it, and makes a deal with Bionix OtoClear for their safety tips, it may take years before a truly affordable physician-approved ear cleaning Water Pik comes out. In the meantime, you don’t need anyone’s permission, just common sense. You can just Do It Yourself.
Comments? Corrections? Know any other cheap, fast, and effective solutions not mentioned here? Let us know, thanks!