The disgusting truth behind popular earphones

Brooke Rolfe
News Reporter

Disturbing details of what happens inside the ear of a person who regularly uses earphones or earpods have been revealed.

Ears have an efficient self-cleaning mechanism that takes care of removing the buildup of dirt, sweat, dead skin, oil and hair, clinical director of Earworx, Lisa Hellwege, said.

But the process can be compromised by earphones and earpods, and in the worst case can lead to painful, smelly, itchy and gloopy ear infections.

“Anything that obstructs that natural pathway of wax out of the ears can lead to wax buildup,” Ms Hellwege told Yahoo News Australia.

“As with earplugs and hearing aids, earphones sit in the part of the canal where wax is produced, and can actually stimulate the production of more wax when they are in use.”

Earphones can cause a build-up of wax, which might cause an infection. Source: Getty Images & YouTube/Jon Collins

Wax is a “delightful combination” of oil, sweat, dead skin cells, dust, dirt and hair, which Ms Hellwege said was normally beneficial because it worked as a protective barrier.

“However, you can have too much of a good thing and frequent use of earphones can contribute to this build up,” she said.

The dangers were particularly rife for people living in humid environments and those who frequently wore earphones, Ms Hellwege explained.

“Water trapped behind built-up wax, especially in humid environments, can lead to ear infections. Symptoms can include pain, odour, discharge and itching,” she said.

Ms Hellwege said if this occurred, people should keep their ears dry and seek medical help.

Do you need to clean your ears?

Ms Hellwege said it was important people allowed their ears a decent opportunity to clean themselves, given they are perfectly equipped with the right equipment to do so.

“For most people, the ear self cleans; a migrating skin layer works its way from the centre of the eardrum to the outer ear and carries wax out of the ears,” she said.

“This is why we don’t need to 'clean' our ears. Hearing aids and ear plugs, along with earphones, may compromise the self cleaning mechanism.”

Lisa Hellwege said earphone users should pay attention to their wax build-up. Source: Lisa Hellwege

She added that if an infection developed, ears should be professionally cleaned and kept dry.

People who deal with chronic wax buildup or have an infection should consider cutting back on their earphone use, Ms Hellwege said.

How to clean your earphones

Earphones should also be kept in a sanitary condition, with Ms Hellwege recommending that earwax be left to dry on them overnight, then removed with a small brush and alcohol wipe the following morning.

She advised it might be good to invest in over-the-ear headphones as an alternative, as earphones were likely to exacerbate any wax problems inside the ear.

Ms Hellege said those who noticed itchiness in their ear should give their earphones a rest for a while.

Why over-ear headphones are better for ears

“Like cotton buds, earphones often pick up the wax in the outer third of the ear canal where it is produced, and can leave the ears dry and itchy,” she said.

“Let the wax build back up and see if this improves things. Infections can also be reintroduced by soiled earphones - try cleaning them daily with an alcohol wipe which kills 99.9% of pathogens.”

For those prone to having a build-up of wax in their ear, Ms Hellege recommended a set of over-ear headphones be used instead.

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