Cotton swabs, aka Q-tips, may be cottony soft, but they can be really hard on ears.

The big problem: “Q-tips actually push wax deeper into the ear canal,” explains Douglas Backous, MD, an otolaryngologist in Seattle, Washington. This can cause a buildup of wax and debris deep in the ear, near the eardrum, that may lead to earaches, ringing in the ears, dizziness and even hearing loss. Plus, you don't really want to get rid of all your ear wax, anyway.

Why you need ear wax

Ear wax is there for a reason. According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology (AAO), it helps keep ears lubricated (so they don't get itchy), and it's how the ears clean themselves. "Most the time the ear canals are self-cleaning; that is, there is a slow and orderly migration of earwax and skin cells from the eardrum to the ear opening. Old earwax is constantly being transported, assisted by chewing and jaw motion, from the ear canal to the ear opening where it usually dries, flakes, and falls out," writes the AAO.

Ear wax also helps prevent dirt from getting inside the ear and prevents bacteria from growing by keeping the ear canal at the right pH level, says Backous.

Related: How to Avoid Hearing Loss at a Rock Concert

When the wax won't wane

Even though ear wax is our friend, enough of it can collect so that it’s visible, itchy or interferes with hearing, says Backous. You can prevent this with general maintenance when you shower: Use a damp washcloth and a bit of soap to rub away wax and dirt at the entrance of the ear canal and then rinse. If you want to clean the folds of your outer ear, it’s OK to use a cotton swab.

If you do need to get rid of excess earwax, these do's and don'ts will help you get the job done without hurting your ears.

Related: How to Unblock Your Ears and Ease the Pressure

Don't insert anything, especially anything sharp. Some people go well beyond cotton swabs when it comes to digging out earwax, using pen caps, paper clips, hairpins, fingernails and more. Bad idea. “Pushing anything into the ear can badly scrape the skin, puncture the eardrum, damage the middle ear bones and cause hearing loss or vertigo,” says Backous. Or you could cause bleeding which can result in infection.

Don't try ear candling. This procedure involves a special hollow candle that’s lit at one end and then inserted into the ear. The flame from the candle creates a vacuum that sucks the wax into the tube. According to a report from the College of Family Physicians of Canada, though, candling isn’t effective and could be risky. It may result in burns, further blockage or punctures. According to the AAO, "Ear candles are not a safe option of wax removal as they may result in serious injury."

Do soften things up. To soften excess wax, put a few drops of baby oil, mineral oil, hydrogen peroxide or glycerin into your ear (or use an over-the-counter earwax removal kit such as Debrox) and let it sit for at least 15 minutes. You can do this once or twice a day. After a day or two, flush the ear using warm water and an ear bulb syringe, then towel dry.

Do get help from a pro. If you can’t seem to clear the wax on your own, talk with your doctor. A general MD can usually flush it away, but Backous uses a different approach. “I don’t use water — instead I clean ears with a microscope and a special instrument called a curette,” he says.

So what to do with all those cotton swabs in the bathroom cabinet? You can put them to work cleaning silver, getting gunk out from between crevices and dabbing ointment onto scrapes. They’re also an endless source of inspiration for crafters. Pinterest is packed with kooky skeletons, fluffy lambs, snowflakes, starbursts and all manner of flowers created with cotton swabs.

Related: Swimmer's Ear Treatment and Prevention

Like this article? Share it with friends by clicking the Facebook or Twitter button below. And don't forget to visit our Facebook page!

Jennifer Kelly Geddes is a New York City-based writer and editor who specializes in parenting, health and child development. She’s also the mom of two teen girls.