Like any excreted bodily substance, earwax (also called cerumen) is regarded as unclean and must be purged from our anatomy. It is also frequently and wrongly accused of causing hearing difficulties and ear infections. In our quest to rid ourselves of this naturally occurring lubricant, sealant and cleanser, we turn to the most notorious and dangerous available instrument: the cotton swab.
The general purpose cotton swab was invented in the 1920s and has been widely used as an ear cleaning tool. While the device does serve countless household and commercial purposes, physicians around the globe concur that aural hygiene is not one of them. In fact, the use of cotton swabs is known to cause infections, push wax deeper into the ear and sometimes irritate or even puncture the eardrum. There is even a warning label on cotton swab packaging that warns consumers not to insert the instrument into the ear canal, but this does little to deter us from probing deep in search of sludge. So why do we continue to risk our health and hearing for the sake of hygiene?
Part of the answer is likely that the cotton swab was originally marketed, in part, as an ear cleaning device. It’s long, narrow shaft and absorbent tip make it seem like the perfect tool for cleaning our inner ears, and its effectiveness is clearly visible after use. Basically, even if we know that it shouldn’t be used this way, the cotton swab appears to be the perfect ear cleaning apparatus.
Another factor could be the mere mild acknowledgment by cotton swab manufacturers that inner ear cleaning is not a viable use for their product. These organizations know that their product is dangerous, and they know that people continue to hurt themselves, yet they hide behind a warning label. This argument is not meant to excuse us of responsibility for what we do to our bodies; it’s meant to incriminate organizations that distribute a product with the knowledge, and even expectation, of its misuse. Cotton swab manufacturers could help to end this misuse by using ads to educate the public on the correct uses of their product, but this could hurt their sales, so they do nothing. Tobacco companies are the most infamous culprits of hiding behind warning labels, but there are many more advocacy groups educating consumers about death sticks than deaf sticks.
Much like the Sauron’s One Ring, cotton swabs were forged with an evil purpose – a purpose served by men too frail to resist its power. In our weakness, we lust after sparkling clean ear canals, accepting aid from even our enemies. Let’s do ourselves a favor and cast these vile things back from whence they came.