You Can See Inside Your Ear. That Doesn’t Mean You Should.

Photo of author
Written By Pinang Driod

The ear is a marvelous, humble organ. It powers our hearing and also our balance, keeping us upright and connected to the world around us. In return, ear doctors tend to ask that we follow one very simple rule: Don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear. Of course, you can’t actually fit your elbow inside your ear. But you can fit a Q-tip, which comes with this warning: “Do not insert swab into ear canal. Entering the ear canal could cause injury.”

None of this has stopped people from jabbing things into their ears. Humans have a long history of ear injuries from poking around in there. Now doing so has become easier thanks to an odd invention: the earwax-removal camera. For less than $30, you can purchase sleek, small gadgets that are essentially tiny cameras on a stick, with a tiny spoon on the end. Many of these cameras are Wi-Fi-enabled and pair with an app, allowing an aural Marco Polo to jam one into their ear and hunt for wax, seeing (and recording) what happens in real time.

Such devices have existed for a few years, but recently, they have thrived on TikTok. You can watch a riveting video of a complete stranger rooting around in their own ear, pinching out chunks of flaky earwax. And then another. And then another. The platform’s e-commerce feature, TikTok Shop, allows users to buy these cameras without having to leave the app at all. One product listing says it has sold more than 100,000 units. “Run and grab this product!” reads the caption on one video with 10 million views. “Sooo crazy and funny!!”

Staring inside the caverns of an ear canal sounds weird, but many people do seem to love it, following in the tradition of relishing in gross bodily functions on the internet. Instead of aimlessly poking around with a Q-tip, people can use an ear-wax-removal camera to see what they are doing. In theory, that makes these products safer, and several of them don’t come with Q-tip-style warnings on their online listings. For example, the Bebird visual ear cleaner, sold at CVS and Rite Aid, bills itself as “Safe, Easy and Effective.” But they are not necessarily superior technology. Joni Doherty, an otolaryngologist at the University of Southern California, told me she’s come across videos of people using these earwax-removal cameras, and watching them is “almost like a motorcycle crash about to happen.”

For starters, you could damage your ear. “The skin is really delicate on the inside of the ear,” Yu-Tung Wong, an otolaryngologist at Cedars-Sinai, in Los Angeles, told me. It’s easy to nick or injure the inside of the ear, which can lead to painful infections. Improper use of these cameras could also harm the eardrum, which could affect a person’s hearing. “The eardrum is paper thin,” Adam Kaufman, a professor of otolaryngology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, told me. “It’s a very delicate, fragile structure.”

None of the experts I spoke with had personally treated ear-camera injuries, but they put the risk of these cameras on par with that of using a cotton swab. According to one estimate, from 1990 to 2010, more than a quarter-million children were treated in U.S. emergency rooms for ear injuries related to the use of cotton swabs. I emailed several companies that sell such products, including Bebird, to inquire about their products’ safety. None of them got back to me.

The mere existence of ear cameras on a stick isn’t a problem. Doctors use their own fancier versions, called otoscopes, to check patients’ ears themselves; during the early pandemic, when many non-urgent medical appointments went remote, some people used these cheaper cameras to send photos of the inside of their ears to their doctor, Wong told me. “I don’t think there’s particularly any harm with just looking inside the ear,” he said. “The big issue is when you start using the devices to try to do things to the ear”—to not just see wax, but remove it. Extracting wax takes some technique, and generally speaking, people shouldn’t be doing it themselves. In an email, an FDA spokesperson said that she is “not aware” of any ear-wax-removal cameras that have been approved by the agency.

Even if you could remove wax without causing damage, you might not want to. The ear is self-cleaning; it does not need you poking around in there. On TikTok, a squeamish man keeps calling his partner’s wax-filled ears “dirty.” But wax is not dirt, nor is it unclean, even though it doesn’t look appealing when you’re zooming in on it on a screen. Earwax is actually kind of magical: It has antibacterial and antifungal properties that can help fight infections. It is also lubricating and actually helps keep dirt out of the ear. It’s not pretty, but it’s solid stuff. “Healthy earwax doesn’t look good. It’s brown; it’s yellow,” Kaufman said.

Wax can sometimes cause problems when it builds up to the point where it interferes with hearing and needs to be removed. But that really needs to be addressed by a professional. Wong told me that when he sees videos of people removing earwax for social media, he usually notes one of two things: Either the person is removing wax that’s so small it is inconsequential, or they are removing wax so big that they should not be doing it by themselves.

The meager benefits and notable risks of earwax-removal cameras may not be enough to blunt their continued rise. After all, people just can’t quit the habit of burrowing Q-tips deep into their ear canals, even when they know the risks it poses. The inside of our ear is a familiar yet hidden part of our body, one we can’t inspect in the mirror or easily scratch. “At the end of the day,” Kaufman said, “it’s an area of the body that is not getting a lot of contact.” That kind of contact is much easier with a high-def camera than with a cotton swab. Either way, your marvelous self-cleaning ear would rather you just stop poking and prodding it entirely.


Leave a Comment

api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api api