There’s something oddly satisfying about cleaning your ears out with a Q-tip. It’s right up there with watching those mesmerizing cake frosting videos on YouTube and watching people put on lipstick (am I the only one who finds that oddly soothing?). I don’t know what exactly makes cleaning your ears so weirdly fun, but it just is.

Unfortunately for me, putting a Q-tip in your ear is, according to medical professionals, a no-no. In fact, it’s a big mistake. Huge!

This is for two main reasons, according to Ottawa-based ear, nose, and throat physician, Matthew Bromwich. First, there’s the risk that you’ll puncture your eardrum, which can cause serious damage, and second, ear wax is actually good for you.

Ear wax is not the enemy

Your ears, like your oven, are basically self-cleaning, and ear wax is your body’s natural cleansing agent. It’s anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, and protects you from insects and infections, while simultaneously moisturizing the inside of your ear canal, Dr. Bromwich says. (Who knew?) “Using a Q-tip strips away the natural protection afforded by the ear wax and can create small openings that lead to infection,” he says. Not only that, but removing all the wax from your ear canal can also cause the thin skin inside your ear to dry out and become itchy. Not fun.

But perhaps more important is the fact that using a Q-tip to get rid of your ear wax often actually has the opposite effect of what you want. Instead of removing ear wax, using a Q-tip usually just jams the wax further into your ear canal — and that’s where you run the risk of puncturing your ear drum or damaging the small bones in your ear, which can cause permanent hearing loss.

So what should I do instead?

So if you, like me, find that you can’t break your habit of cleaning out your ears (I know I can’t be the only one!), there is a way to do it safely. Generally speaking, the best way to prevent excess wax from building up is simply to stand under the water while you shower and let the hot water run into your ear canal, Dr. Bromwich says. Super-simple, right?

You can also put a few drops (between one and three) of vegetable or mineral oil or hydrogen peroxide in your ears before you jump into the shower, according to Dr. Bromwich. This will flush out any stubborn excess ear wax and leave you with a squeaky clean feeling.

If you’re someone who suffers from water in your ear canal often, Dr. Bromwich recommends using a drop or two of rubbing alcohol, which will dry out the water and prevent “swimmer’s ear,” a painful infection in the outer ear canal.

A few last words of caution

But before you put anything in your ear, it’s important to note that if you do already have any kind of infection or a hole in your eardrum, you should talk to your doctor before trying any natural or at-home remedies. Dr. Bromwich also says that a small percentage of the population suffers from an ear wax blockage (basically, an excess of ear wax that doesn’t respond to the ear’s natural self-cleaning). While this kind of blockage can cause temporary hearing loss and might require a visit to your doctor’s office, it’s reversible and easily treated by having a nurse or doctor simply flush out the excess wax with a syringe or using a curette to scrape it out.

Ultimately, though, remember that ear wax exists for a reason. Despite its sticky texture and bright orange color, it serves a purpose, and is, as Dr. Bromwich says, “not the same as dirt.”

“I have seen many Q-tip injuries in kids and adults,” he says. “Unless it’s actually causing a problem, you should leave it alone.”

Alanna is a freelance writer and editor living in Brooklyn. She's written for Shape, Fitness, Cosmopolitan, Reader's Digest, Vivala.com, and more, and mostly spends her time now searching for the perfect coffee shop, writing about all things health and wellness, taking photos of her dog, and trying (and failing) to become a dedicated runner. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.