The Best Argument for Giving Up Cotton Swabs

©. Nicole Rerk/Shutterstock

If damaging your ears isn't a good enough reason, think of the seahorses.

Just a seahorse, drifting along with the current off the coast of Sumbawa, an Indonesian island in the Lesser Sunda Islands chain. Just a seahorse that should be wrapping its sweet question-mark tail around a wisp of sea grass, but instead latches onto a plastic cotton swab.

Significant Source of Plastic Pollution

Humans have delivered more than 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris to the ocean, creating no end of havoc for the creatures that live there. Cotton swabs are by no means the only problem, but they rank pretty high – and to what end? We're not even supposed to use them to clean our ears.

This disconcerting image was taken by California-based nature photographer Justin Hofman, who says that he wishes the picture didn’t exist. But since it does, he's on a mission “to make sure it gets to as many eyes as possible.” So far, the image has more than 23,000 likes on Instagram, was a finalist in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition from the Natural History Museum in London, and is being shared far and wide by people who would very much like seahorses not to have to ride the current on Q-Tips.

Cotton swabs are a tremendous source of ocean pollution, and while Johnson & Johnson – maker of Q-Tips – has recently made the excellent decision to change their sticks from plastic to paper, they are only doing so in select countries.

Leave Earwax in Your Ears

So it has to be said: Leave your earwax in your ears. Swabbing it out with cotton is expressly warned against and the swab itself is menacing sea creatures.

“Swab incidents are really a common clinical thing we see,” Dr. Peter Svider, an otolaryngology resident at Wayne State University in Michigan told Markham Heid at Time magazine, who adds:

Svider’s research shows cotton swab calamities are a major cause of ear-related ER visits among U.S. adults. “The way the cotton swab is designed – it’s really not a good tool for removing wax,” Svider explains. “You tend to push more in than you pull out.”

Which is why it says right on the box: "Do not insert inside the ear canal."

Around half of people living in the United States suffer from some degree of earwax impaction, which can lead to all kinds of problems. Meanwhile, 34 children each day visit the emergency room for ear injuries afforded by cotton swabs.

There’s wax in your ears for a reason; "it ensnares and expels dirt, dust, small insects and other bits of grossness that would otherwise finagle their way into your body," says Dr. Martin Burton, a professor of otolaryngology at the University of Oxford in England.

And here's an odd nugget from The Washington Post ... they can be addictive: "Using Q-tips leads to what dermatologists refer to as the itch-scratch cycle, a self-perpetuating addiction of sorts. The more you use them, the more your ears itch; and the more your ears itch, the more you use them."

So in the service of seahorses and the safety of your ears, we agree with Hofman that everyone should see this photo. And so, we share. Read his comment at the bottom and think about his question: "How can your actions shape our planet? "

If you have other reasons you require cotton swabs, look for ones with paper sticks. And for reducing plastic waste in general, see more in the related stories below.