Cotton Bud Alternatives – For A Low Waste Ear Care

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Cotton bud alternatives are one of the very first things I discovered, along with washable menstrual pads and reusable razors, after learning about the zero waste/ low waste community.

I am so glad to learn that there are alternatives to the traditional cotton buds because I was an “addict” and I use it on a daily basis like crazy! I bought our very first bamboo-stemmed cotton buds in October 2018.

Why Cotton Buds Are Bad For The Environment?

The traditional cotton buds is also called plastic-stemmed cotton buds and from that alone, we already have an idea why it’s not good for the environment.

It is said that the cotton tip takes 1-5 months to biodegrade, but the plastic stem takes 200 years to biodegrade, while some will never rot away.

According to The Cotton Bud Project:

“Plastic cotton bud stems are generally composed of polypropylene, one of the most widely produced plastics. As a lighter plastic, it floats on or near the water surface. This combined with their size and shape means that they pass through the majority of sewage treatment works and end up in the marine environment via regular sewage outfalls.

They also enter the sea in untreated sewage through combined sewer overflows during storm events or due to blockages and are used as indicators of sewage-related debris. Cotton buds largely go unnoticed because they don’t cause major blockages in the sewage systems and many pass through screens to end up on our beaches.”

 

Independent News wrote that an estimated 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds are being used per year in England alone! Imagine the figure for the entire world! This is exactly the reason why plastic-stemmed cotton buds are considered as problematic as plastic straws.

According to Ocean Conservancy, 8 million metric tons of plastics are dumped in the ocean every year, adding to the estimated 150 million metric tons that are already circulating in our marine environments. Ocean Conservancy further stated that :

“Plastic has been found in more than 60% of all seabirds and in 100% of sea turtles’ species, that mistake plastic for food. And when animals ingest plastic, it can cause life-threatening problems, including reduced fitness, nutrient uptake, and feeding efficiency—all vital for survival”.

 

Eco-Friendly Cotton Bud Alternatives

Cotton buds are commonly used to clean ears, but according to Wikipedia, they’re also used for first aid, cosmetics application, cleaning, and arts and crafts.

Now that we already know that plastic-stemmed cotton buds are bad for the environment, it doesn’t mean that we have to stop using them altogether. Here are some eco-friendly alternatives to cotton buds, so we can still continue using them without the guilt of harming our environment and our marine life:

1. Bamboo-stemmed cotton buds – There are already a lot of bamboo-stemmed cotton buds available in the market today. As the name suggests, they’re made from organic and biodegradable bamboo and cotton, which means that they can biodegrade naturally.

Bamboo-stemmed cotton buds.
Bamboo-stemmed cotton buds.

Bamboo is known as green gold because it is highly sustainable, 100% biodegradable, and very easy and inexpensive to grow. For these reasons, it’s one of the common materials used in making eco-friendly products. In addition, bamboo plants need fewer fertilizers and water to grow.

I have already tried 2 brands of bamboo-stemmed cotton buds, Bambaw and Navaris, since 2018. I will share the experience with you in another post.

2. Paper-stemmed cotton buds – These cotton buds look very similar to the bamboo stemmed ones, the only difference is that the stems are made of paper, instead of bamboo.

It is reported that Johnsons & Johnsons has already switched to paper-stemmed cotton buds. However, another report came out saying that the switch was only half-hearted because the paper-stemmed are only available in the European stores, while the ones available in Australia, North America, and Asia are still with plastic-stemmed.

3. Silicone Reusable Cotton Buds – These are reusable buds that are made of silicone. I haven’t personally used one, but there are several brands available in the market since Last Swab came out of the market.

Last Swab Reusable cotton bud
Last Swab, a silicone reusable cotton bud by Last Object.

Last Swab is created by Last Object, a company with a mission to eliminate single-use items by creating reusable sustainable alternatives.

Plastic-stemmed Cotton Buds Are Already Banned In Some Countries

Cotton buds, along with plastic straws and plastic stirrers, are already banned in some countries.

An estimated 4.7 billion plastic straws, 316 million plastic stirrers, and 1.8 billion plastic-stemmed cotton buds are consumed each year in England alone!

Scotland is the very first part of the UK to ban the sales of plastic-stemmed cotton buds in October 2019. And just this October 2020, the ban on single-use plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds has finally been implemented in England (it was originally planned to be implemented in May 2020, but was delayed due to the Coronavirus pandemic).

BBC News reported that businesses will be asked to switch to paper-based alternatives, or just remove the items altogether. However, hospitals, bars, restaurants, and cafes will still have plastic straws available for people with disabilities or other medical needs, when they ask for one.

Businesses can no longer sell or give away plastic straws, stirrers, or cotton buds. Plastic stirrers are the only things that will be totally banned.

Euro Weekly News reported that Spain is going to ban the sale of cotton swabs (not medical use ones), plastic cutlery, plastic throwaway plates, plastic straws, and stirrers in the Spanish marketplace starting July 2021.

Hoping and praying that more and more countries are going to follow suit. Banning cotton buds is not enough, but it is definitely the start of something beneficial to our environment.

Excited for more “green” news in the coming months and years.

Ears Should Not Be Cleaned With Cotton Buds

This is the advice that medical experts say, but sadly, millions are doing the opposite! Healthy Hearing says that nothing should be placed inside the ear to remove dirt and debris. Doing so is very dangerous and could result in hearing loss or damage to the ear canal (eardrum). Click the link to read the detailed explanation by Healthy Hearing on why we should not clean our ears with cotton buds.

How To Clean Ears Without Cotton Buds

Here’s a diagram from Healthy Hearing that best describes how to clean our ears properly without using cotton buds:

Confession Of A Cotton Bud Addict

As I mentioned earlier, I used to be a cotton bud “addict”! I cleaned my ears everyday with at least 1 or 2 cotton buds EVERY SINGLE DAY! Arggggg! I had the feeling that my bath routine is not complete without sticking a cotton bud into my ears. 🙁

But after discovering about the low waste/zero waste movement, I found out that the “feeling of an incomplete bath routine” was purely psychological.

The moment I’ve read an article saying that cleaning the ears with cotton buds everyday is not good at all, I instantly decided to just clean my ears with cotton buds once a week! It was a bit difficult at first, but I got used to it in just a couple of weeks.

How I Clean My Ears Now

Most days, I just dry the outer parts of my ears after taking a bath with the undies that I just removed before going to the shower. Anyone who is doing the same? And I just gently stick a bamboo-stemmed cotton buds into my eardrums once a week.

Now that I have been cleaning my ears this way for 2 years (more or less), I will challenge myself to slowly transition into not using cotton buds at all. Let’s see if it’s possible psychologically. 🙂

Final Thoughts

I am no longer a cotton bud “addict” and thanks to the low waste/ zero-waste movement for paving the way into my “recovery”. I am very happy that I have finally stopped harming my ears after a very longgg time!

Check my post on The 4 Best Eco-Friendly Cotton Buds Of 2021 if you want to replace your cotton buds with a greener and low-waste alternative.

How do you clean your ears? Do you clean your ears with cotton buds everyday? Or have you already made the switch to one of the eco-friendly alternatives? Please don’t hesitate to share in the comments below.


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14 thoughts on “Cotton Bud Alternatives – For A Low Waste Ear Care”

  1. Wow, I had no idea that there was so much to take into consideration when it comes to cotton buds but it’s easy to understand why they would be very harmful to the environment especially since we all go through numerous cotton buds a month. I’m glad alternatives like this exist and I will be sure to share it with my family so they are made aware.

    Reply
  2. wow, never had of any other means than the use of cotton buds. locally, here in Africa, people still use fowl feathers to clean the inner ear, at times, they poor uses sticks gently to clean their ear. it is only those that can afford cotton buds that go for it. thanks for educating me to educate others.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your story about cotton buds. It reminds me of a similar experience growing up. We used match stick and wrapped the other end with a piece of cotton for cleaning our ears. We throw the cotton after using and keep the match stick for next time, but it gets the work done with minimal waste.

      Reply
  3. wow, never had of any other means than the use of cotton buds. locally, here in Africa, people still use fowl feathers to clean the inner ear, at times, they poor uses sticks gently to clean their ear. it is only those that can afford cotton buds that go for it. thanks for educating me to educate others.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your experience. I only started using cotton buds when I started to work in Europe. But I grew up using a match stick with the other end wrapped in a piece of cotton to clean our ears. We threw the cotton and kept the match stick for the next time. 

      Reply
  4. Hey Julai. Very interesting article. I’m more and more inspired by the zero waste community, and even if its not easy to go down to zero immediately I’m trying to decrease my waste amount every day. Posts like these is a great help, as sometimes there are things I could never think about like cotton buds. Thank you for your recommendations, looking forward to testing them in practice.

    Reply
    • Hello Cogito, I agree that going zero waste is not immediate at all. It’s a journey and one of the phrases I like the most is: It’s better for millions of people doing zero waste imperfectly than only a few doing it perfectly”. Every small acts of zero waste counts!

      Reply
  5. Great article you have here and thank you for sharing. The info outlined in this article is self-explanatory, and considering that the cotton buds are one of our daily usages. And despite them being used on a daily basis, the idea of them contributing to the biohazard of the environment slips most people due to them being small in size.

    Reply
    • This is so true that most of us don’t think about the hazard things are contributing to the environment due to its minute size. We have to be more intentional and aware.

      Reply
  6. Hi there, I must say I had no idea this was such a big problem. You have brought to light something much bigger than plastic straws. Here in the US, most places have switched over to paper straws. But, I think more needs to be done. I personally use cotton swabs on a regular basis. After becoming educated I am going to look for alternatives that you have suggested.Thank you

    Reply
    • Thank you for dropping by Chuck. I agree that more needs to be done and hope you find a good eco-friendly alternative for your cotton swabs.

      Reply
  7. Excellent article; I really enjoyed the reading; thank you for sharing it!

    I used to use Bamboo-stemmed cotton buds to clean my ear a few years ago.
    But one day, I got an infection, and believe it, or not my doctor suggested me to stop cleaning my ears. I couldn’t believe it. He said to me that it’s not good and that I could really hurt myself. Now I use an earwax softener to clean the outside of my ears, and that’s it. I am glad because I don’t use any non biodegrade items, and my ears feel great:).

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your experience Daniella! Yes, we are not supposed to clean our ears with cotton buds, but I guess it’s psychological. I want to get rid of it slowly.

      Reply

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