A zit in the ear’s a pain in the rear! Everyone loves sing-songy little rhymes; no one likes pus-filled bumps — particularly when they pop up in off-the-beaten pimple path places like your ears.
There’s no need for a freakout session, though. We’ve got info and options to help you figure out what’s going on in there and what to do about it.
Acne’s a super common skin disease, so there’s a ton of research on causes, effective treatment and prevention, and more. This is an auricular win for you, friend!
So keep reading for the best advice around.
Learn the ins and outs of ear blemishes. Give the treatment and prevention suggestions a go.
Enjoy having earbuds or the occasional cotton swab be the only things in your precious ears once again.
Why am I getting pimples in my ear?
Pimples — small, reddish, inflamed lumps, plump with yellowish pus — are skin sores. They’re one way that acne can present itself.
Pimples occur when dirt, excess oil, bacteria, dead skin cells, or other debris lead to clogged pores, hair follicles, or oil glands. You, as a mammal, probably have all three of these things in your ears. So, plenty of opportunity for blockages.
But what’s the root cause of these obnoxious sores? Here are some frequent culprits that trigger or exacerbate acne:
- Hormones (or hormonal flux like happens during puberty)
- Medications (side effects or allergic reactions)
- Stress levels
When it comes to your ears specifically, the source of your troubles may be:
- Poor ear hygiene: You’re not cleaning your ears properly, sufficiently, or often enough.
- Personal care products: Many hair and skin products are comedogenic, meaning they’ll clog your ear’s pores and follicles if given half a chance.
- Nasty headphones or earbuds: You know what? They have yet to develop self-cleaning versions of these things. So if you ain’t wiping off the dirt and wax once in a while — it’s there for the long haul.*
- Gunky or ill-fitting accessories: Along the same lines as the headphones and earbuds, your jewelry, glasses, and the like can build up zit-producing filth. And hats and face masks that are too tight, tight, worn for extended periods of time (6), or improperly positioned may irritate skin.*
* And sharing — in this sitch — is not caring! Just the thought of a little piece of someone else’s ear sludge transferring onto your earlobe or into your ear canal is…yuck!
The ear has some unique features that harbor painful pimples.
- Earlobes and conchal bowl: The shape and positioning of your ear parts can make it hard to clean them, creating a hospitable environment for dirt and bacteria.
- Small pores: You’ve got lots of sebaceous glands in your ear skin. It’s easy for the tiny pores to get blocked up with that oil.
- Thin skin: No surprise here. There’s just a little bit of skin covering cartilage. Because of this, it doesn’t take much for inflammation to set in and cause pain (and risk of infection).
How to get rid of my ear pimple
Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t want to have to cover the side of my face or go around with a plastic bag over my head. I can’t stand these boulder-sized ear zits!”
You don’t have to! Show your ear monster who’s boss.
Then show that disgusting thing the (r)ear door. It’s a solid plan. But how to…uh…actually do it?
Thanks to the miracle of all that aforementioned research, you have almost countless things you can try.
There’s sure to be a solution for you.
For more mild symptoms, it’s likely you can DIY a care plan. For severe symptoms, you might need the expert help of a dermatologist.
Topical cream is applied to the surface of the skin.
If you’re using a spot treatment for your lumps and bumps, you’d only put ointment on the irritated spot. Another option is to spread a base layer of cream over the whole acne-prone area to treat current blemishes and prevent future breakouts.
Guaranteed there’s a whole aisle of topical treatment goops at your grocery store or pharmacy. Consider choosing one with active ingredients like retinoids, salicylic acid, or benzoyl peroxide.
They pack a lot of lesion-annihilating punch!
Opt for products that are designed for your skin type (e.g., sensitive skin or oily skin). Switch products if you notice any adverse reactions, like a burning sensation.
Oral meds are taken by mouth and combat your acne (and/or its underlying causes) from the inside.
The most common pills (1) include antibiotics, hormone-regulating meds (like birth control or spironolactone), and isotretinoin (derived from vitamin A).
Generally speaking, this class of treatment is gonna be doctor prescribed. We’ll come back to this in a bit, so hold tight.
It’s true. People wrestled with acne before there were giant pharmaceutical companies churning out topical antibiotics, pills with hormones, and benzoyl peroxide- and salicylic acid- spiked skincare products.
What’d they do?
They leveraged all the goodness in mama nature’s pharmacy!
It can be a good alternative to highly-processed items and save you the trek to the store. You probably even have some of these things on your bathroom counter or in your kitchen cupboard.
- Warm compresses or an ice pack may ease pain and swelling for outer-ear pimples.
- Witch hazel can combat acne with its astringent and antiseptic properties.
- Tea tree oil, diluted and applied with a cotton swab, might help.
- Turmeric’s known for being anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and antioxidant, which can help heal acne.
- Green tea may minimize inflammation and sebaceous gland oil production.
It may take a while to strike upon remedies that work for you. That’s normal.
Everyone has different variables (e.g., oily skin, genetics, environment, etc.) factoring into the equation. So, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all way to quell your angry zits.
An oz of prevention’s worth the ear-ffort
Prevention’s a smart strategy when it comes to ear breakouts.
If you don’t get the pimples in the first place, there’s no torturous sores to suffer and no treatment needed. Woohoo!
Clean your ears out
Forget about what that song claims. Right here, right now, it’s not about the bass; it’s all about the ears.
Here are some ear and skin care tips to help you mitigate those dastardly ear zits.
- Wipe around your ears: Gently wash the skin surrounding your ears to loosen and remove pimple culprits like oil and cosmetics. Be sure to get behind your ears as well as the front of the ears.
- Cleanse the inside of your ears: (This is an as-needed action, because you do need some wax in your ears. It actually protects this organ (4).) Using a cloth or tissue, gently clean inside your ears to get rid of excess wax and other dirt. Be very careful not to push earwax deeper into the ear canal or to harm the eardrum (9).
- Keep your ears dry: Moisture can promote bacterial growth. You can soak up fluids — after swimming or bathing, for example — by lightly touching a cotton swab to the nooks and crannies of your outer ear. For the middle ear or inner ear, experts recommend other, non-invasive techniques (5).
- Avoid getting hair products in/on your ears: These are notorious for clogging pores and follicles.
- Wear protective head gear: If you know you’ll be in a dirty or dusty environment, a hat, earplugs, or earmuffs can keep debris out of your ears.
Do not stick that in there!
“That” being dirty stuff: grimy fingers, used cotton swabs, gritty earbuds, or headphones.
You get the gist.
Anything going in or on your ears must be clean. How to accomplish this:
- Wash your hands: Often and properly. Use a nail brush to get all that funk out from under your fingernails. Dirty hands and fingernails can contaminate your ears.
- Use new cotton swabs/balls/pads: These are disposable items for a reason! Each time you clean your ears or apply that topical antibiotic, do so with a dry, unsoiled implement.
- Sanitize your ear gear: Periodically, wipe down your jewelry, eyeglass stems, hair accessories, headphones and earbuds — anything that comes in contact with your ear skin.
- Don’t share your ear gear: It’s hard enough to keep your own dirt, debris, and germs out of your ears. Don’t add someone else’s into the fray. And if you must share, disinfect the item before the next time you use it.
Complementary prevention tips
You are in a fight to the death with your ear pimples, right? Well, in times of war, you have to use all the weapons at your disposal.
In addition to the approaches above, the following non-ear-specific measures can boost your ear acne-fighting efforts.
You’re possibly already employing these tactics to ward off facial acne.
- No squeezing: This is a hard piece of advice to adhere to. You’re not Dr. Pimple Popper. So, put that pair of tweezers away — your tender bumps are a hands-off zone.
- Destress: Relax! Doing so may help put a lid on those zit-instigating hormones.
- Eat well: A nutritious diet nourishes your skin with oodles of anti-pimple minerals, vitamins, and antioxidants.
- Hydrate: Consuming sufficient water helps flush toxins out of your body and keep your skin lookin’ fine.
- Sleep: Your body does much of its restoration while you’re snoozing. (Conversely, chronic fatigue is not good for your skin health.)
- Exercise: Moving your bod increases blood flow. This brings more oxygen and nutrients to your skin cells, aids in cell regeneration, and reduces stress.
Maybe it’s not an ear pimple?
Just because it looks like a pimple and quacks like a pimple, doesn’t mean it’s a pimple. Acne hasn’t cornered the market on producing blemishes in or around your ears.
A number of other things can look like zits.
Other forms of acne
Your earlobe invaders may be a different flavor of acne.
They could be papules, whiteheads, blackheads, nodules, or cysts. Yikes!
Bacteria buildup in your ears can lead to infection.
Some infections may show up as pus leaking from your middle ear or inner ear or as a rash. Rashes are often composed of a clump of reddish, inflamed, irritated bumps that can resemble pimples.
Left unattended, ear infections can also result in cysts called cholesteatoma, which can resemble skin lumps.
Ticks, mosquitos, and other bugs
Tick bites (and other bug bites and stings) are common in the United States. They could look like zits because the bite area can form swelling, red lumps.
Tickborne illnesses, like Queensland tick typhus (QTT) (3), can cause rashes and pus-filled lesions.
Proper tick removal properly is key — ya don’t want these bloodsuckers causing more probs! Body lice have also been known to cause epidemic typhus, which can lead to gangrenous spots in the ears (8).
And, of course, you should get rid of other parasites that may be irritating your delicate ear skin. (Bug repellent is your friend, just a little PSA we’re sneaking in!)
Eczema, milia, and other skin conditions
There are a host of other common, and usually harmless, skin issues that may appear to be pimple doppelgängers.
They can aggravate the surface of the skin, producing red- or white-topped bumps.
Some people develop growths in their ears (1). Often it’s just a benign clump of excess bone covered in skin.
A rare disease
Not to be too vague here but there are some very unlikely disorders and ailments that could show up as ear sores.
For example, NBD (Neurobehcet syndrome) can cause ear ulcers.
Time to see your dermatologist
You may be reluctant to go to the derm pro. But it may be the best way to resolve your ear acne issue.
Plus, if it turns out to not be ear acne, your dermatologist — who’s an M.D. with extra training in skin health — can help connect you to the appropriate healthcare for your condition.
You might need the attention of a primary care doctor
When to go pro
So, when should ya pick up that phone and book your date with the derm doc about your ear problems?
- Because ya wanna: Who says you have to have a specific reason or threshold moment? Some people like to cut to the chase. They don’t feel like mucking around with trial-and-error approaches or giving potentially ineffectual treatments a longer period of time to miraculously start working. Heading straight to your dermie might bring a faster, more effective resolution to your ear pimples.
- Your ear pimples aren’t going away: If your personal attempts to get rid of those suckers is going nowhere, a doctor may be to bust out more potent or appropriate tools from dermatologic kit. In addition to Rx meds, a dermatologist could use an extractor on your pimple (go ahead — watch some of those YouTube videos…) or suggest other therapies.
- Your zits hurt: In this day and age, there’s no reason to just accept pain. If you can’t get rid of the owie, there’s a good chance that your dermatologist can.
- Your blemishes are causing you mental anguish: A lot of people suffer real emotional distress over their skin issues. Your dermatologist can treat the physical condition and point you in the direction of a counselor to attend to your psychological wellbeing.
- You’ve got suspicions your ear pimples may be something else: Maybe your acne treatments aren’t working because that’s not what’s happening in your ear. If you have other concerning symptoms, like fever/flu-like symptoms or hearing loss (especially if you’ve recently been hiking, traveling (7), or in contact with parasite-carrying critters), trust your intuition and hightail it to a medical professional.
What to expect from your doctor visit
Your doc will do a physical exam of your outer ear and inner ear, checking your glands, pores, and hair follicles.
Expect that your doc will also be on the lookout for signs of trouble in adjacent areas, like:
- Whiteheads or blackheads on your cheeks
- Dandruff on your scalp
- Swollen lymph nodes
Your doc will ask if you have other concerning symptoms or severe issues.
So, be sure to mention things like hearing loss, pain, and so on. From all this info, your dermie can piece things together to come up with a diagnosis.
Based on what’s going on in a patient’s ear, and the type of acne, the dermatologist will recommend a care plan.
The goal of treatment is generally to clear up your skin, prevent future breakouts, and mitigate scars.
In the dermatologist’s arsenal are a handful of antibiotics and other medications (oral and topical), complementary procedures, and recommendations for health and lifestyle changes to support skin wellness.
Ear zits suck. We hear ya! But, take comfort in knowing that acne — even in or on the ear — is incredibly common worldwide.
OK, this isn’t such great news. But, end of the day, what it means is that scientists and medical professionals dedicate loads of time, energy, brainpower, and money to dealing with this pervasive skin problem.
The result? You have info and options galore for prevention and treatment.
- With so much knowledge at your disposal, you can take better care of your ear and skin health.
- There are many readily-available DIY or OTC products and procedures you can try.
- If you can’t clear out your ear pimples on your own, your derm doc can offer more potent acne-busting therapies, like a topical cream or topical antibiotic.
It’s time to wage world war on those ear pimples!
- Acne – Diagnosis and Treatment – Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/acne/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20368048. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.
- Benign Ear Cyst or Tumor: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001033.htm. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.
- Human Tick-Borne Diseases in Australia. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6360175/. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.
- Information, National Center for Biotechnology, et al. “Outer Ear Infection: What Helps If Earwax Builds Up?” InformedHealth.Org [Internet], Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG), 2020. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279354/.
- Medical, Fuel. “Foolproof Techniques for Removing Water from Your Ears | LeMay Hearing & Balance.” Https://Hearingaidreno.Com/, https://hearingaidreno.com/foolproof-techniques-for-removing-water-from-your-ears/. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.
- Says, Dr Sakshi Sareen. Skin Irritation from Prolonged Use of Tight-Fitting Respirators | | Blogs | CDC. https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2020/08/04/skin-irritation-respirators/. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.
- Skin & Soft Tissue Infections – Chapter 11 – 2020 Yellow Book | Travelers’ Health | CDC. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2020/posttravel-evaluation/skin-and-soft-tissue-infections. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.
- Typhus | Definition, Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, & Facts | Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/typhus. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.
- “Why You Shouldn’t Use Cotton Swabs to Clean Your Ears.” It’s a Noisy Planet. Protect Their Hearing., https://www.noisyplanet.nidcd.nih.gov/have-you-heard/cotton-swabs-ears. Accessed 20 Jan. 2021.