Review: Ear Wax Cleaning Cameras As Cheap Microscopes, We Take A Closer Look

Those of us who trawl the world of cheap imported goods will most often stay in our own comfortable zones as we search for new items to amaze and entertain us. We’ll have listings of electronic goods or tools, and so perhaps miss out on the scores of other wonders that can be ours for only a few dollars and a week or two’s wait for postage.

Who knew sticky ears were such big business!
Who knew sticky ears were such big business!

Just occasionally though something will burst out of another of those zones and unexpectedly catch our eye, and we are sent down an entirely new avenue in the global online supermarket.

Thus it was that when a few weeks ago I was looking for an inspection camera I had a listing appear from the world of personal grooming products. It seems that aural hygiene is a big market, and among the many other products devoted to it is an entire category of ear wax removal tools equipped with cameras. These can get you up close and personal with your ear canal, presumably so you can have a satisfying scoop at any accumulated bodily goop. I have a ton of electronics-related uses for a cheap USB close-up camera so I bought one of these so I could — if you’ll excuse the expression — get a closer look.

Wax Spoons And Cotton Buds, What’s In The Box?

The fascinating world of aural hygiene awaits!
The fascinating world of aural hygiene awaits!

These cameras take the form of a slim pen-like tube with a camera and ring of white LED lights at one end, and a USB cable emerging at the other. A variety of ear cleaning tools can be attached to the business end, and the cameras are available in a range of resolutions.

As is my custom with these reviews of questionable-but-entertaining products I bought the cheapest, which at somewhere well under ten dollars secured me a 640×480 pixel resolution model with an anodized aluminium tube, a cable with a pod for an LED brightness control half way down, and a three-way USB plug on its end. More cash will get you many more megapixels, but I decided that for my uses cases that wouldn’t deliver much benefit.

The camera duly arrived, in a very generic box emblazoned with “HD Visual Earwax Clean Tool”. HD it certainly ain’t, but inside was a manual and a pack of ear cleaning parts as well as the camera itself. Everyone should take a moment just once in their life, to consider a wax spoon. The manual suggests a dubious-looking Android app download, but since it appears to expose itself to USB as a fairly standard webcam it worked straight away both with normal PC and mobile webcam viewers such as Cheese on Ubuntu. Being a person of infinite curiosity, I of course shoved it straight in my ear, and was treated to a fascinating close-up of my (mercifully clean) eardrum which decorum prompts me not to share with you.

Away From The Ear, How Does It Do?

Almost anything can be pressed into service as a stand for this camera.
Almost anything can be pressed into service as a stand for this camera.

Tearing it away from a microscopic examination of my ear canal and giving it a clean with an alcohol swab, it was time to point the camera at something more useful. It revealed itself to have a fixed focus set to just below 20mm in front of its lens. With this it would capture the room or the view from the window, but only in an extremely blurred fashion. Pointing it at a circuit board allowed it to bring out the smallest of chip components in sharp focus, and the lettering on devices I now struggle to read was made completely legible.

Randomly pointing this device at things is fun, but it’s hardly useful. I wanted to know if this is a viable alternative to a dedicated USB microscope for SMD work. It was time to mount it to something solid and try to use it.

Using flexible grippers would be perfect as a stand, but the versatility of this camera lies in its ease of being mounted to almost anything. I secured it to a bottle with a Post Office rubberband and quickly positioned it over a PCB for a closer look. At this point, two immediate issues arose; there’s no obvious physical orientation of this round camera, and the extremely bright LEDs reflect off the components and the board itself. So I mounted it an angle to avoid reflections and rotated it until the monitor showed the right way “down”.

All the wholesome goodness of 640x480 pixel resolution! It's worth reminding the reader that higher resolutions models exist.
All the wholesome goodness of 640×480 pixel resolution! It’s worth reminding the reader that higher resolution models exist.

Taking an old board and attempting a bit of reworking, an immediate difference from commercial microscopes became apparent. The distance of 15 to 20mm between work and lens is enough in which to work, but is still small enough to make touching the camera with the soldering iron a hazard. It is possible though, and the level of magnification is such that even the smallest of components can be worked with.

Ear-Cleaning Cameras and You

So then, should you buy an ear cleaning camera as a cheap alternative to a USB microscope for bench work? If you don’t mind its proximity to the work it’s certainly a usable tool, and it does make for a handy inspection camera for small things. But it’s worth bearing in mind that a cheap USB microscope with a proper stand isn’t too much of a further stretch for a modest budget. Sometimes merely being adequate for the job doesn’t justify the purchase.

Perhaps this one comes into its own for its size though, in that it will easily pack into the most compact of toolkits. I’d say buy one if you want. It’s a fun toy for next-to-nothing through which you’ll find all sorts of random tiny-stuff entertainment. If you want a better microscope though, I suggest you save your pennies and buy the dedicated model instead.

44 thoughts on “Review: Ear Wax Cleaning Cameras As Cheap Microscopes, We Take A Closer Look

  1. This reminds me of some other cylindrical device with a camera inside that you can stick somewhere and which had quite horrible security issues. Uh, please get that image out of my head. :-/
    I too recently searched for some inspection camera and found those ear-camera-things. I did not know that they come with some cleaning tool, what a fascinating stuff… Talking about inspection cameras, what do you think about the chinese ones like https://www.aliexpress.com/item/32952565973.html ? I want to see inside a hollow wall.

    For this dubious app, if you want to check it for spying activity set up a (virtual) machine with Debian 10 (it must be 10) and install “Anbox”. It’s an emulator where you can put your app inside (adb install $file.apk) and then just run Wireshark on the host to see the network traffic. Quite fascinating (and scary). Only problem is encryption, some day i will have to look deeper inside to see how to do a mitm or something on this.

      1. You’re welcome. We just need to find out how to get from https to http to be able to see what data is actually transmitted. Strong encryption is a really nice thing but sometimes it can be really annoying. I was wondering if there is a way to hack something inside Android for this?

    1. thechinese inspection cams are fine, I use them all the time in work (auto tech) to inspect turbos / inlet valves / cylinders etc I use the style that plug into your phone, they are so cheap they are basically disposable if damaged. I once “cooked” a proper fibre optic endoscope when inspecting a turbocharger many many years ago, I felt genuinely sick when I realised what had happened, now these camera ones are so cheap, who cares lol.

      1. Well, i just ordered the one from my link above. Aliexpress said 50% discount because of 11.11 so, well, i was weak and hit “buy”. I know the discount is probably fake but yeah, for 60$ delivred, if its really HD it shouldn’t be too bad. I’ll consider that my christmas present.

  2. A product that I had never even conceived could exist. And yet, I am strangely fascinated….

    I am not sure I would buy one, as the work to make it fit any particular application is likely more than it is worth, but as it is the price realm of the throwaway webcams I use for specialty applications (I have one modified to easily mount on a microscope or telescope eyepiece that lives in one of my fieldwork bags), one does never know. It is usually easier, in my realm, to work start with optics that focus near infinity, rather than close up.

    Not much lower in cost than a low-end USB microscope, but the extra small diameter might be useful.

    Thanks for the review.

    1. There’s always the quick and simple trick of adjusting the lens of a cheap webcam until it’s focal length is a couple of centimetres. Really easy if you get the screw in lens type. They make great microscopes and it’s reversible. And don’t forget you can remove the IR filter. Lets you see when your iron/components are hot.

    1. It has nothing to do with a medical problem, just basic hygiene. These ear cleaning tools are targeted to asian markets because we tend to have ear flakes rather than wax (I don’t know why, maybe genetic/environmental differences cause this). Qtips, I can pretty confidently say are pretty much useless for my ears and if I dont clean them regularly I have to live with the side effects of having a bunch of loose flakes loudly moving around in my ear which is uncomfortable and itchy to say the least.

      1. Thanks! that’s genuinely the most helpful and insightful comment I’ve read in a long time. I’d wondered why there seemed to be a massive market for such things on AliExpress when I’ve never seen them in the U.K. – it turns out be be physiological rather than cultural.

      2. It is indeed a genetic cause. There is a gene variant present in East Asians and native North and South Americans that leads to dryer / harder ear-wax vs. the variant present in Europeans and Africans.

        Pretty sure the simple 23andMe type genetic tests can “predict” what type of ear-wax you have.

      3. I used carbamide peroxide, hydrogen peroxide (3%), really warm water, and one of these blue squeeze bulbs. https://www.target.com/p/ear-wax-removal-kit-0-5oz-up-38-up-8482/-/A-47771935

        Was working on my car one day when some stupid little flying bug decided my right ear would make a fine new home. Immediately after, buildup in my left ear decided to flow (it was really stinking hot that day and I’d swated like crazy) and coat my left eardrum. “What?! Speak up!”

        Took me four days of laying on one side and the other, listening to the peroxides bubbling in my ears. Lots and lots of leaning over the sink and squirting water around 100F into my ears until finally a few bits of gunk came out of the left ear, followed by a large piece, then no more. I could hear *so damn good*. A few more blasts in the right ear and the wee little dead beetle dropped out. It was like I had super ears. Could hear better than I had in quite a while.

        How much would having a doctor do that have cost? Around $300.

        I found many different ways people have removed earwax. In one case a huge amount was flushed out of a guy’s ear using a super soaker. Fill it up with really warm water and give it just one pump. Have the patient sit in a chair with a towel and a ‘kidney pan’ held up below the afflicted ear. Hold the squirt gun about 6 to 7 centimeters away from the ear and alternately blast the forward and back surfaces of the ear canal until the crud gets flushed out. That got written up in a medical journal, by the doc who borrowed the squirt gun from a 4 year old kid.

        So if you have loose flakes rattling around, some warm water in one of those squeeze bulbs should easily take car of the problem.

      1. Surely she’s using it to inspect a now generally antiquated hair style, the beehive. No secret meaning there.

        Or more mundanely, she actually keeps bees, and doesn’t want to get too close. I can’t blame her

  3. In a pinch, I’ve used a webcam as a microscope. The lens was fixed-focus, but adjustable using pliers and some force. The magnification is surprisingly good but you may need to hold the lens milimeters from the workpiece.

      1. I wasn’t serious, but it was topical. But in this context, I wasn’t planning to do a self examination, but if they were sold as consumer items (I’m surprised by cameras for ears for home use), then wondered if they’d be suitable for use as a microscope. I have no idea what the specs are, though I have some lovely photos of my stomach.

  4. Was looking for somethnig like this to look down an air rifle barrel. .177 cal.

    Couldn’t find anything narrow enough so ended up with a Cystoscope which gives superb images, looking sideways into the rifling.

    Now I’m trying to find something to attach to it to get photos…

    1. Logitech quick cam parallel, hook up to a PII 300, use the 56K modem to fax it to your local Kinkos, get it printed, and from there you can scan it with your all in one printer on a modern desktop. Easy.

      1. Now why didn’t I think of that?

        Seriously, I have tried all sorts of cameras but the exit pupil is very small so even a multi mega pixel smartphone camera, held right against the eyepiece results in a tiny round image in the centre of the picture.

  5. I bought a microscope with LCD type gadget off aliexpress. It has a little sticky suction cup base and can be articulated. It has a working distance of like 4-5 inches off the board and gives excellent magnification for SMD work. Was pretty inexpensive, about $50. I use it exclusively now anytime I do any soldering work. The LCD is about 4″. Here is a link to the product and the price has come down quite a bit: https://www.aliexpress.com/item/32982766608.html?spm=a2g0o.productlist.0.0.4620508feJk2tJ&algo_pvid=16ffdd03-d256-4ec1-8895-fb533d354906&algo_expid=16ffdd03-d256-4ec1-8895-fb533d354906-11&btsid=a98ccb3b-66d4-40a3-9ff3-8c116ef0bd05&ws_ab_test=searchweb0_0,searchweb201602_4,searchweb201603_52

  6. I think these cameras could be useful for tight spaces. It looks like it is very thin, packs an LED light and can focus relatively close in.

    The application that came into my mind immediately is to take pictures of some of my tarantulas. I have a couple of one species that likes to borrow vertical tunnels, so I am housing them currently in 25mm test tubes (They will get something larger before they outgrow this).

    I imagine it could be fun to poke the camera in there. It’s hard to shoot pictures straight down the tunnel, normally. Even most webcams don’t fit.

  7. You can buy just “usb endoscope” and get them with longer cables and probably cheaper for not being specialized. I did stick it in my ear once and it was kinda gross seeing my somewhat transparent eardrum and maybe the connecting bones

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