What you need to know about earwax

Contributed by | Thursday, September 1st, 2016

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Of all the substances our bodies excrete, earwax has to be one of the most mysterious. What possible reason could our ears have for producing this waxy substance? Medical professionals may not yet completely understand all of its properties, but they are certain of its protective nature. To understand more, we’ve assembled some interesting facts about earwax -- and why you shouldn’t be so hasty to remove it.

Earwax: gross but healthy

closeup of ear with cotton swab going in
While this is a common earwax removal 
method, we do not recommend it. 

The medical term for earwax is cerumen, a naturally occurring substance in the outer ear. Ingredients for a good batch of earwax include oil and sweat mixed with dirt and dead skin cells. It’s hard to believe something so unappealing can be so important to your ears' good health, yet being sticky and smelly is exactly why a normal amount of ear wax is beneficial. Consider these attributes:

  • Earwax is a natural barrier which prevents dirt and bacteria from entering the innermost parts of your ears. Because it is sticky, it collects microscopic debris which finds its way into your ear canal, much like fly paper traps insects. Without this defensive barrier, your inner ear would be at risk.
  • It acts as a moisturizer and protective coating for your ear canal. Without earwax, your outer ear might be itchy and flaky, which puts it at greater risk for becoming irritated and infected.
  • It acts as an insect repellant. The smell of earwax keeps bugs away, while the stickiness traps those which accidentally venture inside.

Your earwax says a lot about you

Although most everyone’s ears produce earwax, that’s where the similarity ends. Its composition varies from person to person, depending on their ethnicity, environment, age and diet.

There are two primary types of earwax -- wet and dry.

  • Wet cerumen typically appears in Caucasians and Africans
  • Dry cerumen is more common among Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and Asians

Even the color of your cerumen can say a lot about you.

  • Dark brown or black colored earwax is typically older, so its color comes from the dirt and bacteria it has trapped. Adults tend to have darker, harder earwax.
  • Dark brown earwax which is tinged with red may signal a bleeding injury.
  • Light brown, orange or yellow earwax is healthy and normal. Children tend to have softer, lighter-colored earwax.
  • White, flaky earwax indicates you lack a body-odor producing chemical. Dark-colored, sticky earwax indicates you should probably use deodorant.

Too much of a good thing 

Usually, the body knows exactly how much earwax to produce. As long as you maintain a healthy diet, have good hygiene and move your jaw (think chewing and talking), your ears will naturally expel excess earwax, dirt and debris without any intervention. In fact, when you make a habit of removing earwax, that sends a signal to your body to make more, creating an excess which can interfere with hearing, put you at greater risk for developing ear infections and other complications.

Stress and fear can also accelerate earwax production. That’s because the same apocrine glands which produce sweat also produce cerumen. Others who have a tendency to produce too much earwax include those:

  • with a lot of hair in their ear canals.
  • who suffer from chronic ear infections.
  • who have abnormally-formed ear canals or osteomata.
  • who are elderly, have certain skin conditions or certain learning disabilities.

How to safely clean your ears

Even though earwax has its benefits, blockages caused by it can cause a conductive hearing loss. If you develop a sensation of stuffiness in your ears and suspect earwax is the culprit, do not:

  • use a cotton swab, hairpin or any sharp instrument to attempt to remove wax yourself. Doing this can push the wax deeper into the ear canal where it is unable to be sloughed off naturally, or you could even puncture your eardrum.
  • try ear candling. Besides having no proven benefits, ear candling can cause burns, wax blockage, punctured eardrums and serious injury.

While your ears are self-cleaning, there are a few things you can do to keep them clean and free of excess debris:

  • Wash your ears using a warm, soapy wash cloth. Letting warm water from your daily shower run into your ears every so often is probably enough to soften and loosen excess earwax.
  • If your ears are healthy and you don’t have any tubes or eardrum perforations, you can try to clear excess earwax yourself using an over-the-counter ear cleaning kit. Ask your local pharmacist for a recommendation.
  • Have your hearing evaluated annually by a hearing healthcare professional. Ask your family physician for a referral, or search our online directory for a trusted professional in your community. Besides advising you on your hearing health, they will be able to detect excess cerumen and may safely remove it.
  • See a doctor immediately if your home treatments don't help or if you experience sudden hearing loss, pain or bleeding. 
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