Earwax, that annoying goop you can’t wait to get out of your ears. It’s the stuff we obsessively dig out at the end of our showers and blame for everything we mishear. However, what is largely considered a nuisance is actually an integral part to the health of your ears.
So what is the function of earwax anyway? Earwax—or cerumen as it is medically known—is a natural secretion of the outer ear that is a sticky combination of oils, sweat, and good old-fashioned dirt mixed with dead skin cells. Knowing that, it’s easy to see why it would be revered with such disgust. But it’s the stickiness that makes it so effective.
With earwax acting as a natural barrier between the outside world and the delicate workings of your inner ear, it is able to trap potentially harmful debris—or insects—that may find its way into your ear canal. It also acts as a protective coating, keeping your ear canal lubricated. Without it, your ears might feel itchy or flaky which increases the chance of irritation or infection. The underlying message: a healthy amount of earwax is GOOD.
Now you might be asking yourself, ‘what is healthy?’ And the answer is: it varies. Although most ears produce earwax, its composition depends on ethnicity, environment, age, and diet. Here are a few guidelines to get you started:
- There are two types of earwax—wet and dry
- Caucasians and Africans typically have wet earwax whereas Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Asians usually have dry earwax
- The color of your earwax can say a lot about you and your health
- Adults tend to have darker, harder earwax
- Children usually have softer, lighter earwax
- Orange, yellow, or light brown wax is considered healthy and normal
- The darker the wax, the older it is
- White, flaky wax means you lack at body-odor producing chemical
- Your body naturally regulates how much earwax to produce through your diet, hygiene, and jaw movement
- Cleaning your ears too much can actually be harmful and can lead to excess wax production
- Not having enough wax can also lead to a higher risk of infections or other complications
- Excess wax production can also lead to ear blockages that can affect your ability to hear
- Stress levels can accelerate earwax production
There are certain types of people who are more prone to excess earwax production. Some of these factors include the amount of hair in the ear canal, chronic ear infections, abnormally formed ear canals, certain skin conditions, and age.
That being said, what do you do if you feel like your ears are stuffy and you suspect wax may be the root of the problem?
Shove a cotton swab, hairpin, or sharp object in there, right? WRONG. The use of a foreign object in an attempt to clear your ear can actually push the wax deeper into the ear canal where it is unable to be sloughed off naturally. Or worse, you could puncture your eardrum. Ouch!
What about ear candling? That’s safe, right? WRONG. On top of having no proven benefits, ear candling often leads to burns, wax blockages, punctured ear drums, and serious injury. You can actually burn your eardrum doing this!
So what can you do to help keep your ears healthy and clean?
- Wash your ears with warm water. This can be done in the shower or with a wet wash cloth. This is usually enough to soften and loosen the excess wax to be naturally expelled by your ears.
- Ask your local pharmacist about using an over-the-counter ear cleaning kit. This should only be considered if you have healthy ears free of any tubes or eardrum perforations.
But the number one thing you can do to help keep your ears clean is to visit your audiologist annually. Aside from advising you on your hearing health, they are trained to safely and effectively remove excess wax build up in your ears.