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What is Earwax?

Mary McMahon
Updated: May 17, 2024

Earwax is a waxy substance secreted by glands which line the ear. It actually has a number of purposes, ranging from protecting the ear from some infections to lubricating the ear canal. On some occasions, it may become impacted in the ear, causing potential problems like obscured hearing. In these instances, medical attention may be required to remove the buildup.

There are two types of earwax: wet and dry. The wet type is moist to the touch, and it ranges in color from honey-gold to dark brown. The dry type is yellow to gray and flaky, and it prevails among Native Americans and some people of Asian descent.

One very important role of this substance is cleaning the ear. It actually moves slowly through the ear, at around the same rate that the fingernails grow, pushing out dirt, particulate matter, and other materials in the ear. Once earwax reaches the outer edges of the ear, it is supposed to fall out on its own. It also lubricates the ear canal, preventing dryness and discomfort.

Research on earwax has also suggested that it may have some important medical properties as well. It appears to contain compounds which are resistant to some bacteria and fungi, theoretically preventing the onset of painful and potentially dangerous infections in the ear. It is also unpleasant for insects, thanks to the bitter aroma and flavor, and this may help to maintain ear health as well.

Many people like to clean their ears to remove excess earwax. As a general rule, it is safe to use a soft swab or washcloth on the external part of the ear to remove earwax which has emerged from the ear, but cotton swabs should not be inserted into the ear canal. This will push the wax back into the ear, potentially causing a dangerous buildup, and people can also damage their ear drums with cotton swabs.

In the event that a buildup occurs, a gentle syringing with warm water after the application of softening drops usually does the trick. Some people prefer to leave syringing in the hands of doctors, although it can also be done at home. Doctors can also use other extraction techniques, including picks, for especially stubborn buildup. Many medical professionals do not recommend ear candling, which supposedly draws toxins and wax out of the ear, as candling can be very dangerous.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By cardsfan27 — On Sep 29, 2011

@matthewc23 - I had a problem with excess earwax when I was a kid. I read about it later, and there are glands in our ears that make the wax. I think they had a special name, but I don't remember it now. Since the stuff is wax, and wax is made from fat, I always wondered if people who ate more fatty or greasy foods had more earwax.

As for the wet and dry types of ear wax, I thought that was really interesting, too. I'd be interested to hear if anyone knows what that is. My earwax type is definitely wet.

By matthewc23 — On Sep 29, 2011

I have tried using the earwax drops, but I hated it. The liquid is really oily and is uncomfortable in your ear. Once it gets deeper into the ear canal you end up with that feeling you get after leaving the pool where you have water in your ear. Whenever I tried it, I never saw any wax come out at all.

Does anyone know what forms the earwax? Is there some sort of special body part that secretes wax into our ears? Also, why would Native Americans and Asians have different types of earwax?

By stl156 — On Sep 28, 2011

@jcraig - I have one friend who swears by using the drops, even if the wax isn't compacted in the ear canal.

I guess just put in a few drops before you go to bed, and put cotton balls or something in your ear to keep the liquid in overnight. You do that for a couple of days. Then you use an earwax syringle or a little ball that squirts water into your ear and the wax comes out. I think it sounds pretty gross myself. I've always just stuck with cotton swabs. They're much cheaper anyway.

By jcraig — On Sep 28, 2011

I read somewhere that you should only use cotton balls to clean your ears. That way you don't have to worry about pushing the wax back into the canal. I've used Q-tips my whole life, and have never had a problem with them, but cotton balls would be a good idea for someone that experiences problems with the wax getting pushed back.

Has anyone ever used the liquid ear wax remover? I have seen it in stores, but have never tried it. How easy is it to use, and how well does it work?

By aLFredo — On Sep 28, 2011

@geekish - I actually have a friend who likes to share gross pictures of such things such as bugs in earwax, so I actually know one article's take on what to do.

This article stated that you should pour mineral oil in your ear if you are experiencing pain, and this will hopefully kill the bug, and then by moving the oil a different way you coax the bug via flood out of your ear.

There were a few more steps to the complete process so if you ask me I would kindly suggest doing this - going to the doctor!

By geekish — On Sep 27, 2011

@Sinbad - I once read this about ear candling that made complete sense as to why it does not work:

It was something along the lines of ear wax is sticky so for it to come out of your ear via the pressure (that ear candling states that it creates to pull the wax out), the pressure would have so strong that it would damage your ear drum.

I imagine the dangerous part would be from the heat of the candling procedure.

Hope this helps, and I actually have a question pertaining to earwax as well. I think I had a bug fly into my ear! What should I do? Maybe perform some sort of earwax suction procedure?

By Sinbad — On Sep 26, 2011

@Edrick - I work as a speech therapist and so we learn a lot about hearing as hearing loss affect speech development and I have to say that like @robbie21 said, it certainly could be an earwax blockage, but it could also be an ear infection.

Yep, I never thought that ear infections could actually cause hearing loss, but it turns out the excess fluid causes your ear parts to be unable to pass on sounds from one part to the next part of the ear.

Either way I hope it calms your nerves, as I know that hearing loss even in just one ear can be scary.

Something I did not learn about in undergrad during my audiology (or hearing) courses was about earwax candling. This was the first time I had heard that it could be dangerous! Why is it dangerous?

By robbie21 — On Sep 25, 2011

@EdRick - It's totally possible. I had the same thing happen to me when I was in college, and I had not been cleaning my ears with a Q-tip either.

I got to where if I snapped my fingers next to my ear, I couldn't really hear it. I was a bit concerned, so I went to the health center.

You can imagine I was a little embarrassed when it turned out to be an earwax buildup! The nurse cleaned out my ear canal with a syringe and a special little basin that fit right under my ear. This huge, nasty chunk of impacted earwax came out all at once.

On another note, the medical name for earwax is "cerumen." I know this because I had a human physiology teacher in high school who liked to use it as a red herring answer. It sounds like it could be anything, doesn't it?

By EdRick — On Sep 25, 2011

My son is complaining that he can't hear out of his left ear. Is it possible for this to be an earwax build up? I'm concerned about it being something more serious.

But it hardly seems like built-up earwax could be causing actual deafness in one ear! And he doesn't clean his ears with a Q-tip, so he doesn't have that problem of pushing wax back into the ear.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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