What Is Earwax, Anyway?

You got ears? You're gonna have earwax.
You got ears? You're gonna have earwax. / Voyagerix/iStock via Getty Images

The human body is home to a number of secretions, discharges, and various residues that are formed and sloughed off in the course of living. Belly button lint. Nasal accumulations, i.e. boogers. And earwax, a sometimes smelly substance which can do a fine job of temporarily diminishing your hearing and provoking you into digging into your ear canal to remove it. So what exactly is this stuff?

It’s called cerumen, and it’s the product of glands inside the ear canal. And for the most part, it’s actually good for you. Cerumen acts as a kind of protective surface liner, catching germs, dirt, and other irritants from going deeper into the ear canal. It also keeps water off the delicate skin inside the ear.

Most earwax tends to dissipate over time, moving from the canal to the ear opening, where it can fall away or get washed out. The problem comes when the ear makes too much of the wax, or the wax builds up over time. In those instances, hardened wax can create a blockage and muffle your ability to properly hear sound. Attempts to clean it may only push the wax in deeper.

People tend to suspect there’s an earwax issue when they experience hearing loss, a feeling of fullness in the ear, or pain. (The color of earwax, which can range from yellow to light brown, doesn’t indicate anything.) Headphone use can also promote earwax build-up.

When earwax is noticeable, you can try to soften it with mineral oil, over-the-counter earwax softeners, or via irrigation, where the head is tilted and body temperature water is allowed to flow into the ear. (Cool water will cause dizziness.) If home methods don’t work, the ear can be cleaned by a health care professional. Some people even opt to have their wax removed during annual physicals.

As you’ve probably heard, jamming a Q-Tip or other cotton swab into the ear is counter-productive. Not only will it push the earwax deeper, it could cause injury, as Q-Tips are not intended to be used inside of the ear. The cotton tip may break off, necessitating professional removal.

While earwax can sometimes be a burden, at least it has a practical purpose in protecting your body from harm. The jury is still out on belly button lint.

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