Cerumen: the wonderful world of ear wax

Cerumen, or ear wax, may just about be nature's most under-rated and misunderstood gift to humanity. It keeps the tissues of the ear canal lubricated and supple; it repels water and insects, is antibacterial, and traps airborne impurities before they get to the deeper reaches of the ear canal and the eardrum. Simply stated, ear wax is our friend.

Cerumen is actually a mixture of sweat and oils produced by glands in the tissues lining the outer third of the ear canal, mixed with dead skin cells. Here are a few ear wax fun facts for your amusement and edification:

  • It's water-repellent, because it consists largely of a mixture of body oils. We generally don't have enough wax in our ear to make the canal fully waterproof (if we did, it would interfere with our hearing), but it offers some protection and helps water that does get in to flow back out before bacteria have a chance to grow in it and cause infections. Think about how water "beads" and rolls off the surface of a freshly-waxed car. That's what happens inside your ear canal! Well, kind of, anyway.
  • It's a natural insect repellent! Cool, huh? Who wants insects crawling around in their ear canals? Not me! Fortunately, our ears are endowed by their Creator with a substance insects find icky.
  • It's antibacterial. Ear wax is acidic, and bacteria do not like acidic environments. Along with repelling water, this helps prevent outer ear infections like "swimmer's ear".
  • It's noxious. Don't put ear wax in your eye--it stings. This is probably also because it's acidic. You wouldn't want to put vinegar in your eye, either. Or battery acid.
  • It doesn't taste very good. In fact, ear wax tastes pretty darn awful. You can try for yourself, or you can just take my word for it.
  • It's sticky. Well, you probably knew that already. But did you know that its stickiness helps to trap dust, dirt, and other impurities that might otherwise get into the ear canal? Well, now you do.

Fresh cerumen has a shiny, yellowish-golden color and is soft and sticky to the touch. As it dries, it becomes white and flaky, falls out of the ear canal, and can be cleaned away without inserting anything into the canal. "Wax on, wax off." Most people produce it at a rate that provides adequate coverage for the membranes while allowing older cerumen to dry and flake off before blocking the canal and causing a hearing loss. In fact, ear wax will interfere with hearing only if it is completely blocking the canal.

If the wax remains in the canal long enough, it can become impacted. Impacted cerumen is hard and dense, black or dark grey in color, and difficult to remove.

In the majority of human ears, cerumen will take care of itself if left alone. There are some cases, however, where it can become troublesome. Just as there are people who sweat more than average, there are some people who produce ear wax faster than it can dry and flake off, and their ear canals may become blocked with impacted cerumen. If this happens, the person may experience a hearing loss. Also, moisture and bacteria may be trapped between the blockage and the eardrum, leading to infection.

However, most blockages are self-inflicted, and the humble, ubiquitous Q-Tip is to blame (or, if you prefer to use generic terms, cotton swabs). Actually, it's the misuse of Q-Tips that's to blame. What do I mean by that? Go get your box of Q-Tips. Don't lie to me, I know you've got a box of them (or their generic equivalent) in your bathroom! Go get them out and read what it says on the box. Go. I'll wait.


Are you back? Did you see on the box where it says not to stick them in your ears? Do you know why it says not to stick them in your ears?

Because you're not supposed to stick them in your ears! That's why!

If you want to use them to apply make-up, or salve, or ointment, or for crafts, that's fine. But even the manufacturers say not to use them to clean ear wax out of your ears. Remember how I said, up at the top, that ear wax is produced by glands lining the outer third of the ear canal? When you push a Q-Tip into the ear canal, you are pushing the ear wax farther in. Sure, some of it sticks to the cotton tip when you pull it out (it's sticky, remember?). But most of it gets pushed into the inner two-thirds of the canal. Once there, it has farther to go to work its way out. If you do this day after day, the wax can build up in there and become impacted, which means it won't come out on its own any more. Eventually, once enough is pushed back in, the ear canal becomes blocked and you've got a conductive hearing loss. Instead of "Wax on, wax off," you've got "Wax on, wax farther in, more wax on, speak up, I can't hear you."

Another ear wax removal idea you definitely do not want to try is ear candling. Oh, man, don't get me started! Click on the link to read about the possible harmful effects. Ear candles are not approved by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) for any health-related purpose, so it is illegal for manufacturers and importers in the United States to claim that they are beneficial. The FDA has cracked down on manufacturers and sellers who market ear candles as a cure for anything, but it's easy to find them for sale online. If you really want to see the sales pitch first-hand, do a Google search; I refuse to provide these quacks with a link from my proper and respectable web site.

If you have impacted ear wax that needs to come out, you can get a safe, inexpensive, over-the-counter kit at most drug stores or supermarkets, or online. It includes a bottle of ear drops that you use for several days to soften the wax; then you fill the bulb syringe and gently irrigate the ear canal with warm water while in the bath or shower to flush out any wax that hasn't come out on its own. If this doesn't work, a doctor or an audiologist can remove the wax, but it can be a painful process. See a doctor or audiologist before using one of these kits on a child under age 12.

Return from Cerumen to Hearing Loss in Children .

Return from Cerumen to Speech-Language Development home page.

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