Earwax comes in many guises, varying in color from amber to brown to gray to black, its consistency ranging from wet and gooey to dry and flakey. But whatever its form, it’s universally considered gross and unwelcome by the general public, which is unfortunate, because this nasty-seeming substance is actually very important for keeping your ears clean and healthy. Here’s the lowdown from an otolaryngologist (that is, an ear, nose and throat doctor, or ENT).
“The ear canal skin houses glands that secrete a waxy substance composed of alcohols, fatty acids, and cholesterol,” says J. Seth McAfee MD, from Coastal Ear, Nose, and Throat in Neptune, NJ. “That substance combines with skin cells and hairs in the ear canal to form earwax, also called cerumen.”
Your cerumen will be one of two types, depending on your genes: Anthropologists have found that people of African and European descent have the gooey, amber-brown type of earwax, while those from East Asia have the gray, flakey kind. The rest of the world is a mixed bag, but since the flakey kind comes from a recessive gene, it’s therefore less common outside of Asia—it appears to be the result of a mutation that was helpful in adapting to the cold climate of northeastern Asia.
Despite appearances, both kinds serve the same functions. “Ear wax serves to hydrate the skin of the ear canal and also protect it from infection,” says McAfee. “By covering the ear canal skin, it provides a structural barrier to germs that could cause ear infection. Also, the cerumen generates a chemical environment in the ear canal that is unfavorable for these germs, further protecting the ear from infection.” In addition to this, a new study theorizes that it also traps dust particles before they can enter the ear, which then dries out the wax, causing it to tumble out of the ear.
Because of this self-cleaning function, getting rid of ear wax is usually completely unnecessary. “Wax poses very few problems: It’s a good thing, it keeps the ear canal skin in good condition and prevents infections,” says Dr. McAfee. “Use of Q-Tips, keys, bobby pins, etc. in the ear canal [to clean out wax] poses significant health hazards to a patient’s hearing health—these types of objects generally push a majority of the wax further into the ear. At this point, it becomes impacted against the eardrum, which can be quite uncomfortable.”
The bad news for obsessive ear-cleaners doesn’t end there: “I routinely see patients who have punctured their eardrum by trying to clear wax with Q-Tips and other objects,” McAfee continues. “If these objects are advanced through the eardrum they can destroy the hearing bones, generating profound hearing loss and debilitating balance problems.”
For those of you out there wondering about proper grooming, there is one thing McAfee advises. “Cleaning the ears safely and effectively is a difficult task to accomplish at home, but I advise patients to place four to five drops of mineral oil in each ear once a week. By way of keeping it soft, the cerumen may more effectively clear from the ear canal spontaneously.”
Sometimes ears do get clogged, of course, and in those instances, an ear-cleaning is a good idea—but not if you do it yourself. According to McAfee, if your ear is clogged, “You should seek the help of an ear, nose, or throat physician, who will provide you with a safe cleaning.” In general, you should just leave ear wax alone: It’s supposed to be in your ear, which is more than can be said for your pinky.