Man cleaning earwax from his ears by pulling tissues out of ear

There are likely to be a few things you don’t understand about earwax. After all, it’s not a normal part of a conversation, right? Like what’s the job of this strange sticky substance and why is it made? Consider eight ever so interesting details about cerumen — that’s earwax for most people — that you didn’t even know were essential to hearing health.

1. Earwax is Not Really Wax

It’s called wax, but it’s not a wax at all. The name comes from the waxy texture. Earwax is made partially of skin cells from the auditory, or ear, the canal. This area contains skin that is always renewing itself. As dead cells drop off, they are pulled in to produce earwax.

Along with the dead skin cells, it also contains secretions from the ceruminous and the sebaceous glands. The ceruminous gland is a small sweat gland that sits just outside the ear canal. The sebaceous glands are located anywhere there is skin to provide the oil that keeps it lubricated.

The exact formula of earwax consists of:

  • Fatty acids
  • Squalene
  • Alcohols
  • Cholesterol

They combine with the dead skin cells to create this very necessary substance.

2. Earwax Safeguards Your Ears

It’s role is to protect the skin inside the auditory canal. It takes just a small break in that skin to cause an infection that leads to an earache. The strange texture of the earwax lubricates this skin, as well, and it is a natural antimicrobial, so it stops bacterial infections before they can start.

Earwax is similar to other protective elements on the body like nose hairs or tears. You don’t think much about them, either, but they an important part of preventing infection.

3. There are Different Kinds of Earwax

That’s right, surprisingly not all earwax is the same. It comes in two forms: wet and dry. What kind you have depends on genetics just like eye color. Wet earwax is the dominant gene, so it’s common for most people. Individuals with East Asian descent, from China or Korea, for example, usually have the recessive dry gene as do the Native American Indians. It’s a detail important to anthropologists as they track the migration of different cultures throughout the world.

4. Earwax Cleans the Ears

Yes, that is another essential function of earwax. Think of it as a conveyor belt like you see in the grocery store checkout lane. Dirt, dead skin cells and bacteria get stuck in the earwax to create the belt. When the eardrum beats or the jaw moves, the belt goes towards the opening of the ear canal, taking all that debris with it.

The movement of the jaw is responsible for loosening the wax from the wall of the ear canal so that it can be sent through the ear opening as waste.

5. Too Little Earwax a Bad Thing

Everyone has itchy ears sometimes, but it can be a sign of low levels of earwax possibly due to excessive cleaning. Earwax is natural and doesn’t need much help to clean the canal. There few reasons to try to pull it out of the ear, especially if yours are already itchy.

The itch usually means the skin that covers the auditory canal is dry because there isn’t enough earwax. It acts as a natural lubricant, so removing it will just lead to more itching. Instead, try a drop or two of mineral oil to moisten the dry skin.

6. Too Much Earwax is Bad Too

A buildup of earwax can lead to a temporary hearing loss. This usually happens when the wax is pushed back by a cotton swab, end of a pencil or whatever else you use to clean your ears. That push creates a ball that gets lodged. Sound travels as a vibration through the canal to the inner ear. That process is disrupted when there is an earwax blockage.

7. You Can Clear Earwax Out Safely

Not by shoving a cotton swab in the canal, though. There is a reason mom said not to put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.

If you have diabetes or problems with your ears, let the doctor clean them for you. If you do feel the need to do it yourself, a few drops of baby oil will soften the earwax and, hopefully, dislodge it. Once the wax is soft enough to come out, use a rubber-bulb syringe to gently move room temperature water through the ear. When the water is in place, tilt your ear to the side and allow it to drain out.

Dry the outside of your ear with a clean towel. If you are prone to swimmer’s ear or ear infections, a few drops of rubbing alcohol will ensure all the water dries up.

8. Not All Hearing Loss is Due to Earwax

If your hearing doesn’t return after your ears are cleared, talk to your doctor. A professional ear exam and a hearing test can pinpoint that problem, so you can start to hear again even if it means you need hearing aids.