What is Ear Wax and Why Do We Have It?

what is ear wax and why do we have it

Ear wax: the bane of many of our existences!

Who doesn’t hate a buildup of ear wax? It can be a pain to clean out, makes our ears itch, and can even stop you from hearing clearly.

Free download: 7 Tips to Remove Earwax at Home

It could mean a trip to the otolaryngologist, if only to get rid of the buildup of sticky, funky-smelling, odd-looking what.

But what is ear wax? What causes ear wax to accumulate in our ears? What is ear wax good for? Is there such a thing as too much ear wax? What is the best way to remove ear wax when it gets out of control?

Good news: we’ve got the answers to all these questions (and more) below…

What is Ear Wax?

Cerumen is the proper name for ear wax, a substance that the human body naturally produces.

Fun Fact: Humans aren’t the only ones to produce ear wax. A surprising number of mammals also have ear wax, including whales!

But what is ear wax? What the heck is it made of?

Ear wax contains long-chain fatty acids, both unsaturated and saturated, as well as cholesterol, squalene, and alcohols.

Note: According to Medical News Today, “60% of it is keratin, 12% to 20% is saturated and unsaturated long-chain fatty acids, squalene and alcohols, and 6% to 9% is cholesterol.”

Everyone’s ear wax is made up of a slightly different mixture of these substances, depending on their environment, their age, their ethnicity, and their diet.

Types of Ear Wax

Would you believe that there is more than one type of ear wax? Crazy, right!

There are two primary types:​

  • Wet, the dominant type, is more common among Caucasians and Africans.
    As many as 97% of Africans/Europeans have this type of ear wax, which is used for self-cleaning, preventing dryness, and helps to promote sweating. This results in an odor that may very possibly be a pheromone!
  • Dry, the recessive type, is more common among Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Asians. Up to 95% of East Asians/Native Americans have dry ear wax, and it’s believed to have resulted from living in colder climates.

There are, of course, the sub-types of wax:

  • Tarry, classic wet, and firm nuggets
  • Dry flakes and “cornflakes”Gross!

What Color is Ear Wax Supposed to Be?

Ear wax can be any color between bright orange and dark brown. In adults, ear wax tends to be harder and darker, while children usually have lighter, softer wax. 

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But what do the colors mean?

  • If your earwax is a dark brown or black, it’s likely older (meaning it has trapped more dirt, germs, and bacteria – and possibly even insects!).
  • If your earwax is dark brown with a tint of red, it’s possible that you have an injury in your ear. It could be blood that is coloring your ear wax!
  • If your ear wax is brighter (from light brown to orange to yellow), it’s probably healthy, normal ear wax.

Fun Fact: Children’s ears produce more wax than adults, but wax production decreases as you age.

Where Does Ear Wax Come From?

Ear wax is typically produced only in your outer ear, and NOT in the inner ear.

If you have wax in your inner ear, it’s because you have pushed it in there.

Why Do We Have Ear Wax?

So, now that we’ve answered the question “What is ear wax?” it’s time to move on to another question: Why do we have ear wax?

Well, to understand that, you have to examine the ear canal a bit more in depth…

Your ear canal is an instrument designed to detect sound and translate it into brain signals. The hollow shape of your ear canal makes it perfect for picking up and amplifying sound. Sadly, the “hollow” part also makes it a haven for dust, debris, and dead skin cells. Your ear has no way of getting rid of those particles, so ear wax provides a viable alternative.

Ear wax absorbs the dead skin cells and debris, preventing them from being pulled deeper into the ear canal. Essentially, it’s your ear’s last line of defense!

Benefits of Ear Wax

Here’s why you want ear wax:​

  • It prevents bacteria, germs, and dirt from getting into your sensitive inner ear. The waxy substance that is your ear wax traps and essentially suffocates the bacteria and germs that breed in your ear canals. Ear wax prevents them from spreading out of control, preventing infections in your ear.
  • It collects dirt and slows bacteria growth.The sticky ear wax traps the dirt that blows into your open ear canal. That way, the sensitive skin of your ear canal is safe from irritation and possible infection.
  • It prevents bugs and insects from creeping in. Imagine if tiny creepy crawlies could get into your ear and lay their eggs. Ew! Thanks to ear wax, which repels insects (or traps the ones that try to get into your ear), your ears stay bug and insect-free!
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If you don’t have enough ear wax, your ears may become itchy. This is because the wax is almost like a moisturizer for your ears. It helps to keep your skin from becoming too dry, which leads to itchy, flaking skin. Ear wax is both a protector and a lubricant.

how much ear wax is too much

How Much Ear Wax is Too Much?

Now that you know what causes ear wax, you understand that it’s a perfectly normal and natural thing. Your body needs the substance to protect your ear canal from damage, debris, germs, and dryness.​

Everyone’s ears produce a different amount of wax, but with a healthy diet, regular bathing, and proper jaw movement (chewing, talking, and so on), your body will produce ENOUGH. You shouldn’t need to clean your ears at all.

However, some people make the mistake of getting rid of their ear wax. This leads to irritation of the ear, and causes excessive ear wax production. The result is TOO MUCH ear wax.

If the ear wax is pushed too far into the inner ear, this can lead to “impacted ear wax“. Basically, this impacted wax can cause pain, promote infection, and may even cause tinnitus (ringing in your ears).

There are other causes of excessive ear wax:​

  • Cleaning your ear with cotton buds (which most of us call Q-tips), napkins, keys, or bobby pins can push the ear wax deeper inside your ear – all the way to the inner ear canal.
  • Hearing aids, ear-bud headphones, and ear plugs can also promote wax buildup in the inner ear, as they stop the wax from falling out on its own.
  • When people swim without earplugs, the debris from the water can cause ear wax production to increase.

There are a few people more at risk of producing too much ear wax:

  • People with a lot of hair in their ear canals
  • People with incompletely or incorrectly formed ear canals
  • People who suffer regular ear infections
  • People with benign bony growths along the outer edge of the ear canal (called osteomata)
  • People with certain skin conditions
  • People suffering from certain learning disabilities (though why the two are connected is unknown)
  • The elderly (ear wax gets harder and drier as we age)

Ear Wax Build Up Symptoms

What happens when you have too much ear wax in your ears? There are a few symptoms you need to be aware of:

  • Frequent ear infections (caused by too much bacteria or germs in the ear canal)
  • Tinnitus, or a ringing in your ears (usually the result of impacted ear wax)
  • Pain (from the impacted wax)
  • Irritation or itchiness of the ear (caused by excessive ear wax buildup)
  • Reduced movement of the ear drum, meaning reduced hearing (a mild form of hearing loss)
  • Dizziness and vertigo
  • A sensation of your ear being plugged or full
  • Coughing (caused when the pressure inside your inner ear stimulates the nerves)
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When and How to Remove Ear Wax

So, now we know the answer to the question, “What is ear wax and what does it do?” We also know what happens when you have “too much” ear wax. So what next?

Time to move on to the good stuff: removing ear wax.

First off, you need to remember one very important detail: your ears are designed to be self-cleaning, meaning you don’t need to clean your ears with a cotton bud or anything else.

Pro Tip: If you feel your ears need occasional cleaning, put a few drops of warm coconut or olive oil into your ears before going to sleep.

But if you’ve noticed the symptoms of excessive ear wax (the ones listed above), it’s definitely time to get your ears cleaned. The best way to do that: visit your otolaryngologist. They have the safest, most efficient methods of cleaning out ear wax.

But what about Q-tips or ear candles? Are they a viable option for cleaning your ears?

Absolutely not! Neither are the safer option, and they could both increase your risk of having impacted ear wax.

There are medical options, such as OTC ear drops, that can help you to deal with the ear wax build-up. They will reduce wax buildup and deal with whatever infection or irritation is causing the problem.

Or you can try OtoTip by Clear Ear Inc.. Our spinning swab will help to pull the ear wax OUT, without pushing the wax further into your ear. The safety cap will stop you from pushing the swab too far into your ear, keeping your ear safe while you clean.

It’s an at-home method of cleaning you should definitely consider!

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