An illustration of a doctor looking at an oversized ear with plants floating around it

Your Ears Work Hard So You Don’t Have To

Many people notice that their ears feel wet in the morning from time to time (or often). If you can relate, you’ve probably wondered why it happens. Here’s the short answer:

Ears are little self-cleaning marvels, and their chosen tool is earwax. Putting a cotton swab in your ear canal every morning removes the earwax. Your ear, doing its job, makes more. By the next morning, what you feel is fresh earwax, before it has started cleaning your ears.

We get it — earwax seems gross. Removing it as soon as possible is how most people approach it. But it’s an important part of your body’s defenses. Removing it is usually not necessary, and it often can do more harm than good.

Let’s look at why earwax is a good thing, whether you should worry about it, and when to see a professional.

 

A Deep Dive Into Earwax

Earwax is a good thing

Earwax isn’t just there to gross you out or make you spend money on cotton swabs. Cerumen, the more technical name for earwax, provides many benefits. For example, cerumen:

  • Traps and removes dust, dirt, and other debris
  • Moisturizes your ear canals
  • Protects against and fights infection
  • Makes your ear canals more water-resistant

“But how is that possible? It’s just icky goo!” you might be thinking.

 

Earwax keeps your ears clean

Cerumen is a combination of two substances produced in the ear canal:

  • Sebaceous glands secrete an oily substance called sebum that lubricates the skin
  • Ceruminous glands secrete peptides and antimicrobial proteins to protect your ears

By the time you see the cerumen, though, it’s done a lot of work on your behalf.

The outer two-thirds of your ear canals slope downward until they reach the outside of your head. Gravity and the movement of your jaw slowly move the cerumen down and out of your ear canal, like a conveyor belt.

But along the way, it picks up dead skin cells, hair, dust, and other debris — like bacteria and fungi that might cause infection. What you call earwax is cerumen plus all that other stuff it picks up on its trip down the ear canal.

Your ears stay protected, clean, and moisturized, naturally.

 

Earwax can build up in your ear canal

Some people naturally produce more cerumen than others. But anyone can start to develop excess due to:

  • Trauma
  • Scar tissue
  • Large debris in your ear canal
  • Using earbuds, earplugs, or hearing aids
  • Using cotton swabs

That’s right: When you put something in your ear, your ear tries to protect itself from irritation or infection by producing extra cerumen.

That’s usually not a problem. Your self-cleaning ears should handle it, resulting in extra earwax at the very end of your ear canal or in your outer ear. When that happens, you should simply wipe it off with a warm, wet washcloth.

 

Ear Cleaning Dos and Don’ts

Earwax can cause blockages

Sometimes, though, your earwax builds up too much. This can happen because of:

  • Large debris, which can trap earwax in your ear canal
  • Physiological factors, such as narrow ear canals or conditions such as eczema or psoriasis, make it difficult for earwax to exit your ear canal
  • Items being inserted in your ear, such as ear plugs or earbuds, which push buildup farther into your ear canal

You might be tempted to grab your go-to ear-cleaning device. But not so fast.

 

Don’t use cotton swabs

Look at your box of cotton swabs. Clearly printed somewhere, probably on the back, is something like, “Do not insert swab into ear canal. If used to clean ears, stroke swab gently around the outer surface of the ear only.”

There are good reasons for this.

 

Earwax impaction

Cotton swabs can push earwax deeper into your ear canal, where your ear can’t clean it out naturally. Too much accumulation near your eardrum can lead to unpleasant symptoms such as pain, a plugged-up feeling, or muffled hearing.

 

Injury

It’s just too easy to reach your eardrum with a swab. And even the gentlest pressure can rupture the delicate tissue. A punctured eardrum can heal, but it takes a long time and often includes temporary hearing loss.

 

Infections

As already mentioned, earwax traps harmful bacteria. Using a cotton swab can push the earwax — and the bacteria it contains — deeper into your ear, leading to an ear infection.

The same can be said of the other everyday items commonly used to “clean” ears, such as hair pins, pens, pencils, straws, and toys. They do more harm than good and can lead to impaction, injury, or infection.

 

Don’t use ear candles

Ear candling, sometimes called ear coning, is less well-known. It involves a “candle” — fabric soaked in wax, paraffin, or beeswax — that’s long, hollow, and tapered. Using an ear candle involves the following steps:

  • You lie on your side and someone inserts the candle into your ear
  • A paper or plastic plate is used to keep hot wax from dripping on your face or hair
  • The candle is lit and allowed to burn for 10–15 minutes
  • Afterward, you’re shown all the gunk allegedly removed from your system by the candling

The claim is that ear candling draws earwax, impurities, and toxins out through your ear and can treat anything from earwax buildup to vertigo to a sore throat. No reliable evidence supports any claims made by ear candle manufacturers or practitioners, and the FDA even issued a warning against ear candles.

Not only does it not do what is claimed, but it can also do harm by burning your face, ear canal, or eardrum. Wax can also drip down the candle and enter your ear canal, causing even more of a blockage than before you used the ear candle.

 

Do clean your outer ears

Gently wipe your outer ears with a little soap and water on a washcloth — though usually a daily shower will clean them just fine. As for your ear canals, enough water gets in them during your shower that you shouldn’t need to clean them.

 

Do try over-the-counter earwax-softening drops

If your earwax is prone to buildup, there’s only one product safe enough to recommend: carbamide peroxide. It goes by names such as Debrox and Murine Ear Wax Removal System. The package will most likely include a rubber bulb syringe.

You drop the solution into your ear canal, keep your head tilted for several minutes so the solution stays in place, then rinse your ear canal out with the bulb syringe. In the whole process, you do not place the dropper or syringe in your ear canal.

 

It’s a Good Idea to See a Professional

Err on the side of caution, especially if you’re feeling fullness or pain, experiencing drainage, or have hearing loss from earwax buildup. There’s simply too much at stake: A wrong move can damage your eardrum or worse.

A hearing care professional has the expertise, tools, and know-how to assess the situation, determine the best course of action, and treat your unique situation without causing harm. And it only takes a few minutes.

Contact us today if you’re concerned you might have earwax buildup that could become an issue!


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