Not too long ago, we had to clean my son’s ears out. When I was a child, this involved q-tips. There have been all kinds of advances since then, though, and now we use drops that get flushed out with warm water.
My son hated it. Not because it hurt, mind. But he had to lay down for a full minute per ear, with a washcloth on his ear, and he was bored. Then, after we rinsed out the ear, he looked at what came out. “There’s creepy stuff in my ear!” he said.
“That’s just ear wax,” I told him.
“What’s ear wax?”
Seriously? Last week wasn’t enough for you?
Look. Ear wax is a fact of life. I have it, you have it, famous actors and supermodels have it. Everyone has it. But, how many of us know what it actually is or what it is for? I sure don’t. And I promised my son I’d answer his questions. So, we’re going to start with glands.
Your skin has glands, which are organs that synthesize some substance and then release that substance for use by the body. Chief among them are the sebaceous glands, found everywhere on your skin except for the hands and the soles of the feet. These sebaceous glands secrete an oily or waxy substance called sebum, which lubricates and waterproofs your skin. Sebum is also slightly acidic, and helps serve as a barrier to viruses and bacteria.
Along with sebaceous glands, the outer third of your ear contains ceruminous glands. These glands produce cerumen, which helps you hear by keeping your eardrum pliable. It also helps keep the external auditory canal clean, and serves as another barrier to bacteria and foreign particles.
Earwax is a mixture of sebum and cerumen and all the things block and trap: dirt, bacteria, shed hair and skin cells, and so on. People of African and European origin are likely to have wetter cerumen (and wetter, dark brown earwax), while Asians and Native Americans will have dryer cerumen (and dryer, grey or yellow earwax).
Normally, earwax helps to clean the ear canal by a process of “epithelial migration”. Cells in the ear canal are pushed outwards by the growth of new cells, and earwax – being sticky – clings to the cerumen and sebum produced by the glands and moves with the cells. Eventually it is pushed to the outside of the ear and out, taking dead skin cells and dirt and bacteria with it.
Excess Earwax and Blockages
According to the Mayo Clinic, excess earwax is caused by the ear secreting excess ebum and cerumen. Or, in other words, excess earwax is caused by excess earwax. Go figure. If you have excess earwax, it can be softened with a few drops of mineral oil or hydrogen peroxide, and then – after softening for a day or so – rinsed out (gently) with warm water. They recommend that you never attempt to dig it out, as that can push the wax deeper and block the ear canal or even damage the eardrum. If you can’t clean it out yourself, you should see a doctor.