Some things in life are chronically under-appreciated, and earwax is arguably one of them. Despite the common urge to remove it at first sight, earwax has not always been viewed as a nuisance, and was actually a common ingredient in lip balms and wound salves in older times. Times have definitely changed, but the wonders of earwax continue to pile up.
Earwax, or cerumen as it’s officially called, is actually not really a wax at all. It’s a mixture of bodily secretions, dead skin cells, and dust or debris. It’s secreted from glands within the ear canal and serves to provide an effective protective layer for our deeper hearing mechanism. Not only is the sticky version of ear wax (there are non-sticky versions too) helpful in catching ‘outsiders’ from irritating the eardrum, but earwax also has an antibacterial enzyme called lysozyme to help fight off any infectious invaders.
Wet earwax also helps relieve itchy, dry ear canals, and can even slow the growth of bacteria in the canal. It can also help prevent against swimmer’s ear by protecting the skin from being irritated by water. But not everyone has wet earwax, as there are two variations of the earwax gene, and one of them produces a whitish, flaky variety. Dry earwax still has many of the antimicrobial benefits of wet earwax, but can sometimes result in dry and itchy canals.
Dry earwax is more common in people with Asian heritage, and is characterized as neutral smelling, as it’s missing the odorous chemical associated with wet earwax. Having flaky earwax instead of wet earwax is often also correlated with having no underarm odor as well, and is found in people of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese descent.
Interestingly, this odor that wet earwax can sometimes have is the focus of current research that is revealing a relationship between certain volatile compounds in earwax and the presence of specific genetic conditions, such as the rare disorder known as “maple syrup urine disease.” Testing for these kinds of genetic disorders through earwax can sometimes prove to be cost effective and efficient, although more research is needed to determine its reliability.
Perhaps the most pervasive misconception about earwax is that we must clean it out. Despite health professional’s consistent encouragement to leave our earwax alone, it’s rare to see a bathroom stocked without Q-tips in our culture. The problem with us trying to clean our ear canals with Q-tips, or any device really, is that we actually end up pushing the earwax further into the canal while scraping just a bit of it off the canal wall. This practice risks impacting earwax within the canal, possibly requiring a professional cleaning to be removed. Impacted earwax can also potentially irritate or damage the eardrum, and even cause temporary hearing loss in the affected ear.
You may be wondering, “If Q-tips should be abandoned, how then will we enjoy clean ears again?” Amazingly, the ear canal actually cleans itself out. The cells lining the eardrum and ear canal are unique in that they actually migrate towards the exterior of the ear, slowly carrying all earwax out with it. Cleaning the outer ear won’t interfere with this natural cleansing process, and Q-tips or a tissue will do the trick there, but sticking anything in the ear canal is not worth the risk, nor is it helpful.
To be clear however, if you’re experiencing symptoms of excessive earwax buildup, like earache, sensations of pressure, muffled sounds, or tenderness, it’s important to have your hearing professional inspect and possibly clean your ear out for you. Most ear cleanings involve softening the wax with a solution or a recommended oil, and then having it removed with a syringe, and some offices now offer micro-vacuuming tools that are faster and even more effective.
If you’ve ever noticed that your ears produce more earwax some days than others, it could be the result of mental or physical stress. Increased stress is related to increased gland secretions in the ear canal, in the same way that stress can lead to more active sweat glands in the rest of our body.
Prolonged periods of excessive earwax secretions have also been linked to a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids, which is easy to add if you suspect your diet is lacking the right amount. But unless your earwax is affecting your hearing capacity or comfort, it shouldn’t be anything to worry about. As you’ve seen here, it’s got an important job to do!