The truth about earwax

Ever wondered why we produce earwax? It’s not just an unsightly nuisance – earwax is essential for the good health of your ears.

What’s normal?

Earwax, or cerumen, is produced in the outer ear and is a mix of oil, sweat and skin cells.

Everyone produces earwax, but that’s where the similarity ends. There’s a huge variation in earwax colour and consistency that’s perfectly normal and healthy.

Earwax can be wet or dry; it can be white to grey and flaky; or (more commonly) yellow through to dark brown in colour with a sticky consistency.

In fact, it’s this stickiness that makes earwax so helpful, keeping ears healthy by trapping any dirt and debris – including small insects – that may find its way into the ear canal.

And you may be surprised to learn earwax has anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. It also provides a moisturising coating to help prevent irritation and infection – without earwax, the ear canal would be uncomfortably itchy.

How much is enough?

Your body should produce just the right amount of earwax to keep your ears healthy.

The wax is carried outward and expelled from the ear canal naturally, stimulated by regular jaw movements from eating and talking. And it takes all the dirt, debris and old skin cells that have accumulated with it.

However, stress, environmental factors, poor diet and age can affect the rate of production, causing a buildup of excess earwax.

Bin the cotton buds

Regularly cleaning is another common cause of earwax buildup. Removing the wax can stimulate the body to produce more than it needs. That’s one reason why it’s a good idea to bin those cotton buds.

But there are other good reasons too. Cotton buds can push earwax further into the ear canal, causing a blockage and resulting in conductive hearing loss.

However, the biggest concern about using cotton buds – or any other objects – to remove earwax, is the risk of damage to the ear canal or eardrum and the potential to cause permanent harm to your hearing.

What can you do to keep ears clean?

Your ears are self-cleaning and should take care of themselves naturally. But if you are concerned about unsightly earwax, the gentle stream of water from your daily shower should be enough to remove any visible trace. You can also use a warm facecloth, being careful not to enter the ear canal. Remember – nothing smaller than your elbow should be inserted into the ear canal!

If you’re concerned that a buildup of earwax is affecting your hearing, contact your local Life Unlimited hearing therapist on 0800 008 011 for further advice. They can carry out a visual inspection and hearing test, and refer you to an ear nurse specialist for safe wax removal, or to another hearing/health professional if necessary.

If you experience sudden hearing loss, pain, an unusual discharge or bleeding, you should consult your GP immediately.