Ear wax is a necessary piece in a healthy functioning ear and yet it is often presented as a vile and “dirty” aspect of the body.   The stuff has annoyed mothers and senior citizens for years.  Ear wax removal products fill the shelves of drug stores and many people use home remedies for removing wax buildup in the organ.  Some of those methods are safer than others; some are downright questionable.

What is Ear Wax?

Wax, medically called cerumen, is secreted in the outer portion of the ear canal; in the outer Human Ear; Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Source: Wikimedia Commonsthird of the canal where it is mostly cartilage rather than bony. It is composed of over 40 different substances which include wax, oil, hair and dead skin cells.[1]  The primary substance of the cerumen is a fibrous protein substance called keratin which is found in the outer most layer of the skin.[1]

Other components of cerumen include sticky secretions from sebaceous glands and less thick and sticky secretions from ceruminous glands. The main components are squalene, lanosterol, and cholesterol.[4]

What is the purpose of Ear Wax?

Wax is important for the health of the entire ear.  The cerumen prevents dry itchy ears by moisturizing the skin of the organ’s canal, but that is only one of the functions of cerumen. It also protects the canal from irritation caused by water.

Cerumen protects the organ from infections by trapping dirt and other foreign particles and preventing them from traveling further into it. As particles are trapped in the cerumen, it dries and makes its way to the outermost of the organ where it falls out.  This keeps the inner ear naturally clean.

Safe Removal Methods

Most people do not require clearing the wax from their ears.  The movement of the jaw aids the cerumen in traveling towards the ear opening where it can dry and fall out.[2]  However, at times, people may experience wax buildup and subsequent hearing loss.  Several methods can be used for cleaning and numerous products for cerumen removal are on the market.  To prevent injuring the ear, some methods are much safer and more efficient than others.

Most people automatically grab a Q-tip or other cotton swab and attempt to clear the cerumen from their ears.  This really does the reverse of what is intended and can cause further damage. The cotton swab actually ends up pushing most of the cerumen further into the organ.  The cerumen can coat the eardrum causing hearing loss; attempts to scrape the wax off with bobby pins or other such objects risk injury to the eardrum.

Ear Wax; Photo by Mark Howard, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo by Mark Howard, Source: Wikimedia CommonsAnother dubious method of removing cerumen is candling. This method involves inserting a special candle into the ear and lighting the end. The “candle” is made of cloth and wax and as it heats up, it draws the cerumen into the hollow of the candle.  Doctors note the substance many claim is cerumen in the hollow of the candle is actually the burned material of the candle.  In addition, the risk of burns is high with this method.

The safest method of removing cerumen is a warm-water flushing of the ear.  Using a syringe water is gently pushed into the ear to flush out the wax. This, too, carries the risk of damage to the eardrum if the water is pushed in with too much force. It should also never be used if there is suspect of a perforation of the eardrum. However, it is the safest method to rid the ears of wax buildup. 

Flushing the organ usually requires preparation with a wax softener.  Numerous products to accomplish this task are on the drugstore shelves. One of the recommended products is Debrox. A few squirts into the ear each night for about a week will loosen packed-in wax. Once the wax is loosened, the water-warm flush will work wonders.

By far the safest method for removing ear wax is to let nature take its course. However, for those with ear wax buildup impairing hearing, the safest ear wax remover is a gentle flush of warm water after softening the wax.  A skilled doctor or nurse can use specialized tools if flushing does not yield the desired results.


The copyright of the article Ear Wax and Ear Wax Removal Methods is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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