There’s an entire industry of cotton swabs devoted to removing earwax – but do we really know why we attempt to get rid of it?
For most of us, the purpose of earwax is a mystery, and some people even find it gross. The reality is, earwax is an important substance produced by our bodies to keep our ears healthy and to support our auditory processes.
Here, we shed some light on this substance and its role in our hearing health.
What is Earwax?
Cerumen is the medical term for earwax, and it actually is gross when you break it down. Cerumen consists of oil, sweat, dirt, and dead skin cells. But actually, this mix is very important to the health of your ears!
What Does Earwax Do?
Earwax plays three main roles in your ear’s health.
First, it acts as a natural barrier to prevent harmful elements, such as dust, dirt, and bacteria, from entering the sensitive environment of your inner ear. Your inner ear is filled of small cells which are responsible for translating sound vibrations into neural signals to be registered by your brain. Earwax protects this environment with its stickiness, in the same way fly paper traps flies! Dirt and bacteria gets stuck in the earwax before it can make its way to your inner ear.
Earwax also protects your outer ear. The texture of earwax ensures that your outer ear is coated and protected, working as a moisturizer. It ensures that your outer ear does not become itchy or flaky, which could lead to irritation and infection.
And, believe it or not, earwax acts as an insect repellent! We definitely do not little critters wandering into our ears. This could cause injury and infection to the sensitive parts of our middle and inner ears. The smell of earwax is repugnant to bugs and makes sure that they stay way!
What Your Earwax Says About You
The color and composition of your earwax could offer a lot about your current health and well-being. Earwax varies depending on ethnicity, environment, age, and diet. This could be due to evolution in different regions throughout human history. Earwax comes in two varieties: wet and dry. While Caucasian and Africans commonly have wet cerumen, you will find dry cerumen among populations of Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Asians.
The color of earwax is an important indicator to your ear’s health. Dark brown earwax with red tint could signal an ear injury or bleeding; seek medical attention if this is the case. Adults have darker and harder earwax than children, as cerumen gets darker as we get older from collecting dirt and bacteria. Children have softer and lighter colored earwax. For people of any age, light-brown, orange, or yellow earwax indicates healthy ears.
What About Earwax Buildup?
Earwax is monitored by your body, and requires no action on your part. Your body even naturally dispels earwax on its down, by the movement of your jaw (while eating or speaking). If you constantly find yourself removing earwax, your body will believe it needs to produce more and therefore will over-produce earwax. Constant removal of earwax could thus cause an overproduction of earwax that could obstruct your hearing.
Earwax could also buildup as a result of stress (sweat and earwax are produced by the same gland, apocrine). People with lots of hair in their canals, people who suffer from chronic ear infections, people with certain skin conditions, among others, tend to produce more earwax as well.
How to Safely Remove Earwax
Generally, it is not recommended to remove earwax because it is a self-managing bodily function. However, in the event that you have excess earwax, your hearing may be obstructed. Hearing specialist advise against the use of cotton swabs, as these do not help to remove earwax. Rather, cotton swabs could cause more damage by pushing earwax deeper into your ear canal and further obstructing your hearing. Similarly, ear candling is not advised – it is a trend with no proven health benefits and could cause injury to your ears.
In general, you may keep your ears clean by washing the external areas with a warm washcloth. In the shower, the warm water that trickles in your ears may loosen and soften your earwax.
If you experience excessive earwax buildup and believe it is affecting your hearing, contact us at Gulf Gate Hearing. Our hearing specialists are trained to evaluate earwax buildup and hearing loss.