What’s the Deal With Earwax?

By Howard J. Bennett

Your body is home to lots of icky stuff. In addition to the unmentionables you “deposit” in the bathroom, your body makes boogers, eye goobers and earwax. Although each of these products has a purpose, that doesn’t make them less gross. Boogers and eye goobers will be the subject of a future article. Today, we’re going to concentrate on earwax.

The outer ear is made up of the ear itself and the canal that leads to your eardrum. The ear canal is about one inch long. The skin of the ear canal has wax-producing glands that are not present anywhere else on your body. (That’s a good thing because it would be pretty embarrassing if wax oozed out of your armpits.)

At first glance, you might wonder why the ear canal is designed this way. After all, the ear canal is like a tunnel that needs to be open for you to hear properly. So why coat it with wax? Well, the skin that lines the ear canal is very sensitive and a coating of wax helps protect it.

Because earwax is sticky, it can trap foreign objects that accidentally get into the ear. Over the years, I have removed some odd things from ear canals, including gnats and other insects, pebbles and pieces of mulch. Whenever I remove a bug from a child’s ear canal, I think about the dinosaurs that got trapped in tar pits millions of years ago. A dead gnat isn’t as exciting as a dead dinosaur, but it’s fun to make the comparison.

The quantity and quality of earwax varies from person to person. Some people make lots of wax while others make a little. There are three types of earwax.

• Soft, gooey wax that is reddish-orange.

• Dry, hard wax that is reddish-black.

• Dry, flaky wax that is a pale yellow.

When a doctor looks at your ears with his otoscope (ear light) the first thing he sees is the wax inside the ear canal. If there is a lot of wax, he may need to clean it out with a special swab or with a water bath that flushes the wax out of your ear.

The most difficult wax to deal with is the dry, flaky kind. Whenever I examine this type of ear, it makes me think I’m in Luray Caverns with earwax stalactites and stalagmites all over the place.

The most important thing to know about earwax is that you (and your parents) should leave it alone. If someone tries to remove earwax, it usually accomplishes one or two unintended goals. Either the wax is pushed in deeper or something sensitive is poked. Imagine stepping on a cat’s tail and you’ll get a picture of what happens if the ear canal or eardrum is poked by mistake.

So the only place you should stick a cotton swab is in the folds of your outer ear. If you feel an irresistible need to excavate something, take a swipe at your bellybutton instead.


© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 1/31/11.)

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please visit Dr. B’s website at  www.howardjbennett.com.