By Titilayo Kupoliyi

Earwax or Cerumen is a waxy substance found in the ears. Glands in the ears canal produce earwax to protect them from germs.

There are two main types of earwax: wet and dry. Specifically, it depends on which variant of the gene one has.

  • Wet earwax: People with the dominant variant typically have wet earwax. This is most common among people of European and African descent.
  • Dry earwax: People with the recessive variant usually have dry, flaky earwax. This is most common among people of East Asian descent.

Earwax contains mostly sebum dead skin cells and hair combined with a number of different substances, including:

  • Keratin.
  • Cholesterol.
  • Long-chain fatty acids (saturated and unsaturated).
  • Squalene.
  • Wax esters.
  • Alcohol esters.
  •  

Healthy earwax ranges in colour and may be:

  • Off-white.
  • Yellow.
  • Orange.
  • Light brown.
  • Dark brown.

Earwax has many purposes. For example, it:

  • Acts as a waterproof lining for the ear canal.
  • Carries dead skin cells and other debris out of the ears.
  • Traps dirt and dust.
  • Prevents the ears from drying out.
  • Protects against bacterial and fungal infections.

Two types of glands in the ear canal work together to make earwax:

  • Sebaceous glands: Attached to tiny hair follicles inside the ears, these tiny glands secrete (release) an oily, lubricating substance called sebum. Sebum lubricates the skin and keeps the ears from drying out.
  • Ceruminous glands: These glands are modified sweat glands. They secrete peptides and antimicrobial proteins that protect the ears.

Like other secretions, it is something that most of us deal with in private.

Yet, it also holds a fascination for many.

In the past, it has been used as a lip balm and salve for puncture wounds.

But it can do a little more than that. Recent research suggests it can indicate a build-up of pollutants in the body and it could even be used to diagnose certain conditions.

The cells inside the ear canal are unique in the human body, they migrate. “You could put an ink dot on the eardrum and watch it move over a few weeks and it would be ‘carried out’ by the movement of the cells.”

This movement also propels the wax produced by the modified sweat glands which line the ear canal towards the outside.

It’s thought that normal movements of the jaw through eating and talking assist with this movement.

Between 1,000 to 2,000 glands produce anti-microbial peptides whilst sebaceous glands close to hair cells add into the mix alcohols, an oily substance called squalene, cholesterol and triglyceride.

The production of earwax doesn’t vary much between men and women, young or old but in one small study, external its triglyceride content decreased from November to July.

Earwax, like many other bodily secretions, can show traces of certain toxins in the body such as heavy metals. But it’s an odd place to look and no more reliable than a simple blood test.

There are also some rare metabolic disorders that affect earwax. The most notable earwax scientific discovery of recent times is that of a 24cm wax earplug from a blue whale, external.

Healthy ears contain wax, which is produced by a special lining in the ear canal. Wax protects the tissues, and helps prevent infection by trapping micro-organisms, dirt and other irritants.

Wax is constantly travelling towards the outer ear where it can drop out. This process may take a couple of months to complete.

The normal amount of wax produced can vary from person to person. Sometimes wax builds up in the ear and requires treatment.

Symptoms of wax build up

The symptoms of a wax build-up within the ear can include:

In most cases, blockage of the ear canal with wax is harmless.

Risk factors for ear wax blockage

Some people are more prone to ear wax blockage than others. Reasons for this include:

  • a tendency to produce a lot of ear wax
  • narrow ear canals
  • hairy ear canals
  • overzealous cleaning with fingertips or cotton buds, which pushes wax further down the canals
  • working in dusty or dirty environments
  • Inflammatory conditions of the skin or scalp.

Minimise ear wax build-up

It is not possible to reduce the amount of ear wax you produce or to widen your ear canals. However, there are ways to reduce the incidence of wax build-up, including:

  • Avoid cleaning the ear canals with cotton buds or fingertips, as any object poked into the ear can compact the wax and cause damage to the ear canal.
  • Use wax-softening drops or olive oil twice a week, or according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Limit ear cleaning to the outer ear only.
  • Treat any associated inflammatory skin conditions.

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