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What’s the Deal with Earwax? Problem or Necessary?

By HERWriter
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is earwax just a problem or is it really necessary? Lev Dolgachov/PhotoSpin

What is Earwax?

Earwax is actually a good thing. Earwax, or cerumen, is formed in the outer third of the ear canal by glands. Its purpose is to protect and lubricate the ear canal and eardrum. Earwax is actually self-cleaning and gradually makes its way to the ear opening simply with the movement of the jaw during chewing and talking.

Once at the opening, the earwax, containing bacteria, dirt and sloughed-off skin cells, dries up into flakes and falls out.

Not enough earwax can result in dry, itchy ears.

The Earwax Problem

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, “approximately 12 million people a year in the U.S. seek medical care for impacted or excessive cerumen ...” and “nearly 8 million cerumen-removal procedures are performed yearly by health care professionals.” (2)

Ideally, ear canals should never have to be cleaned, but there are times when too much earwax interferes with hearing, or causes other symptoms such as earaches or sensation of the ear being plugged, or ringing (tinnitus) in the ear.

Wax blockage is “one of the most common causes of hearing loss.” However, most wax blockage issues are caused by attempts to clean out the ear with cotton swabs, fingers or napkin corners.

Safe Earwax Cleaning

Well, our grandmas did tell us not to stick anything smaller than our elbows in our ears, right? (Bet you just tried to put your elbow in your ear, didn’t you?)

The main reason why you should never stick anything — even a soft cotton swab in your child’s ear — besides actually causing wax impaction, is that the object could end up puncturing your child’s eardrum or the auditory canal. (3)

It is generally recommended that a simple washing of the outside of the ear (without entering the ear canal) and behind the ear during bath time is sufficient. Earwax is water soluble so it will wash away quite easily.

If you’re concerned about the amount of wax you’re seeing, discuss the issue with your family doctor. If you really feel that your child’s ears need to be cleaned out, use a few drops of baby or mineral oil.

If there is an issue with your child’s ears producing too much wax or wax that’s too hard, your doctor can use child-sized tweezers or a high-pressure water jet if necessary — but this should only be done by your doctor.

Despite their popularity, ear candles are not a safe wax cleaning option, and the FDA strongly advises against their use.


1. Earwax. American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Web. July 3, 2013.

2. Earwax: Too Much of a Good Thing? Colihan, Kelley. WebMD. Web. July 3, 2013.

3. Caring for Toddler Ears. WhattoExpect.com. Web. July 3, 2013.

Reviewed July 3, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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