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What is Ear Wax?

Updated: Jan 18, 2023

Ear wax, also known as cerumen, is a natural substance produced by the body to protect and lubricate the ear canal. While small amounts of ear wax are normal and beneficial, excessive ear wax buildup can cause issues such as hearing loss, ear infections, and even pain. In this blog post, we will do a deep dive into answering the question- what is ear wax? We have tried to structure the post so that those of you who wish for a summary can find it here, as well as those that want to know all the juicy (perhaps that is not quite the right adjective) details.




For Those of you who just want the highlights

What we know as ear wax, is also known as cerumen. It is a mixture of several organic components produced in the ear. Dead skin that lines the whole of the ear canal is shed and the new skin produced underneath pushes the old dead skin outwards towards the ear opening. This dead skin then mixes with oils and sweat which are produced in the ear canal. Finally, in the final third of the ear canal, it mixes with cerumen, which is produced by a special gland and it is this that gives wax its characteristic colour and texture. Normally, the wax at this point is a soft moist consistency, and it usually falls out of the ear without any need for removal.

As mentioned earlier, there are two glands in the ear which produce sebum and cerumen, which are both oily in consistency. Along with dead skin which is naturally soft and pliable. In most cases, however, it is

not a liquid. In some cases however when a person gets ear discharge after an infection in the ear, the liquid that comes out is more residue of the infection than wax.

Wax can become hardened for several reasons. Chief amongst these is the amour of time the wax remains in the ear canal. Over time the oils that make up the wax dry, and this leads to a change in colour and consistency.

Regular ear wax doesn't have a strong smell. If you get close enough, however (not recommended), it is said to have an earthy odour. If ear wax takes on a stronger objectionable smell, this is usually a sign of an ear infection and discharge. Middle ear discharge following a perforation or outer ear infection (also known as swimmers ear), usually is associated with a strong smell.


The in-depth version

How is Ear Wax Formed?

The exact composition of ear wax can vary depending on several factors, but it typically contains:

  1. Lipids: This includes fats and oils secreted by the sebaceous glands which are found in the inner portion of the ear canal, near the ear drum. lipids are the reason ear wax has its characteristic yellow colour.

  2. Keratin: The whole of the ear canal is lined with squamous epithelium. This produces a protein called Keratin which helps to form a barrier against bacteria and other foreign bodies, as well as to provide a waterproof barrier to the sensitive ear drum.

  3. Cholesterol: This is a fatty substance that is present in small amounts in ear wax.

  4. Immune cells: There are small numbers of immune cells called macrophages present in ear wax, which can help to protect against infection.

  5. Other substances: Ear wax also contains small amounts of other substances such as water, sodium, and trace amounts of other minerals.

Why is Ear Wax Liquid?

Sebaceous glands are microscopic glands found in your hair follicles that secrete sebum. Sebum is an oily substance that protects your skin from drying out. Sebaceous glands can clog, and usually, on other parts of the body like the face, a good skin routine involving exfoliation can remedy this problem. It is possible, therefore, that one of the reasons wax is drier and more likely to block up in some people is because these

In most people, ear wax is produced in small amounts and is typically soft. This makes it easy for the wax to make its way out of the ear through a process called 'self-cleansing'. The new skin that gets produced pushes the old skin circularly and outwardly towards the opening of the canal. While soft, it isn't usually a liquid unless other complications like infections exist.

Certain factors can also affect the consistency of ear wax. People who use ear plugs or hearing aids may trap the wax inside the ear canal, leading to a wax build-up over time which dries and hardens the wax. A similar problem can happen when people use cotton buds attempting to clear their ears, and unknowingly end up pushing the wax further down.

Why is Ear Wax Yellow?

Ear wax is typically yellow or brown. The colour of the wax is due to the presence of various substances such as:

  1. Lipids: Lipids make up the majority of ear wax and give it its yellow colour.

  2. Melanin is the pigment that gives colour to our skin, hair, and eyes. Melanin is present in small amounts in ear wax and can give it a slightly darker colour.

  3. Dead skin cells: These are shed by the skin lining the ear canal. Ear wax is a mixture of these cells, secretions and keratin.

The colour can also vary depending on the amount of wax produced and how long it has been in the ear. Fresh wax is typically yellow, while older wax may be darker or brown. Impacted wax often takes on a dark black colour. The colour wheel below can give you an idea of what the different colours of wax might indicate to your health.

Why is Ear Wax Black?

One of the most common causes of black ear wax is the accumulation of dirt, dust, and other particles in the ear canal. These particles can get trapped in the ear wax, giving it a dark colour. This can happen especially if a person has a habit of inserting foreign objects into the ear or has a job that exposes them to a lot of dust or pollution.

You know, sometimes, black ear wax is caused by things like ear infections or skin conditions, like eczema or psoriasis. When the skin inside the ear canal is irritated, it can produce more wax than usual, and it can turn black. But it's important to know that just because the wax is black doesn't necessarily mean something is wrong.

However, if you're experiencing symptoms like pain, itching or discharge, it's probably a good idea to talk to a healthcare professional just to be safe.

It's not always easy to understand what's going on with our bodies, it's always best to consult with a professional to get the best advice.

What Causes Ear Wax to Build up?

Our ears naturally produce wax to keep them clean and healthy. But sometimes, too much wax can build up and cause problems like discomfort or even hearing loss. So, what can you do?

First of all, it's important to avoid using cotton swabs or other foreign objects to clean your ears. These things can push the wax further in and make the problem worse. Furthermore, as the lining of the ear canal is wafer-thin and sensitive, you are likely to cause trauma and infection.

Secondly, ear drops that are specifically made to soften wax can be really helpful in breaking it down and making it easier to remove.

Lastly, if you're experiencing any symptoms like pain, discomfort or hearing loss, it's always a good idea to visit an audiologist or healthcare professional for regular cleaning or check-up. They'll be able to take a closer look and help you find the best solution for you.

Why is Ear Wax Smelly?

You know, something you might not know about ear wax is that it can have a smell. Everyone's ear wax smells differently, it's typically described as having a musty or earthy odour. But the thing is, it's not just the wax that's causing the smell, bacteria that live in the ear canal play a role too. Plus, certain health, skin or ear infections can also affect the smell.

A little bit of odour is normal, but if you start to notice a strong smell, and you're experiencing symptoms like discomfort, hearing loss or discharge, it's best to check in with a healthcare professional. They can help rule out any underlying issues. It might surprise you to know that overly cleaning your ears isn't a good thing

Even overuse of water in the ears can change the PH in the ear which is naturally slightly acidic, and this can make infections more likely. Unless there is a reason to assume there is a problem you should leave your ears well alone. Nature has its way of managing this for us so you don't have to.


Final Words...

To sum it up, ear wax is a necessary and natural part of ear health. It protects the ear canal, trapping any foreign particles that might get in. In most cases, it is soft and exists in small amounts which makes it easy for it to make its way out of the ear. In some cases, however, the wax gets blocked and can become impacted leading to possible pain, discomfort and hearing loss. It's only when you experience one of these associated symptoms that you should seek professional help.

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