All humans and most other mammals have earwax. If you're talking to doctors, you might want to say "cerumen" instead of earwax. Cerumen is doctor-speak that comes from the Latin word cera, which, unsurprisingly, means "wax". "Earwax? Yeah, yeah. I know all about it." you might say. "It's that yellow-brownish guck on the Q-tip after you've cleaned your ear." Well, there's a bit more to it than that. Also, if you use Q-tips to clean your ears routinely, you should read on.
What is it?
Earwax is a mixture of a sticky substance called sebum that is produced by the sebaceous glands and some less sticky stuff secreted by sweat glands in the skin of the outer third of the ear canal. The sebum contains fatty stuff called lipids, like cholesterol, and some long-chain alcohols and such.
Now if someone ever asks you what do the caucasoid and negroid families of man have in common, you can say we have the same kind of earwax, which is formally known as the 'wet type'. This differs from the 'dry, flakey type', which is dry and flaky and also greyish rather than brownish. Most native peoples of Asia and the Americas have the dry, flakey earwax. If you are ever tempted to buy an Asian ear cleaning kit and you don't have the dry type of earwax, resist the temptation, because the cute, fluffy 'duster' part of the kit will immediately get all gunked up by your wet, sticky earwax. Also, you shouldn't be cleaning anyone's ears with those things to begin with.
Why do we have it?
Having earwax is a blessing. It traps dust and tiny insects and the like that try to get into the inner ear canal and cause trouble. It is also noxious to larger insects that are always looking for a nice, warm and moist place to crawl into and sleep or hang out, and so keeps them out of your ear canal. (Do you know how earwig got it's name?)
Well, earwax can get pretty funky after a while, but don't worry. The ear design includes a self-cleaning mechanism that can't be beat. New skin cells grow from the eardrum and migrate slowly outward, carrying the increasing funky earwax with them. Little hairs on the skin facilitate that expulsionary movement. When the wax reaches the opening of the ear canal, it just dries up and flakes off or gets washed off by normal bathing.
Earwax also helps guard the sensitive inner canal and eardrum from invasion by water. If water does get in, however, the wax can tend to hold it in there. When that happens, use an ear-drying solution that can be found in any drugstore, rather than the infamous alien cotton probe.
Earwax also helps protect the ear from infection by bacteria and fungi. It is acidic enough to discourage many germs and also contains chemicals that can keep germs from growing.
What's wrong with sticking things into my ear?
Many of us have heard time and time again from doctors, mothers and other wise people, 'Don't put anything into your ear that is smaller than your elbow.' That means no fingertips, no Q-tips, no bobby pins, and no anything else that will actually fit deep into your ear canal.
I know, I know. You're going to say, "If Q-tips should't be used to clean ears, why do they sell them?" Well, the official answer is that they are supposed to be used to clean out your navel (bellybutton). The truth, of course, is that cotton swabs are made by evil megacorporations that get rich off of the ignorance and suggestibility of the common person, because nobody believes the good advice and everybody uses the cotton swabs to 'clean their ears'.
Because Mom Nature gave us all the natural ear-cleaning mechanism described above, we don't normally need to clean the wax out of our ears. There are only two times when ears need to be cleaned. One of those times is when the doctor pokes that hard, cold, pointy thing in your ear to see if everything's OK in there, but she can't see anything for all the earwax. Don't worry, doctors are licensed to stick small things into your ear to remove the obscuring wax.
The other time cleaning is required is when a wax plug completely blocks your ear canal. That can cause loss of hearing, discomfort and even pain. Once a wax plug has formed, it usually has to be removed by first applying a solution to soften and loosen the plug and then rinsing it out with gentle irrigation. If that doesn't work, a doctor will use a curette to scoop it out bit by bit, but that is considered a surgical procedure and it bumps up the doctor bill considerably. And guess what causes such plugs to form in the first place. Right. Sticking things into your ears, like earplugs to keep water out, to mute sound, or to deliver sound directly to your eardrums.
The Good, Bad, and Ewww of Earwax Removal
Asian ear-cleaning kit (image)