Earwax is made up of a number of different substances that form a protective coating over the skin that lines the ear canal (the passage between the outer and middle ear).
The substances contained in earwax help to prevent the skin that lines the ear canal from drying and cracking. Earwax consists of:
- desquamated keratin squames: dead, flattened cells on the outer layer of skin,
- cerumen: a wax-like substance produced by sweat glands,
- sebum: an oily substance produced by the sebaceous glands (glands in the skin), and
- various other substances, such as cosmetics and dirt.
Types of earwax
Earwax can be wet or dry. There are two types of wet earwax:
- Soft wet earwax is moist and sticky and is more common in children.
- Hard wet earwax is drier and more common in adults. Hard wax is more likely to become impacted (firmly lodged in the ear canal).
Dry earwax is flaky and a golden-yellow colour. It is more common among people who originate from Asia.
Earwax has a number of important functions. It:
- lubricates, and
- protects the lining of your ear by trapping dirt and repelling water.
Earwax is also slightly acidic and has antibacterial properties. Without earwax, the skin inside your ear would become dry, cracked, infected, or waterlogged and sore.
Earwax can sometimes cause problems. It can cause your ear canal to become blocked, which leads to temporary hearing loss or pain. Every year in Ireland, thousands of people experience problems with earwax and need to have it removed.
Some people produce an excessive amount of earwax. If you have too much earwax, the risk of it becoming impacted increases. This is where the earwax is pushed into your ear canal by, for example, a cotton bud or hearing aid. If this happens, your hearing is likely to become impaired and the earwax will need to be removed.
Ear irrigation is a common treatment that is used to remove earwax. A pressurised flow of water removes the build-up of earwax. See Treatment for more information.