Why we have earwax in the first place, and what to do when it builds up.

We all have a coating of earwax, medically known as cerumen, within our ears, but the amount and texture can vary from person to person. If it builds up and starts affecting your hearing and health, however, you may want to remove it.

Good news: Getting rid of earwax is easy, and it often can be done using everyday products you probably already have in your kitchen or bathroom. Just be sure to tread carefully, since the wrong methods have the potential to cause damage to your ear. Here's what to know about earwax, the safest ways to remove it, and what never to do.

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Credit: Getty Images

What exactly is earwax, anyway?

Think of earwax as a combination of substances. "Earwax is a collection of oil that's produced by the skin of the ear canal, and in accumulation with debris and exfoliated skin, turns into wax," Omid Mehdizadeh, MD, otolaryngologist (ENT) and laryngologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Health.

The texture of this mix of skin cells, sweat, and other substances can vary. Some people have dry, flaky earwax, while other people's bodies produce a more sticky substance, Yin Ren, MD, PhD, an otolaryngologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center tells Health. It's a natural process for your body to create earwax, and one that occurs in everyone's ears, Dr. Ren says.

Why earwax is important for good health

We may think of earwax as being a little bit gross and something to groom away, but "it serves a lot of functions," Dr. Ren says.

For one, earwax helps keep the ear canal healthy, he says. The skin within the ear canal is thin, and there's not much between it and the bone below, he explains. The earwax creates a layer of protection for everything else in the ear canal, he says. Thanks to wax, for instance, you have a natural barrier that keeps bugs from flying in and exploring. It also stops dust, bacteria, and germs from entering, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Plus, earwax has a slightly lower pH, making it a bit acidic, Dr. Ren notes. This gives it antimicrobial properties. "It prevents ear infections that could occur if there's no wax at all," he says.

How to know if you have too much earwax

Once it builds up, earwax usually makes its way out of the ear on its own, Dr. Ren says. Unlike your nails or hair, which continue to grow, you don't need to pay attention to this task. Even small everyday movements, like chewing and talking, can help usher earwax out from your ear canal, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

But sometimes people experience earwax buildup. That can be a result of using a Q-tip (more on that in a moment) or because you happen to be an unusually heavy wax producer, or your body makes sticky or harder wax that doesn't dislodge on its own.

With too much wax, it can get occluded (aka stuck) in the canal, Dr. Mehdizadeh says. In that situation, "people tend to notice fullness, discomfort, hearing loss, or clogging of the ear."

But there's no real danger in this situation. It's pretty rare for earwax to block you from hearing, Dr. Ren says. "Most of the time, even if patients have a lot of earwax, as long as there's still a little passageway for the sound to get through, their hearing wouldn't be affected."

How to safely remove ear wax

According to Dr. Ren, these are options:

  • Apply a bit of oil. Mineral or baby oil will soften the earwax, Dr. Ren says. Place a few drops in the ear, then let it sit there. "It's a very gentle, oily compound that makes the wax much softer, and that allows the wax to come out on its own," he says. Olive oil can also work, Dr. Mehdizadeh says.
  • Use over-the-counter drops. Eardrops, such as a type from Debrox, have a similar effect of softening the earwax so it can naturally flow out on its own, Dr. Ren says.
  • Place diluted hydrogen peroxide in your ear. A 50/50 mix of water and hydrogen peroxide can help remove earwax, according to Dr. Mehdizadeh.

How not to remove ear wax

"It's perfectly reasonable to use soft Kleenex or a Q-tip on the very outside parts of the ear," Dr. Mehdizadeh says. But when it comes to removing wax from within the inner parts of your ear, put down that Q-tip! Sure, these cotton buds seem perfectly shaped for cleaning out your ear. But using one—or using tiny metal spoon instruments, a hairpin, or other metal implements—can injure the skin of the ear canal, Dr. Ren points out.

Even small scrapes can become infections. "The worst-case scenario, the Q-tip can actually probe too deep and injure the eardrum, which can be a bigger problem," Dr. Ren says. This can lead to pain, hearing loss, or even permanent damage that needs to be fixed surgically, he notes.

The other thing is, cotton buds aren't very good at the task. "As you advance the Q-tip in, it [often] drags and pushes earwax further deeper," Dr. Ren says. This can pack the earwax to the end of the ear canal that's directly next to the eardrum, and make removing the wax more difficult and uncomfortable, he says.

Another method to avoid: kits involving cameras, which can be purchased online and used to search for wax, Dr. Mehdizadeh says. "Unless you have expert understanding of the ear anatomy, I would not recommend that," he says.

Ear candling, where you place a specially shaped candle in your ear, is also not a recommended option for wax removal, Dr. Mehdizadeh says. Studies show it's simply not effective.

When to see a doctor about earwax

If your at-home solutions aren't successful, reach out to your doctor. "They have better and safer tools to remove the wax," Dr. Ren says.

In most cases, your primary care doctor can help. "Primary care doctors in general will irrigate the ear with some water solution," Dr. Mehdizadeh says, adding that it's generally effective.

But if you've had ear issues in the past—such as a history of ear infections, ear tubes, surgery, or previous punctured eardrums—opt instead to see an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT), Dr. Mehdizadeh says. An ENT will use dry instruments (sans water) to remove earwax, which is preferable for people with a history of ear-related issues, he explains.

Home remedies can often fix any issues you have with excessive ear wax. "But if there's any trouble, seek out your ear, nose, and throat doctor, [and] we can take care of it very easily," Dr. Ren says.

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