Where does ear wax come from and what is its function?

Ear wax, known to scientists as cerumen (pronounced suh-ROO-mun), traps dust and dirt particles to keep them from going down the ear canal to the eardrum.

Besides protecting against dirt and water and lubricating the canal, ear wax is slightly acidic, so some experts say it has mild antibacterial properties and helps fight the growth of fungus or bacteria that can cause the outer ear inflammation called swimmer’s ear.

Ear wax is formed by small glands under the skin of the outer part of the ear canal. It builds up in different amounts in different people. It may get thicker and drier in old age. Normally, the ear is self-cleaning; the wax gradually dries up, flakes, and either falls out or can be gently wiped away.

If too much wax accumulates, the traditional warning never to use cotton swabs or other objects to remove it still holds true, because a small instrument can push the wax deeper into the ear canal, against the eardrum, where it can block hearing or injure the drum.

Your doctor can remove the wax or suggest commercial or homemade drops to soften it. In some cases, stronger prescription softeners can be called for.

Softeners or even water should never be used without medical advice if a perforated eardrum is suspected, because an infection may result.