ASK A SCIENTIST
Question: How does earwax grow in your ear?
Answer: You can't shine your car with it, and you wouldn't want to use to make a candle. So what good is ear wax and how does it grow?Ear wax, also called cerumen, is a normal substance made in the outer ear canal. Your outer ear is the part you can see on the side of your head, and the ear canal is the hole that leads down to your ear drum (tympanic membrane).
The skin of the hourglass shaped ear canal contains special glands that produce ear wax all the time, so that your ears have the amount they need.
The yellow-brown stuff may look icky, but ear wax is healthy in normal amounts. And it serves three important functions. First, ear wax coats your ear canal, keeping it moist and acting like a water repellent. Second, it acts as a shield to protect the inside of your ear from things like dust, dirt, insects and other things that could travel down to your ear drum and cause harm. Finally, ear wax contains chemicals that maintain the ear canal's acid balance and protect you from some infections.
But you can have too much - or too little - of a good thing. Most people have a normal amount of ear wax that dries up and falls out of their ears, carrying with it the dust or dirt that it collected. But some people have a lot of ear wax, while others don't have enough. Ear wax can build up if your ear canal is too narrow or because of an injury to your ear. Too much ear wax can clog your ear canal and make it hard for you to hear. Some people don't make enough ear wax or clean them out to vigorously. Too little ear wax can cause your ear canal to get dry and itchy, and can lead to an infection.
Getting rid of normal ear wax is easy. Just leave it alone! It will probably fall out when you wash your hair. You can wipe the outside of your ear with a washcloth, but never put anything inside your ears. Objects, even cotton swabs or fingers, can cause harm when inserted into your ear. You may scratch your ear canal and cause an infection or create a hole in your ear drum. You can also push ear wax farther inside your ear canal, making it harder to remove. If you think you have too much or too little ear wax, talk to your health care provider. They have special instruments and medications to remove ear wax and sooth dry ears.Ear wax may not be helpful around the house, but it sure helps inside your ears!
Ask a Scientist appears Thursdays. Questions are answered by faculty at Binghamton University. Teachers in the greater Binghamton area who wish to participate in the program are asked to write to Ask A Scientist, c/o Binghamton University, Office of Communications and Marketing, PO Box 6000, Binghamton, NY 13902-6000 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the Ask a Scientist Web site at askascientist.binghamton.edu. To submit a question, download the submission form(.pdf, 460kb).