To Your Health

Is earwax supposed to be dry or sticky? Mine seems to be too dry and is hard to remove. Is there a remedy other than having a doctor remove it?

Q. Is earwax supposed to be dry or sticky? Mine seems to be too dry and is hard to remove. Is there a remedy other than having a doctor remove it?

A. Earwax can usually be softened and removed by putting some oil or glycerin in the ear canal and then plugging the canal with cotton overnight. Ordinarily earwax, along with the dirt it collects, is removed naturally with the movement of the jaw in combination with the motion of the ear cilia (tiny hairs) in the ear canal. When this self-cleaning mechanism fails, wax buildup can develop. If you notice problems such as ear pain, dizziness, ringing in your ears, unexplained vomiting, or decreased hearing acuity, it's time to see the doctor to be sure you only have a wax buildup and not a serious problem such as a perforated eardrum.

Earwax, or cerumen, can be wet or dry. It is composed of the secretions from glands in the outer ear that combine with dirt, and sloughed-off skin and hair. The wet earwax is brown and sticky; the dry version is brittle and gray or a lighter shade of brown. Earwax is not formed in the deep part of the ear canal near the eardrum, so when earwax builds up and blocks the ear canal, it is often because there has been some probing with cotton-tipped applicators or other objects which only push the wax deeper into the ear canal. Most doctors strongly advise against such self-cleaning.

Earwax has two important jobs. First, it contains special antibiotic substances that fight off infections and, second, it acts as a shield between the outside world and the eardrum, so when dust, dirt, and other substances enter your ear, the earwax traps them and eventually disposes of them. The wet, sticky earwax does this second job better. Genetics has some influence on the consistency of earwax, and like the color of your eyes, the wet form is dominant over dry, much as brown is dominant over blue when it comes to eye color.

Essential fatty acid deficiency can also play a role. At body temperature, the essential fatty acids tend to be more liquid than saturated fat, and this property has an impact on body functions other than earwax. The membranes of body cells function poorly when too much saturated fat makes them stiff. Researchers in Japan believe that a high dietary requirement for essential fatty acids, reflected in dry earwax consistency, may even relate to susceptibility to breast cancer. There are other maladies, such as heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis, with roots in essential fatty acid deficiency. The best essential fatty acids are those found in ocean fish, but flaxseeds and nuts are also good sources.

Ear candling, an antique home remedy, is not recommended. Ear candling involved placing a hollow beeswax candle inside the ear, which an assistant then lights, making sure your hair does not catch on fire. In theory, as the flame burns, a vacuum is created, which draws the wax out of the ear. Clinical trials showed that no vacuum was created and no wax was removed.

Most of the time the ear canals are self-cleaning, that is, there is an orderly albeit slow migration of earwax from the eardrum to the outer ear opening, where it falls out. But for some people, the ear canal is so small or the earwax builds up so fast that it needs to be cleaned out. Your physician can do this as needed, but in the meantime an increased intake of essential fatty acids may help in several serendipitous ways.

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