by Janet Spencer

The nose is protected by hairs and mucus; the eyes are protected by hairs and tears; but the ear is protected by hairs and wax.

    Ear wax is not really wax, though it does have a waxy texture. It’s composed of several things.

First are cast-off cells from the special type of skin that lines the ear canal. Like all skin, it’s constantly renewing itself because even the tiniest break in the skin here will lead to ear infections and ear aches.

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The skin in the ear canal is coated with an antimicrobial secretion from modified sweat glands. It’s called cerumen, from the Latin word “cera” meaning wax. This kills bacteria and fungus spores that enter the ear canal, and is also a natural insect repellent.

Oil glands in the ear canal, which are similar to the oil glands on the scalp, secrete an oily lubricant. Called sebum, its name comes from the Latin word for tallow. This oil helps trap dust and debris that enters the ear canal.

There are also tiny hairs lining the outer part of the inner ear.

This mixture is constantly renewing itself, while moving the old ear wax out of the way. This is accomplished by a “conveyor belt” which is activated by the movement of the jaw while eating or talking, by the vibration of the ear drum, and by the waving of the ear hairs. The wax moves out of the ear at a rate a little slower than the rate at which fingernails grow.

•    Itchy ears can be a sign that too much ear wax is being removed through excessive cleaning. Low levels of wax leave the skin on the ear canal exposed.

Too much ear wax can cause temporary hearing loss as the build-up blocks sound waves from reaching the ear drum.

Ear wax comes in two forms: wet and dry. Which kind you have depends on genetics. Wet ear wax is a dominant gene, so most people have wet ear wax. However, people of East Asian descent, particularly those whose heritage is from China, Japan, or Korea, as well as Native Americans, typically have the recessive gene for dry ear wax. Surprisingly, the same gene that results in dry ear wax also results in less underarm odor. Those who have the gene for wet wax, which includes most Caucasians, also have the gene for smelly armpits—as well as a gene for increased incidents of breast cancer.

By tracking pockets of this recessive ear wax gene, anthropologists have been able to chart the migration of different cultures.

Often, ear wax is pushed deeper into the ear canal when things are inserted into the ear, including cotton swabs, the end of a pencil, a bobby pin, safety pin, key, or paper clip. Things inserted into the ear also disturb the hairs inside the ear, and this stimulates the oil glands to produce more oil that turns into more ear wax, compounding the problem

Things like hearing aids, earplugs, or earbuds hinder the natural movement of ear wax if worn too many hours of the day. Stress can cause an increase in the production of ear wax.

To resolve problems with ear wax build-up, experts recommend a drop or two of mineral oil, glycerin, or olive oil to soften the wax. Then use a rubber bulb syringe to run room-temperature water through the ear, tilting the head afterwards to let it drain out.

Using cotton swabs to dry out the inner ear after swimming or showering is a bad idea because they are very fragile when the tiny ear hairs are wet.

People prone to swimmer’s ear infections can use a few drops of rubbing alcohol in the ear.