Earwax is a waxy substance secreted by glands which line the ear. It actually has a number of purposes, ranging from protecting the ear from some infections to lubricating the ear canal. On some occasions, it may become impacted in the ear, causing potential problems like obscured hearing. In these instances, medical attention may be required to remove the buildup.
There are two types of earwax: wet and dry. The wet type is moist to the touch, and it ranges in color from honey-gold to dark brown. The dry type is yellow to gray and flaky, and it prevails among Native Americans and some people of Asian descent.
One very important role of this substance is cleaning the ear. It actually moves slowly through the ear, at around the same rate that the fingernails grow, pushing out dirt, particulate matter, and other materials in the ear. Once earwax reaches the outer edges of the ear, it is supposed to fall out on its own. It also lubricates the ear canal, preventing dryness and discomfort.
Research on earwax has also suggested that it may have some important medical properties as well. It appears to contain compounds which are resistant to some bacteria and fungi, theoretically preventing the onset of painful and potentially dangerous infections in the ear. It is also unpleasant for insects, thanks to the bitter aroma and flavor, and this may help to maintain ear health as well.
Many people like to clean their ears to remove excess earwax. As a general rule, it is safe to use a soft swab or washcloth on the external part of the ear to remove earwax which has emerged from the ear, but cotton swabs should not be inserted into the ear canal. This will push the wax back into the ear, potentially causing a dangerous buildup, and people can also damage their ear drums with cotton swabs.
In the event that a buildup occurs, a gentle syringing with warm water after the application of softening drops usually does the trick. Some people prefer to leave syringing in the hands of doctors, although it can also be done at home. Doctors can also use other extraction techniques, including picks, for especially stubborn buildup. Many medical professionals do not recommend ear candling, which supposedly draws toxins and wax out of the ear, as candling can be very dangerous.