Earwax, or cerumen, is a natural substance that the ears produce to help protect the ear canal and eardrum.
Earwax plays essential roles in ear health. It helps remove debris from the ear canal, prevents foreign bodies and particles from penetrating deep into the ear, and it even helps protect against germs.
The ears are also relatively self-regulating. Thanks to the motion of talking and chewing, as well as the shape of the ear itself, earwax naturally moves up and out of the ear.
Old earwax eventually moves out of the ear canal and falls out naturally, taking any debris and dead skin cells along with it.
In this article, learn what different colors and textures of earwax indicate, as well as how to safely clean out the ear.
Earwax can be a variety of colors, including:
- off white
- bright orange
- dark orange
Earwax is most often amber orange to light brown, wet, and sticky. For some people, it is drier and lighter in color, closer to off white or yellow.
In general, the color has a bit to do with the age of the earwax. Newer earwax tends to be lighter in color, and it darkens as it ages and picks up more debris.
The color, texture, and amount of earwax vary naturally from person to person. For most people who produce a regular amount of earwax, the ears can easily remove the wax on their own. This happens at varying speeds, often leading to different textures of earwax.
However, some people produce more wax than is common, or the ears may produce more wax when a person is very stressed. When this happens, the ears may not be able to get rid of the wax fast enough, and blockages can occur.
Blockages in the ear can change the color and texture of the wax. If the person cannot remove the wax, the ear canal may become fully blocked, which could impair hearing and increase the risk of infection.
Infections and injuries can cause discharge from the ear that may be:
- foul smelling
The texture of earwax changes as the wax ages. Also, genetics and a person's age may play roles.
An older study, from 2006, has linked people of East Asian descent to earwax that is typically dry and flaky.
Also, children tend to have softer earwax that is lighter in color, while adults tend to have darker, harder earwax.
While varying shades and textures of earwax can come from healthy ears, there are still some instances in which a person should see a doctor.
Anyone experiencing discharge from the ear that is not earwax should consult a doctor, as this could be a sign of an ear infection.
Also, see a doctor if there is blood in earwax. Additionally, anyone who is prone to buildups of earwax should consult a doctor at the first sign of a blockage, such as muffled hearing.
Some people are more likely to produce an excess of earwax, including people who:
- have very high-stress lifestyles
- have chronic ear infections
- are older
- have a lot of hair in their ears
- have a deformation in their ear canals
These people have a risk of blockages and buildups of earwax. If they experience any symptoms, such as muffled hearing, they should see their doctors to discuss how to safely eliminate the wax from their ears.
The number one rule for taking care of the ears is to simply leave them alone. Do not insert anything into the ear canal to try to remove earwax, including fingers, cotton swabs, or any pointy tool or instrument.
Putting anything into the ear canal only increases the risk of pushing wax deeper in, where it may get stuck and cause blockages.
Also, avoid using ear candles, which involves inserting a waxed tube into the ear and lighting it on fire. Some practitioners claim that this helps remove wax and reduce other symptoms of ear issues, but no scientific evidence supports this claim.
Authors of an editorial published by the American Academy of Audiology warn that even when a person uses an ear candle correctly, it can cause serious injuries, including burns. The authors also note that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have issued advisory notices and taken other steps to prevent the use of these tools.
To safely clean the ears, gently wash the outer ears with mild soap and water. Let this rinse into the ear canal to clear away any wax that has fallen away from the walls of the canal. It is safe to rinse this wax away because it has performed its function.
Wipe away any excess moisture or external wax with a towel. For most people, this is all the cleaning that their ears need.
If the ears are producing too much wax, earwax thinning drops are the only safe way to help wax leave the ear canal at home.
A person inserts a few drops of medicated liquid into the ear canal and lets the liquid sit for a couple of days to break up extra earwax. Earwax drops often contain hydrogen peroxide or glycerin.
After a few days, the person adds warm water to a silicone syringe and gently sprays it into their ear for irrigation, tilting their head to let the liquid drain out.
If this does not work, see a doctor to discuss options for removing the blockage.
Anyone who has an eardrum perforation or an eardrum tube should not use the drops or irrigation. Consult a doctor about alternatives.
A range of ear irrigation kits is available online or in stores. Follow the specific instructions in each kit to ensure ear safety.
Healthy earwax color and texture can greatly vary. The ears are self-cleaning, and the best way to take care of them is often to leave them alone.
However, too much wax can build up deep within the ear canal and cause a blockage. This may lead to partial hearing loss and put the person at risk of other complications.
Anyone who experiences blockages of earwax or who believes that they produce an excess of wax should see a doctor for specific guidance.