The ear wax cleaning madness must stop, says reader

Dr. Paul J. Camp, Spelman College, Department of Physics is in the don't-pick-your ears camp:
Plug o' earwax Oh for god's sake, this has gone on long enough.

Ear wax is there for a reason. It has antibacterial properties as well as preventing dirt and bugs from going further into your hearing system. Excess earwax is pushed naturally to the opening of the ear canal, where it is washed away, pushed out as the cerumen glands secrete more wax and also by epithelial migration as your skin goes through its replacement cycle.

From the Mayo Clinic: "Never attempt to dig out excessive or hardened earwax with items such as a paper clip, a cotton swab or a hairpin. You may push the wax farther into your ear and cause serious damage to the lining of your ear canal and even to your eardrum." Wanna go deaf? Stick a bobby pin in your ear. See herefor what it looks like when you've been packing that stuff in for a while.

Even if you don't do that, simply scratching or abrading the skin in the ear canal provides a protected growth site for fungus -- the dreaded swimmer's ear. I had this once when psoriasis broke up the skin in my ear. You don't want it. Also, removal of impacted ear wax, from pushing it further down in the ear, is inevitably very painful.

Now there are a VERY FEW people who have excessive wax secretions and need to have it cleaned out every now and again. The solution to that is a few drops of mineral oil to soften up the wax and, a day or two later, a bit of warm water or hydrogen peroxide squirted up the ear canal.

And for god's sake, don't stick a candle in your ding dang ear. Ear wax cannot be sucked out by a candle. There are easier ways to set your head on fire.

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Reader comment: Adam Shinbrot says

Hi Mark,

I never thought I’d write to anyone on the subject of earwax. But I have to say that Dr. Paul Camp may be a physicist, but last I looked that didn’t confer any medical knowledge, and it shows.

I have had treatment for excess earwax, twice in my 51 years. It happens considerably more commonly that Dr. Camp thinks, in that I know plenty of folks who have also had the treatment. The symptoms are somewhat disconcerting:

you think you have suddenly gone partially deaf in one ear. There isn’t any known cause for this, I’m told; some people just have too damn much earwax.

The treatment, contrary to Dr. Camp’s comments, is not painful: there is a

device called an ear syringe, which is simply a large stainless steel syringe, which is filled--by a doctor--with warm water and then the syringe tip is inserted into the ear canal and the canal is more-or-less gently irrigated–the earwax then floats out with the water. It doesn’t hurt, and takes maybe 15 seconds. If it does hurt, you had some other problem, or the doctor didn’t do it right.

Also contrary to Dr. Camp’s assertions, mineral oil, at least for a case like mine, does n-o-t-h-i-n-g. Believe me, I tried it, numerous times – I felt like a fool going to the doctor for earwax, and did everything I could to avoid it. Incidentally, hydrogen peroxide, also often suggested by people like Dr. Camp who don’t know any better, also doesn’t work. There’s even a little rubber bulb available OTC at drugstores for at-home irrigation, but that doesn’t work either.

Lastly, I don’t know the basis for Camp’s claim that “excess earwax is pushed naturally to the opening of the ear canal”. Maybe his is; mine is not.

I have no opinions on candling, or whatever it is called. I suggest soap and water; maybe the gentle application of a Q-tip once in awhile, and a trip to the ear nose and throat doctor if impaction occurs.

Love the blog,

Adam Shinbrot