If you’ve noticed a ball of earwax resting in your ear, or even noticed earwax falling out of your ear while eating or talking, you may wonder if it’s normal.
When earwax comes out on its own, it means your ears are working correctly. Chewing, talking and regular bathing is often enough to move earwax up and out of the ear. Usually, earwax gets rinsed away in the shower without you knowing it’s happening. But it’s possible – and totally normal – for earwax to come out in balls, clumps or lumps.
The bigger problem is when earwax stays in your ears. When too much earwax builds up, it can result in impacted earwax, something that usually requires treatment. Below, we cover what’s a normal amount of earwax, what it should look like, signs of impacted earwax and more.
What is earwax?
You likely know that earwax is the material that lines the inside of your ear canal. But do you know where earwax comes from? Earwax (also called cerumen) forms when dead skin cells, sweat, hair and debris (such as shampoo or dirt) combine with substances made by the glands in your ear.
While all this might sound a little gross, earwax plays an important role in keeping you healthy. Earwax protects your ear canal from water, dirt, fungi and bacteria that can cause ear infections. It also makes your ear canal more comfortable by moisturizing the skin and preventing it from drying out.
If you didn’t have earwax, you’d be much more likely to have ear infections and other problems. So unless your earwax is bothering you, it’s best to leave it alone.
Types of earwax
There are two types of earwax: wet and dry.
- Wet earwax is thick and sticky. In other words, it’s not really all that wet – although it’s possible that your earwax can become watery after swimming or a shower. But if you have watery fluids coming out of your ear, it can be a sign of an ear infection or another problem, and you should make an appointment with your primary care doctor.
- Dry earwax is usually gray or white, flaky and easily falls out of the ear. While it’s less likely that you’ll get impacted earwax if you have dry earwax, it’s still possible.
The type of earwax you have is genetically determined by your biological parents and where your ancestors came from. South Asians, East Asians and Indigenous people are more likely to have dry earwax. People with African or European ancestry usually have wet earwax. The wet type of earwax is a dominant trait – if one of your parents has wet earwax, you’ll likely have it, too.
What color should earwax be?
Earwax can come in a range of colors, including brown, orange, white, red, green, black and gray. Many of the colors are healthy, but some are not.
Normal wet earwax is usually yellow, brown or orange. Dry earwax is typically gray or white. Earwax in children tends to be lighter in color.
Earwax color chart
The following chart shows what the colors mean, depending on the type of earwax you have. The highlighted boxes are the types of earwax that may not be healthy, and you may want to talk to a doctor about it.
|Color||Wet earwax||Dry earwax|
|White||Fresh earwax||Normal earwax|
|Light brown||Normal earwax||—|
|Darker orange||Normal earwax||—|
|Dark brown||Older earwax. The color comes from the dirt and bacteria in it.||—|
|Gray||Buildup of dust or other particles in earwax (talk to a doctor)||Normal earwax|
|Black||Earwax buildup or impacted earwax (talk to a doctor)||Earwax buildup or impacted earwax (talk to a doctor)|
|Red||Your earwax may include blood (talk to a doctor)||Your earwax may include blood (talk to a doctor)|
|Green||Possible infection (talk to a doctor)||Possible infection (talk to a doctor)|
How do you know if your earwax is impacted?
Common signs and symptoms of earwax buildup include:
- Hearing loss in the affected ear
- Ear pain
- Ringing in the ears
- A feeling of fullness in the ear
Of course, it’s not always easy to know if you have too much earwax. Symptoms of earwax buildup can also be signs of other conditions, including ear infections, allergies, a cold or the flu. And even if your earwax is gray or black, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to get treatment for impacted earwax.
But if your ears are bothering you, it’s a good idea to make a primary care appointment. Your doctor will be able to determine if your symptoms are caused by impacted earwax or something else, and what type of treatment you need.
What happens if earwax is not removed?
It’s possible for unremoved earwax to lead to an ear infection like swimmer’s ear, causing worsening symptoms such as: severe pain, itchiness, drainage, fever, coughing and dizziness. If you notice signs of infection, you should make an appointment to see your primary care doctor.
What causes impacted earwax?
You may get impacted earwax if you put something in your ear that pushes wax farther in, forming a blockage. This is one of the reasons why you shouldn’t put anything – including Q-tips – inside your ear canal.
It’s also possible that frequently using earbuds, a hearing aid or earplugs may prevent the earwax from coming out of your ears, leading to earwax blockages.
Having too much earwax is another reason for impaction. While your body naturally gets rid of earwax, it can only handle so much. If there’s too much, some of it may harden before your body is able to push it out through the ear canal. This extra wax can build up over time, causing impacted earwax.
Why do some people have a lot of earwax?
About 1 in 10 children, 1 in 20 adults, and 1 in 3 elderly people have too much earwax. Here are the most common reasons:
- Sweaty ears–The same glands that produce sweat also help create earwax. If you exercise a lot or have high stress levels, it’s possible that you may have more earwax. Still, there are far too many physical and mental benefits of exercise to skip out on your workouts.
- Hairy ears–Hair is one of the things that you find in earwax. So if you have more ear hair, it’s possible that you’ll have more earwax.
- Frequent or chronic ear infections–When you have an ear infection, bacteria or viruses grow in your ear which can increase the pressure in your ear. Your body produces earwax to protect your eardrum from being damaged by the added pressure, and it will get rid of the extra earwax when you’re healthy again. But if your ear infection doesn’t go away or if you keep getting them, you may have too much earwax for your body to manage.
- Ear anatomy that’s different–If your ear is shaped differently, it can affect how much earwax your ear produces.
- Overcleaning your ears–When you remove all your earwax, that can be a signal to your body to make more.
How to safely remove impacted earwax
There’s not much you can do to reduce the amount of earwax that your body produces. The one thing you can control is how you clean your ears.
Ear nose and throat (ENT) doctors like to say that you shouldn’t put anything smaller than an elbow inside your ear canal – in other words, don’t put anything in your ear. But don’t worry, there are ways to clean your ears without Q-tips.
Treating impacted earwax at home
If you have extra earwax, you may be able to treat it at home. Here are things you can try:
- Soften the earwax by putting a couple drops of baby oil, mineral oil or hydrogen peroxide in your ear. Hold your head sideways while the drops sit in your ear for a couple minutes. This should loosen the earwax so that when you tilt your head the other way, the earwax comes out.
- Use over-the counter (OTC) eardrops that include hydrogen peroxide or carbamide peroxide (such as the Debrox Earwax Removal Kit or the Murine Earwax Removal System). But these medications can irritate your ear so be sure to follow the directions.
Often, the safest way to get rid of impacted earwax is to make an appointment with an ENT doctor or a primary care doctor.
Are at-home earwax removal tools safe?
As mentioned before, we don’t recommend that you put anything in your ear. If you put an earwax removal tool into your ear, you may push earwax farther in and possibly damage your eardrum.
You may have seen at-home devices that say they’ll suction or vacuum out your earwax. However, most doctors say that you should not use them because there’s a possibility that you’ll harm your ear. You may perforate (rip a hole) in your eardrum, damage the skin in the ear canal or eardrum, or cause an ear infection. Because these devices tend to be noisy, they can also affect your hearing – for example, it can make tinnitus worse if you have it.
Is ear candling safe?
No. Ear candling involves lighting a long candle and putting it in your ear canal – the idea is that the heat of the flame will draw the earwax out. But there’s no proof that it works, and it’s possible to burn yourself with the candle or drip wax into your ear canal. So, it is not recommended to use ear candling as a way to remove impacted earwax.
Treating impacted earwax in the doctor’s office
ENT doctors and some primary care doctors can usually take care of your earwax during an office visit. Professional earwax removal includes the following methods:
- Use a small curved tool called a curet to remove the impacted earwax
- Suction the ear canal to remove earwax
- Flush earwax from the ear canal using a water pick or a rubber-bulb syringe
- Remove earwax during an ear endoscopy procedure
You may notice that these methods seem similar to ones that you shouldn’t do at home. The reason they are safer when performed by a doctor is because they are specially trained to perform these procedures in a way that doesn’t cause damage. Plus, they have the tools that allow them to look into your ear so they can see exactly what they’re doing.
We’re here for your ears
Most people don’t need to worry about too much earwax. Plus, it’s usually a good idea to leave your earwax alone since it helps to protect your ears from injury and infection. But if you’re experiencing symptoms that you think may be from impacted earwax or if you have signs of an ear infection, talk to your primary care doctor or an ENT doctor. Not only will they help you get rid of your current symptoms, they can also give you advice about how to keep things clear in the future.