Earwax — or cerumen — is a waxy substance found in your ears. Glands in your ear canal produce earwax to protect your ears from germs.


What is earwax?

Earwax is a waxy substance that everyone has in their ears. Glands in your ear canals produce earwax to protect the skin inside your ears and provide protection against germs. The medical term for earwax is “cerumen” (pronounced “seh-RUH-muhn”).

What are the two types of earwax?

There are two main types of earwax: wet and dry. Which type you have depends on your genetics. More specifically, it depends on which variant of the ABCC11 gene you have.

  • Wet earwax: People with the dominant variant typically have wet earwax. This is most common among people of European and African descent.
  • Dry earwax: People with the recessive variant usually have dry, flaky earwax. This is most common among people of East Asian descent.

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What does earwax do?

Earwax has many purposes. For example, it:

  • Acts as a waterproof lining for your ear canal.
  • Carries dead skin cells and other debris out of your ears.
  • Traps dirt and dust.
  • Prevents your ears from drying out.
  • Protects against bacterial and fungal infections.


Where does earwax come from?

Two types of glands in your ear canal work together to make earwax:

  • Sebaceous glands: Attached to tiny hair follicles inside your ears, these tiny glands secrete (release) an oily, lubricating substance called sebum. Sebum lubricates your skin and keeps your ears from drying out.
  • Ceruminous glands: These glands are modified sweat glands. They secrete peptides and antimicrobial proteins that protect your ears.

What is earwax made of?

Earwax contains mostly sebum — dead skin cells and hair combined with a number of different substances, including:

  • Keratin.
  • Cholesterol.
  • Long-chain fatty acids (saturated and unsaturated).
  • Squalene.
  • Wax esters.
  • Alcohol esters.

What color is earwax?

Healthy earwax ranges in color and may be:

  • Off-white.
  • Yellow.
  • Orange.
  • Light brown.
  • Dark brown.

However, you should call a healthcare provider if you have earwax that’s:

  • Green. This could mean you have an ear infection.
  • Black. This is often seen in people with impacted earwax (earwax blockage).
  • Brown with red streaks. This may indicate an injury inside your ear canal. If the discharge is runny, it might mean you have a ruptured eardrum.

Conditions and Disorders

What happens if I have excessive earwax?

There may be times when you develop excessive earwax. This can result from trauma, scar tissue or even extreme amounts of ear hair.

Left untreated, excessive earwax can become impacted, resulting in a blockage.

Symptoms of earwax blockage

The most common symptoms of earwax blockage include:

If you develop any of the symptoms listed above, call a healthcare provider. They can remove excess earwax safely and effectively. (You should never try to remove impacted earwax on your own.)


Should earwax be removed?

Most of the time, there’s no reason to remove earwax. Your ears are self-cleaning and your body gets rid of it on a regular basis. In fact, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Foundation, if your ears are functioning properly, you should leave your earwax alone.

Don’t use cotton swabs, hairpins or similar objects to remove earwax. Avoid ear candling or vacuum kits, as these may lead to ear canal trauma or burns.

If you want to try an over-the-counter earwax removal kit, choose one that includes drops and an ear bulb syringe. Avoid these if you’ve had previous ear surgeries or tubes or if you have an existing hole in your eardrum. Ask your healthcare provider for product recommendations.

Additional Common Questions

Is earwax really wax?

No, earwax isn’t really wax. It gets its name from its waxy consistency. But earwax mostly consists of sebum (a secretion made of fat, skin cells, dirt and sweat).

Why did a ball of wax just come out of my ear?

Your ears are self-cleaning organs. Eventually, excess wax will fall out of your ear and your ear will make new wax. This is totally normal and healthy.

Why do my ears feel wet?

If your ears ever feel wet, it’s often just because they’re making more earwax. When first produced, earwax is thin, clear and watery. But as time goes on, it becomes thicker and darker.

However, if you develop additional symptoms like ear pain or fever, call a healthcare provider. Watery ears could mean you have an infection or a ruptured eardrum.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Most of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about earwax. But it plays an important role in ear health. It keeps your skin lubricated and protects your ears from germs and infections. To keep your ears healthy, avoid using cotton swabs or other devices that you stick inside your ear canal. Instead, focus on cleaning your outer ear with a washcloth and let your body do the rest. If you develop excessive earwax, ask your healthcare provider about safe ways to remove it.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/17/2023.

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