Earwax helps your ears stay healthy. It blocks debris, trash, shampoo, water, and other substances from entering your ear canal. It also helps maintain the acidic balance inside your ear canal to protect against infections. Earwax is also known as cerumen.
Earwax is made by glands in the outer portion of your ear canal. It consists of fats, sweat, and debris from inside the ear. Most earwax is yellow, wet, and sticky. Sometimes it can be other colors, including dark brown or black.
Black earwax is rarely cause for concern. In many cases, black earwax is just a sign your ear has earwax buildup. It may also mean your ear doesn’t naturally remove earwax as well as it should.
Understanding the possible causes and risk factors that can lead to black earwax may help you identify possible treatments. It may also help you prevent the dark-hued substance.
Causes of black earwax
Dark or black earwax isn’t a sign of poor hygiene. In other words, dark earwax doesn’t mean you’re dirty.
It does, however, indicate you may be dealing with one or more of these possible causes and risk factors for black earwax:
Buildup of earwax
Dark or black earwax may be a sign of earwax that’s been hanging around in your ear canals for a while.
The older earwax is, the darker it turns. Glands inside the ear canal produce earwax continuously. Sometimes, however, the glands may produce too much, or the ear may not be able to naturally remove wax as well as it should.
In a typical ear, wax slowly leaves the ear opening over time. It’s washed away, such as during a shower, or wiped away. If earwax production outpaces earwax removal, the wax may build up, dry out, and turn dark.
Hearing aids and in-ear headphones, also known as “earbuds,” can push earwax back into the ear canal. They can also prevent earwax from exiting the ear opening. This can lead to buildup. The buildup can harden and turn dark.
Cotton-tipped swabs aren’t meant for your ears, despite the temptation to use them to clean out your ears. In fact, those fuzzy sticks can push earwax deeper into the ear canal. This can compact earwax.
Over time, the compacted earwax can harden and turn dark or black. It can also lead to other symptoms, such as:
- ear pain
- hearing loss
Sex and age
Older individuals, especially older men, are more likely to experience earwax buildup and dark or black earwax. With age, earwax changes. You may produce less earwax, but it may be stickier or thicker. That can lead it to build up more quickly, too.
Black or dark earwax is rarely a health concern, unless it also accompanies other symptoms. These symptoms include:
- difficulty hearing
If you’re experiencing these symptoms with black or dark earwax, you may want to consider treatment to remove the buildup.
Hard or sticky earwax may leave your ear canal on its own if you can soften it. To do this:
- Apply 2 or 3 drops of hydrogen peroxide or natural oils to your ear canal opening. You can use baby oil, mineral oil, olive oil, or glycerin.
- Let the wax absorb the hydrogen peroxide or natural oil. The wax should then begin to leave the ear.
For ear irrigation, follow these steps:
- Fill a rubber bulb syringe with warm water.
- Gently insert the bulb into your ear canal until it stops.
- Squirt the water into your ear canal. Tip your head with the ear you’re irrigating toward the ceiling.
- Roll your head back slightly to get the water into the ear canal. Hold for 1 to 2 minutes, then tip your head to the side. Let the water and wax drain.
Using hydrogen peroxide or natural oil before you irrigate your ear canal is a highly effective combination.
Before you begin any of these treatments, it’s a good idea to consult with your doctor. If you have had earwax buildup problems in the past, your doctor may want to examine your ears and rule out issues that may be causing the unusual buildup. Your doctor may also want to inspect your eardrum to make sure an earwax buildup has not perforated or punctured your eardrum.
If ear drops or at-home irrigation isn’t successful, make an appointment to see your doctor. If you’ve had wax buildup issues in the past, your doctor may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat doctor. This specialist can check for underlying issues that might be causing the black earwax.
Your doctor may use these treatments to remove excess earwax:
- Removal. Your doctor can remove earwax with a small, spoon-shaped tool called a curette. The tool is designed to scrape the wax out of your ear canal without compacting any more in the ear.
- Irrigation. If you’ve not tried irrigation, your doctor may try this treatment technique. They may also use a water pick, which produces a more forceful water stream than a rubber syringe.
- Suction. A small vacuum-like suction tool can gently remove excess earwax.
Preventing earwax buildup
Ears are a self-cleaning body part. The best way to prevent earwax buildup is to leave them alone. As tempting as it may be to stick a bobby pin, pencil, paper clip, or cotton swab in your ear canal, you could push wax deep into your ear canal and cause a wax buildup. Over time, compacted earwax can lead to pain, discomfort, and hearing loss. Earwax can turn dark, even black, too.
If you’ve had a problem with earwax buildup or black earwax in the past, your doctor may recommend that you begin using medications that can reduce wax buildup. These medications keep earwax soft, which can help the wax leave the canal naturally.
These medications are often available over the counter. Products include Murine Ear Wax Removal System and Debrox Earwax Removal Kit. You may also want to see your doctor every 6 to 12 months to have a checkup and ear cleaning if necessary.
Complications and when to see the doctor
Black earwax alone is rarely a cause for concern. It may mean your ear canal isn’t emptying earwax out as efficiently as it should. This can cause side effects, such as hearing loss, but it’s rarely an emergency.
However, if you begin seeing black, dark, or bloody earwax and you feel dizzy or experience hearing loss, make an appointment to see your doctor. You may be showing signs of a perforated or torn eardrum. You need treatment to prevent an infection.
What’s the outlook?
Dark or black earwax isn’t a sign you have poor hygiene or that you’re not clean. It is, however, a sign you should clean your ear canals of earwax buildup and possibly see your doctor.
Black earwax may be an indication you have a wax buildup. Your ears may not naturally clean themselves the way they should. Black earwax may also be the result of something you’re doing, such as using foreign objects to “clean” your ears.
Talk with your doctor if you’re concerned about the color, texture, or appearance of your earwax. While it may be unusual, black earwax is rarely a cause for concern.