Earwax, a waxy oil produced by the ear called cerumen, is an orange or brown buildup in your ears that protects and lubricates the inside of the ear, or the ear canal.

Earwax is supposed to be there. It keeps your ears from itching, protects the deep inner ear from bacteria, and — as strange as it might sound — even keeps the ear canal clean. Most of the time, earwax works its way out of your ears naturally or washes away when you bathe.

Some people have moist, sticky earwax that’s darker in color and may also smell. Other people have flaky earwax that’s lighter in color and very dry. This flaky earwax tends to come out of your ear canals on its own much easier than wax with a tacky texture.

There are a few reasons why your earwax may be the way it is.

Ancestry

Ancestry appears to be a factor in the kind of earwax you have. For people of Caucasian and African-American descent, earwax tends to be sticky and darker in color. For Native Americans and those descending from East Asia, flaky, light-colored earwax is more common.

What’s more, the gene that controls underarm odor appears to be the same gene that influences what kind of earwax we have — and how it smells.

Health conditions

Flaky earwax isn’t always due only to genetics, however. Sometimes it can be a sign of a health condition like eczema and psoriasis. Both conditions can cause flaking of the skin inside the ear, or earwax with a flaky consistency.

Some external factors can influence the production of earwax, including fear and anxiety. The production of cortisol in the body can cause earwax production to skyrocket, just like it can make you sweat on your forehead or under your arms.

Earwax can also signal a middle or inner ear infection if it appears in colors like green, yellow, white, or even black. An infection requires a doctor’s immediate attention, plus the appropriate antibiotics to clear the bacteria.

Sometimes, earwax doesn’t come out on its own and it gets packed into the ear canal — eventually causing a blockage that impairs hearing. This can be caused by:

  • using foreign objects to clean out your ears, such as Q-tips
  • frequently using earbuds
  • infection

There are several ways you can treat an earwax blockage at home, using simple, safe, and easy techniques.

You can start by irrigating the affected ear. A gentle way to do this is to soak a cotton ball in one of the following:

  • hydrogen peroxide
  • mineral oil
  • baby oil
  • sterile saline
  • an over-the-counter solution designed to clean your ears

Then, place the cotton ball just inside the ear (not in the ear canal) and lie on your side with the affected ear facing up for about 15 minutes.

The fluid will drip down into your ear, moistening and loosening any packed earwax and allowing it to come out on its own. Tilt your head so the affected ear is now facing down and catch anything that comes out of the ear in a tissue or washcloth.

A bulb syringe can also be used to insert lukewarm water into the ear canal. Then, let the water drain out and repeat if necessary. This can also be performed in the shower.

If you’re unable to clear an earwax buildup on your own at home, your general practitioner or an ear-nose-throat (ENT) specialist should be able to clear the earwax with a simple in-office procedure. If needed, they might also prescribe an ointment or drops afterward.

If an ear infection is the cause of the earwax buildup or blockage, you’ll be given a prescription for oral antibiotics and possibly advised to take an antihistamine to dry up any fluid in the inner ear.

Removal methods to avoid

Cotton swabs

Avoid using cotton swabs, or Q-tips, in your ears. They may do more harm than good.

Aside from potentially packing earwax deeper inside your ear canal, you also risk puncturing your eardrum. A punctured eardrum could lead to hearing loss or a serious infection and needs immediate attention from your doctor.

Ear candles

Ear candles, another widely-touted remedy for earwax buildup, can also pose a safety hazard. Using ear candles puts you at risk of being burned, puncturing your eardrum, or experiencing a blocked ear canal. It’s best to stick to doctor-prescribed and over-the-counter remedies.

If you have flaky earwax, it could simply be a sign of your genetic heritage. It could also indicate a health condition if it appears in conjunction with other health issues like eczema, psoriasis, or an ear infection. You can use home remedies to clear any excess earwax or see your doctor for in-office treatment and prescription of antibiotics if needed.

If you experience any symptoms of an ear infection, you should see a doctor for treatment.