The outer ear consists of the pinna (what you see) and the ear canal (what you don’t see). Both comprise the sound gateway to the tympanic membrane (eardrum.)

The outer ear, or pinna, collects sound which then travels down the ear canal resulting in vibrations to the eardrum. If the ear canal is blocked with earwax, you are likely to experience a plugged sensation with decreased hearing. In addition, some people report symptoms such as dizziness, balance problems, and of course, pain and itching. Less common symptoms include jaw or tooth pain.

So what is earwax?  Earwax, also called cerumen, is a combination of secretions from ceruminous glands in the ear canal and dead skin cells. It’s normal to have a certain amount of earwax.

Earwax actually serves a purpose.  It lubricates the ear canal and may even help reduce infections of the outer ear canal. There is some evidence to suggest it has bug-repellent properties.

Earwax becomes problematic when it builds up and occludes the ear canal.  There are various causes of earwax impaction.  Some people just produce more than they need.  Others have very small ear canals with sharp turns.  For these people, the earwax doesn’t migrate out of the ear canal as easily and may get “stuck.”  One of the most common causes of earwax occlusion is the use of cotton swabs.  More about that below.

All too often, patients come to us thinking they have a serious hearing loss when the true problem is wax buildup. This is one of the easiest hearing problems to treat. For many people, routine cleaning by an audiologist or an ENT doctor will help them stay ahead of the problem.

We have compiled the 5 most common at-home ways people use in order to clean their ears, weighing the good and the bad of each one. If you are unsure, the best thing to do is to come see us or your ENT doctor.

Over-the-Counter Eardrops

Eardrops such as Debroxtm or Wax MDtm work by loosening the wax that has accumulated in the ear. When the wax is softer, it drains out more easily.

Pros: The low price of ear drops can be attractive and may work for patients with minimal wax buildup.

Cons: Since it is impossible to look in your own ear, you can’t know if you were able to remove all of the wax. Often people feel they have been successful when there is still a fair amount of wax blocking the canal. Also, if you have ever had a hole in your eardrum or ear surgery, we recommend you check with your doctor before using ear drops.

Ear Candling

STOP! That is the best advice we have regarding ear candling. This approach, whereby you light a beeswax coated candle and hold it in the ear canal with the goal of extracting wax, has gained some notoriety online. We strongly discourage the use of ear candles.

The theory is that heat from the lit beeswax cone will create a vacuum method to draw out excess earwax. However research shows no evidence that the process works.  On the contrary, there are reports that wax from the candle occludes the ear canal even more or, worse, burns the ear canal.  What appears to be wax at the end of the cone is believed to be burnt residue from the candle.  In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration warned people that ear candling is not safe.

Our advice is to stay away from this method at all costs.

Using a Cotton Swab

Think of the ear canal as a closed tube filled with debris. If you push a swab into the ear canal, some wax will stick to the end of the swab.  However, most of the wax will get pushed further into the canal causing impaction. The closer the wax gets to the eardrum, the greater the likelihood of having ear pain because the deep part of the ear canal is more sensitive.

Use of cotton swabs is one of the most common causes of earwax impaction.

Vigorous use of cotton swabs can lead to irritations in the ear canal and, in extreme cases, a perforation of the eardrum.

Pros: The general rule is that cotton swabs are okay for gentle, limited cleaning for the outer ear only. (And be careful not to use any other foreign objects such as paper clips, wires, or anything else that may cause a laceration in the ear.)

Cons: This process is likely to increase earwax buildup instead of reducing it.  There are also dangers of damage to the ear canal.

Listen to what your mom told you: Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear!


Use of Olive Oil

The use of olive oil has been common for many years. When used in small quantities, it is safe for most people.

It’s not a quick fix and may take a few days for the olive oil to soften the wax enough to finally migrate out, but it’s still much safer than other methods.

Pros: There are many low-cost over-the-counter olive oils available for this exact reason and it’s a very straightforward approach.

Cons: If you have a history of allergies to olive oil, then you should avoid this.  As with cautions listed for OTC ear drops,  if you have a history of a  ruptured eardrum or have had ear surgery, check with your physician before using this technique.

Overall, if you have a mild case of wax buildup, then similar to OTC ear drops, the olive oil method may work for you.

Visit an Audiologist

We have saved the best for last, as visiting an audiologist (or ENT physician) is the only guaranteed way to properly address your condition.

At Pacific Hearing Service, we have several safe methods available to clean your ears.  We start by taking a basic health history and taking a look in your ear canals with an otoscope or a microscope.  We can even take a photograph of your ear canals so you can see how much wax has accumulated.

We have several types of professional equipment available to resolve this problem including a microscope, curettes, suction and irrigation. If you tell us ahead of time you are interested, we can also perform a thorough hearing evaluation at the same time.


Earwax Removal Experts in Silicon Valley

We are a team of doctors of audiology who love to provide comprehensive hearing healthcare. Sometimes the problem is as simple as cleaning your ears!

To ask a question or schedule an earwax removal and/or hearing evaluation appointment,  please click here for full information.

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Jane H. Baxter, Au.D.

Dr. Baxter became a partner at Pacific Hearing Service in 1986 and both manages and provides audiology services at the Menlo Park office. She completed her clinical doctorate in Audiology (Au.D.) at Salus University, received her graduate training at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley, and is a Fellow of the American Academy of Audiology and certified by the American Board of Audiology.