How to Remove Ear Wax

Cotton swabs may be used to clean ear wax at the entrance to the ear but should never be inserted into the ear canal..

What is ear wax?

Ear wax, also called cerumen, is a natural substance made by the body to protect the ear canal and ear drum from dust or debris. It keeps the ear canal lubricated and has antibacterial properties.

Why do some people have problems with ear wax and others don't?

Everyone makes ear wax, but some people do make more ear wax than others. The amount and type of ear wax you make is based on your genetics - just like hair color and height.

Normally, the ear is designed to remove ear wax naturally. Chewing and jaw movements move the ear canal and help push the ear wax out. Ear wax is also pushed out of the ear canal as new skin grows from the inside of the ear canal outwards.

Some people may have smaller ear canals than others or their ear canal may have a sharper curve to it; those little differences may make it more difficult for ear wax to naturally exit the ear canal.

People who use hearing aids or ear plugs may also have more problems with ear wax because they are pushing something into the ear canal daily which may cause the ear wax to become impacted (causing a blockage). For the same reason, cotton swabs are not recommended to remove ear wax.

How do I know if I have too much ear wax?

You may have a wax impaction if you have:

  • Your ear feels full. 
  • Your ear is painful. 
  •  You are not hearing well. 
  •  Your ear is ringing (tinnitus). 
  •  Your ear itches. 
  •  You have a discharge coming out of your ear. 
  •  You have a strange smell or odor coming from your ear.
  •  You feel off-balance. 

When do I need to see a doctor for ear wax?

If you have any of the above symptoms, you should see your doctor or audiologist. Other conditions may cause these symptoms and it is important to be sure ear wax is the culprit before trying any home remedies.

Your primary care doctor or audiologist can look in your ears with an otoscope to determine if your ear is impacted with ear wax.

Your doctor may clean your ear wax in the office with suction, irrigation, or a device called a curette. In other cases, the doctor may have you use products at home to soften the ear wax prior to attempting to remove it.

How should I clean my ears at home?

If you tend to have ear wax problems, it is fine to clean your ears at home to prevent ear wax from becoming impacted.

The best way to clean your ears is to wipe away wax you can see with a cloth. In some cases, you can use cerumenolytic solutions (solutions to dissolve wax) in the ear canal—these solutions include mineral oil, baby oil, glycerin, peroxide-based ear drops (such as Debrox®), hydrogen peroxide, and saline solution.

If the wax does not come out with the cerumenolytic solution, irrigation may be used—this involves using a syringe to rinse out the ear canal with water or saline, generally after the wax has been softened or dissolved by a cerumenolytic overnight.

Note: Irrigation should not be done by or to any persons who have, or suspect they have, a perforation (hole) in their eardrum or tubes in the affected ear(s). If there is any question about this, see your doctor.

What about ear wax devices I've seen on TV?

Don't use devices you see advertised on TV. Commercially available suction devices for home use (such as Wax-Vac) are not effective for most people and are therefore not recommended.

My spa offers ear candling. Should I do that to remove wax?

Don't use ear candles, which are advertised as a natural method to remove ear wax. Ear candles are not only ineffective but can cause injury to the ear. Injuries include burns to the external ear and ear canal, and perforation of the eardrum.

How can I prevent ear wax problems?

To prevent future wax impactions, do not stick anything into your ears to clean them. Use cotton swabs only on the outside of the ear. If you have a severe enough problem with ear wax that you need to have it removed by a health professional more than once a year, discuss with them which method of prevention (if any) may work best for you.


American Academy of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery. Earwax Accessed 07/06/2014.

American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Nothing Smaller Than Your Elbow, Please Accessed 07/06/2014.

Updated November 2, 2015. 

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