What Causes Ear Wax to Build Up?

Ear Cleanings

Ear wax, known medically as cerumen, serves a useful function – it helps keep dirt, bacteria and other debris from reaching your ear drum. It’s normal to have a certain amount of ear wax in your ear canals. You don’t want your ear passages to be completely devoid of this sticky material. Too little ear wax can make your ear canals dry and irritated, not to mention increase the odds of debris penetrating more deeply into your ears.

Your ears have their own natural wax removal system. When it works well, it’s pretty effective at preventing wax build-up. Every time you chew, ear wax is moved forward by the action of your jaws until it reaches the outside and flakes off. Unfortunately, some people have ear wax that’s too dry, making it harder for your ear’s natural cleansing system to eliminate it.

Sometimes ear wax becomes impacted in the ear canal, creating a sense of fullness in the ear canal and problems hearing. Some people with ear wax impaction experience other symptoms including dizziness and ringing in the ears (tinnitus). Lifestyle habits like wearing earbuds or anything else that blocks the ear canal can lead to wax impaction and problems hearing.

If you think you have ear wax, don’t try to remove it using a cotton swab; you’ll only push the wax deeper into your ear canal and risk puncturing your eardrum. In fact, you should never insert a cotton swab, or anything smaller than your elbow, into your ear. If you suspect ear wax is building up in your ears and interfering with your ability to hear, drugstores offer ear drops that help dissolve wax as well as home irrigation systems. If these products don’t resolve the problem, it’s best to see your doctor or hearing care professional for evaluation and treatment.


American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. (2015). Ear wax and care. Retrieved from