Ask Prof: Ears, Wax, Flys, Picks, and Candles!

I was covering skin glands this past week in Anatomy classes, and on the mention of ear wax, a flurry of questions erupted. So, I thought I’d answer some of it here.

First some background – what’s earwax, where does it come from and why do we have it?

Earwax is also known as cerumen and functions to clean, lubricate, protect the ear canal.

The glands that produce earwax are derived from sebaceous (the ones associated with body hair) and apocrine (the smelly ones) glands that we normally find on skin.

Normally the earwax moves naturally towards the outer ear opening. But at times, it might build-up. Medical professionals recommend using softeners, followed by irrigation (some liquid to rinse it out), to remove earwax.



Q – why do they tell us not to use Q-tip to clean our ears?

Medical professionals recommend you not use Q-tips (cotton swabs) to clean earwax from the ear canal, because of the high likelihood of pushing some earwax back towards the eardrum. Over time, earwax builds up against the eardrum and gets thicker, something called “impaction.” This, as you can imagine, can cause hearing loss, pain, or even a torn eardrum (perforated eardrum).


Q – The conversation evolved to these sticks that Asians use to clean their ears … what are these earpicks?


Ear picks are a tool commonly found among Asians to clean earwax from the ears. Asians’ earwax tends to be dry and flaky, and not liquidy as Westerners’ may be.

I remember working with a family practice doctor, who said to me while talking about a patient and ear care (paraphrasing): “yes you can use these ear picks if you know how to use them. In some cultures, people learn how to do it as they are growing up. Just make sure it doesn’t go too deep to damage or puncture the eardrum.” This particular doctor would not discourage the patient from using it, although the Wikipedia article below says this technique too is frowned upon by the medical community.


Q- how about ear candling?


I know nothing about ear candling when a student asked about it. The student says it worked for her. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Ear candling, also called ear coning or thermal-auricular therapy, is an alternative medicine practice claimed to improve general health and well-being by lighting one end of a hollow candle and placing the other end in the ear canal. Medical research has shown that the practice is both dangerous and ineffective and does not help remove earwax or alleged toxins.

One end of a cylinder or cone of waxed cloth is lit, and the other is placed into the subject’s ear. The flame is cut back occasionally with scissors and extinguished between 5 and 10 centimeters (2-4 inches) from the subject.

The subject is lying on one side with the treated ear uppermost and the candle vertical. The candle can be stuck through a paper plate or aluminium pie tin to protect against any hot wax or ash falling onto the subject. Another way to perform ear candling involves the subject lying face up with the ear candle extending out to the side with a 45-degree upward slant. A dish of water is placed next to the subject under the ear candle.

Proponents claim that the flame creates negative pressure, drawing wax and debris out of the ear canal, which appears as a dark residue.


If you want to read something gross having to do with ears – read about what happens when a British woman walks through a fly swarm earlier this year –

While we’re talking about sweat gland derivatives, have you heard of a sweat gland tumor? There’s a post on it –

OK, I’ve spent too much time on this blog – I’ll cover hair loss and “turning gray” next time. Swimmer’s Ear will be posted later.

I’ve got “breaking news” I need to post.


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