When you’re little, your mom probably told you — repeatedly — not to forget to wash behind your ears when you took a bath. We always wondered why she did that. No one ever looks back there anyway, right?

Today, we’re concentrating on the inside of the ears. Did you realize that your ears have a self-cleaning mechanism? It’s true!

You know that brownish-greenish gunk you sometimes find in your ears? That’s called “ear wax.” It may look like dirt, but it actually helps keep your ears squeaky clean!

Ear wax — what doctors call “cerumen” (pronounced “sa-roo-men”) — is made in the outer ear canal. That’s the area just inside the fleshy part of the ear on the outside of your head. Special skin glands in that part of the ear secrete the sticky fluid we call ear wax.

Ear wax plays a very important role. It creates a waterproof lining that keeps the ear dry and prevents germs and bacteria from causing infections. Since it’s sticky, it also traps dust and dirt that might otherwise block or irritate the eardrum.

Your ears constantly produce ear wax. As new ear wax is made, the old ear wax makes its way to the outer ear, where it either falls out or washes away during baths and showers.

Regular bathing is usually all that’s needed to make sure your ears have a healthy level of ear wax.

Occasionally, ear wax may build up and create problems. If too much ear wax blocks sound waves, you may experience partial hearing loss.

Dried ear wax may also cause discomfort in the ears because the ear canals are very delicate. Because the ears share some nerves with the throat, ear wax can also cause you to feel a “tickle” in your throat that leads to coughing.

If you ever experience a problem with ear wax, be sure to consult a doctor. The ears are delicate, so you don’t want to go poking and prodding them unless you know what you’re doing. If you have problems repeatedly, ask your doctor to show you a few home remedies.

One final word of caution: Be careful with cotton swabs! Many people use them to clean their ears, but ear doctors warn that they can do more harm than good.

Using cotton swabs to clean the outer parts of the ear is fine, but sticking the swab into your ear can push ear wax farther into the ear canal, creating a problem rather than solving one.

As a wise man once said, “Don’t put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear!”


22 Join the Discussion

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars  (22 votes, avg. 4.77 out of 5)
  1. WOW! We learned a LOT today!! We didn’t know that it wasn’t good to use Q-tips in your ears and that using them may push the wax to our ear drums and cause more problems. We also didn’t know to use baby oil or vinegar and alcohol to clean out excess ear wax. The video was very interesting and we LOVE the saying “Don’t stick anything smaller than your elbow in your ear!” lol :)

    • That is a GREAT saying to live by, isn’t it, Kerrick Elementary? We sure learned a lot from this Wonder of the Day®, too! Sometimes WONDERing and learning about icky things is a good for us! :-)

  2. We learned that earwax (which we think is gross) really does help us. We promise we won’t put anything smaller than our elbows in our ears! Thank you, we always wondered why we have earwax.

    • We’re so happy you commented again today, The Beach (Mrs. Guerin’s 2nd Grade Class)! Even though ear wax IS kind of gross, it’s always awesome to learn about ways our bodies protect us from bacteria and germs! Our bodies do amazing things without us even having to remind them! :-)

  3. Hey, it’s me, Nova. I have that problem with the tickle in the back of my throat some times. It also does that when I swallow my food. I loved today’s wonder because it gave me a lot of tips. My mom does not use cotton swabs in my ear anyway… my mom is going to buy me an ear candle soon. I have a lot of ear wax in my ear, so that is why. I can also give this info to my mom…bye!

    • Hi there, Nova! We think it’s AWESOME that you’re going to share today’s Wonder with your mom! Thank you for commenting today and for visiting Wonderopolis! :-)

  4. I learned you have to clean your ear wax every day you take a shower and when you go outside. You should not clean your ear wax with your hands and you can see a M.D to see what you have in your ear wax so they can take off the dirt in your ear.

    • Hi, Keith! Welcome to Wonderopolis! Thank you for sharing what you learned from this Wonder of the Day®. We hope you will visit again soon and leave us another comment! :-)

  5. This is a great question. I have always wondered about the ear wax in my ears and how it’s made. I have heard ear wax is good for your ears.

    So, we’re not supposed to use cotton swabs ourselves. How would a doctor go about cleaning our wax out for us?

    J & R
    Mrs. Taylor’s second period class

    • Hello, JustRay! Doctors use a variety of methods to remove ear wax. Some use a method called “irrigation” where they use special medical instruments to gently flush the wax away. Sometimes they use a delicate tool called a “cerumen spoon” for scooping out the wax. Please remember that doctors are trained medical professionals with LOTS of experience, so it’s best to leave the cleaning to them! Your doctor will know the best way to help clean out your extra ear wax! :-)

  6. That passage was very gross but interesting. We didn’t know that ear wax can keep our ears clean before we read your passage. This passage also has good ear cleaning tips. We really liked this passage.

    We’re curious why your body would have something that can hurt you and help you at the same time.

    Nx2 + T
    Mrs. Taylor’s seventh period class

    • The human body is truly amazing, isn’t it, Nx2 + T? There are so many things that our bodies do without us even having to think about it! Thank you for your comment today! :-)

  7. We like how you described the role of ear wax. We also like how you had factual information such as how to maintain healthy habits.

    Our question is, why can you not put an object smaller than your elbow in your ear?

    • Hello, Jomandy chen! It’s very dangerous to stick ANYTHING in your ear, so a really smart person somewhere in history made up that funny “never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear” saying to help us remember! Thank you for letting us know that you liked this Wonder! :-)

  8. Hi, Wonderopolis. I have some questions for you! Why do remotes have so many buttons? Why do showers have cold water? Those are all the questions for you!

    • Those are WONDERful questions, Paige! They are GREAT ideas for future Wonders of the Day! Thank you for sharing them with everyone in Wonderopolis today! :-)

  9. If you look up on the page, you can see it’s ME again! I have MORE wonders! They are…
    What kind of breed was the first dog in space?
    Why are the continents moving?
    How do we get sick?

    • Those are all GREAT ideas for future Wonders of the Day®, Paige! Thank you very much for suggesting them and for visiting Wonderopolis today! :-)

  10. Hello!!!

    We loved the wonder about “Ear Wax”, but we had a question… How exactly can you get an ear infection and what are the symptoms?

    -Mr. Morrison’s 3rd grade class- Jacksonville, Fl

    • HELLO to all those WONDERful students in Mr. Morrison’s class! We’re glad you enjoyed learning about that waxy substance in your ears. We think you’ve been doing some GREAT WONDERing of your own– YIPPEE! You’ve provided us with a SUPER idea for another Wonder– what happens when you experience an ear ache. Perhaps we will Wonder about symptoms and infections in the future!

      Until then, we Wonder if you can do some research of your own, or recall a time when you had an ear ache. Do you remember what it felt like or how you overcame the illness? :)

    • Thank you for sharing that piece of information with us, Jasmine. That doesn’t sound very safe to us here in Wonderopolis. ;) We hope people didn’t get hurt. Thanks for WONDERing with us today!

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Have you ever wondered…

  • Why do you have wax in your ears?
  • What is cerumen?
  • Should you use cotton swabs to clean your ears?

Wonder Gallery

Try It Out

Ready to mine your ears for some ear wax samples? If you just said, “Ewwwww,” that’s OK. We’re just kidding.

Instead, let’s have fun with some other types of wax. Explore these fun activities below that use different types of wax or wax paper:

When you’re finished with your waxy masterpiece, email us a picture. We’d love to see what you made!


Still Wondering

Check out Science NetLinks’ Popping Ears audio podcast to learn why your ears might pop on a plane trip.


Wonder Categories/Tags



canal  cerumen  cotton  ear  swab  wax 

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