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A Weird History of Earwax

By Krista Elliott

When it comes to hygiene, we humans have developed and discarded some pretty strange practices over the centuries. But cleaning our ears has created some of the strangest habits and practices of all. We've done some really, really weird things to try to clean the wax out of our ears. But what is earwax? What is its purpose? And how should we clean our ears, anyway? 

Yucky, Yet Fascinating

Earwax is properly called cerumen, which is a rather lovely name for such an icky substance. A mixture of natural secretions and dead skin cells, earwax actually serves a very important purpose. The waxy substance is meant to protect the ear canal from dust, water, and microorganisms. Ideally, it makes its way out of the ear canal where it dries up and flakes off, being easily washed away when you bathe. 

You Stuck WHAT in Your Ear?

Unfortunately, a lot of people have just never been able to leave well enough alone, and have inserted all manner of objects into their ears in an attempt to clean out earwax. 

Ear picks have enjoyed immense popularity in Asian culture. In Japan, mimi kaki (ear rakes) are still in widespread use, with many Japanese people enjoying fond memories of having their ears cleaned (mimi soji) while resting their head on their mother's lap.

Ear picks and scoops are not limited to the East, however. Tiny bronze or silver ear scoops were in common use well throughout western history, and have been found in several archeological digs. There is even a bronze ear pick dating from third to fourth century Rome currently found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

In more modern times, we've branched out, and have used everything from bobby pins to paper clips to the ubiquitous cotton swab to remove the wax from our ears.

All of this home cleaning, however, has driven ear, nose and throat specialists to near-distraction. Why? Because strangely enough, poking blindly into your ear canal with pointed objects is not considered a wise idea. In fact, ear, nose and throat specialists warn that at best, we're pushing the wax further into the canal where it can cause blockages, pain and temporary hearing loss. As well, all of that fiddling around in the ear canal only prompts the ear to create more wax to protect against the constant intrusion. And at worst? We risk perforating an ear drum and creating permanent hearing loss. 

Leave it to the Experts, People

If your hearing is fine and you can't feel any fullness or blockages in your ears, then you don't need to do a blessed thing. Your ears are doing their job at self-cleaning, and all you need to do is to clean around the outside of the ear canal with a soapy washcloth when you bathe. 

But if you do think that you have a buildup of earwax? Commercial eardrops or a couple of drops of mineral oil can soften the wax, allowing it to move more easily out of the ear canal. If conservative treatment doesn't work, however, check with your doctor. General practitioners and ENT specialists have the tools and techniques to safely remove earwax (plus, they can actually see what they're doing, which helps!) 

Maybe with our ears properly cleaned out, we can start listening to the doctors and stop poking our ears with sticks. 

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