Excessive Ear Wax

Person with excessive ear wax

Excessive ear wax can be an embarrassing health issue for some people.

If people have visible ear wax, or cerumen, they can be viewed as person who is unhygienic or “dirty”.

People simply don’t understand that people produce cerumen and different rates and of different consistencies.

The accumulation of ear wax is one of the is one of the most common reasons that people visit their medical practitioner with ear problems.

What exactly is ear wax made up of?

There are cerumeneous and sebaceous glands in the external ear canal.  These glands create ear wax by combining naturally produced saturated and unsaturated long chain fatty acids, alcohols, squalenes and cholesterol with dead skin cells and hair from the ear canal.

Due to its chemical composition, ear wax can be thick, sticky and difficult to loosen.  This has its purposes within the ear but can become a problem when accumulation of cerumen or impacted cerumen occurs.

It is important to remember that the natural movement of chewing help to propel ear wax out of the ear canal.

A common treatment for excessive ear wax is drops called cerumenolytics.  “Cerumen” is the name for ear wax and “-lytic” is the medical term meaning “to break down”.  Therefore cerumenolytics are substances that break down or loosen ear wax.

Common cerumenolytics include:

  • sodium bicarbonate ear drops
  • chlorbutanol
  • triethanolamine polypeptide oleate condensate
  • docusate sodium liquid
  • distilled water
  • sterile water
  • saline

A 2013 study titled “Finding the most effective cerumenolytic” and published in The Journal of Laryngology & Otology found the following surprising results:


Distilled water caused the greatest reduction in the mass of the cerumen disc. Cerumen placed in distilled water and in sodium bicarbonate solution showed substantial disintegration at 12 hours. Cerumen placed in solutions containing oil-based agents showed no visible sign of disintegration and no reduction in dried weight.


Distilled water resulted in the greatest degree of cerumenolysis. Oil-based cerumenolytics were ineffective.”

This tells us that perhaps we can save our money and simply use distilled water drops in our ears to loosen accumulated ear wax.

Syringing of excessive ear wax, in addition to the use of cerumenolytics, can also be helpful is done correctly.  Caution must be taking when ear canal syringing is performed to avoid complications such as ear drum perforation, ear canal lacerations, and failure to remove the ear wax.

To see a chart of the results of a study that evaluated the effectiveness of various interventions for the accumulation of ear wax visit https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2907972/table/BMJ_0504_TG/?report=objectonly

To learn more about other embarrassing health issues please visit our Conditions page.