Earwax, also known as cerumen, is produced by glands located in the skin of the outer one-third of the ear canal.
There are two types of glands that produce cerumen: sebaceous glands and apocrine sweat glands. The sebaceous glands release sebum — primarily made of fatty acids — which mix with the apocrine gland secretions to form cerumen.
A minute mutation of the ABCC11 gene is behind the differences, believed to be responsible for dry earwax and, incidentally, reduced earwax and underarm odor in people with Chinese, Japanese and Korean ancestry. In contrast, people of Caucasian descent had smellier earwax.
Cerumen mixes with dead skin cells, loose hair follicles and dust and slowly sweeps the debris out of the ear canal.
These cells are continually moving from the interior of the ear canal to the exterior. They are, in a sense, self-cleaning. The cells move by the natural movement of the jaw; as we eat, talk, sneeze and cough, we help move the cells of the ear canal along their path.
Earwax has a slightly acidic pH balance, which discourages bacteria and fungi from taking hold. Earwax prevents small insects from building cozy homes in the ear canal.
A person’s type of earwax, and its odiferous qualities, can vary according to genetic makeup. People of Asian and non-Asian descent have different kinds of earwax, characterized as either “wet” or “dry.”
Although there’s little cause to believe human earwax will be studied to reveal the impact of our environments, it could reveal toxic heavy metals accumulating in the body. Earwax already offers clues into rare metabolic disorders. People with maple syrup urine disease (an inherited disease in which the body cannot break down certain parts of proteins properly).
Research is still on.