Are Headphones and Earbuds Making Your Ears Waxy?
An ENT Doctor Weighs In
Wearing headphones or earbuds is a daily activity for many of us. Listening to music, podcasts, meetings, phone calls; there are endless reasons to stick them in your ears. So, how do your ears feel when you take them out: Waxy, wet, slimy, full, clogged, or something else? Enter ear wax. The dreaded substance our ears create to protect us.
“Ear wax isn’t dirty. It’s normal,” says Susannah Hills, MD, an ear, nose, and throat doctor and Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery at CUIMC. “Ears clean themselves with the help of jaw movement and skin migration. If you wear headphones or earbuds all day, you may notice wax build-up because the devices are blocking this cleaning process”
Hills is also a head and neck surgeon who specializes in helping kids who have trouble hearing, breathing, and swallowing. We asked her to help all of us understand ear wax.
What is ear wax, and why do we have it?
Ear wax is a protective substance called sebum made of fat, skin cells and sweat.
Ear wax is produced by glands in the ear canal. It helps protect the ear from germs and dirt and prevents the sensitive skin of the ear canal from becoming irritated.
What happens if you have too much (or too little) ear wax?
If you have too much ear wax, the ear canals can become plugged, which can affect your hearing.
Too little ear wax leaves the ear unprotected from irritants in the environment.
How much ear wax is too much or too little?
It is normal and healthy to have a thin lining of ear wax on the canal. Ear wax will sometimes accumulate and move to the outer ear canal, where it would typically fall out or be wiped away. This is also normal.
An ear canal has too much wax if the ear feels plugged or hearing is affected. The accumulation of wax happens very gradually, so ears do not necessarily feel waxy. The problem is usually noticed because of changes in hearing.
Do headphones make ears extra waxy?
Most people who wear headphones or use earbuds occasionally or intermittently aren’t usually going to have difficulties with excessive ear wax.
People who wear headphones for many hours every day will be more likely to accumulate wax. They can also irritate the skin and cartilage of their outer ear canal. Wax accumulation also depends on the size of the ear canals and the productivity of the oil glands in the ear canal.
What’s the best way to reduce ear wax buildup when using headphones or earbuds?
Generally speaking, headphones won’t cause ear wax accumulation. In fact, I recommend using headphones—not earbuds—to avoid wax accumulation. Other tips:
- Clean headphones and earbuds regularly with a cloth or disinfectant wipes
- Do not share headphones or earbuds with other people
- Take breaks from headphones and earbuds so ears can breathe and get back to normal
If you notice a significant increase in ear wax production or have discomfort or hearing issues, contact your doctor or ENT. They can safely remove excessive ear wax and offer advice on ear hygiene.
Should we talk about Q-tips?
Yes! Q-tips (and similar products) are rarely helpful for managing ear wax. The cotton on the end of the Q-tip is usually unable to pull the wax out of the canal. Worse, they can push the wax deep inside the ear canal, and it can end up impacted. Even worse: I see kids with injured ear drums from Q-tip use more often than I’d like.
A far better option is peroxide or mineral oil drops. Use them once or twice a week to break down the wax and allow it to thin out and wash out of the canal (AKA prevent buildup).
What does everyone ask you about ear wax?
Is it bad to have so much ear wax? I reassure parents that having ear wax is healthy.
Why does my child have so much ear wax? This question I can’t fully answer. We do not know why some people have more active sebum glands in their ear canals. We do know how to manage it.
Susannah Hills, MD, is an ear, nose, and throat doctor and Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery at CUIMC.