Question

Dear Naked Scientists, I'm in the U.S. and I LOVE LOVE your podcast. I listen to it while I work -- I'm a graphic designer, so when your program is on I've got sort of a left-brain/right-brain thing going on.

Anyway, I was wondering: why do we have earwax? What's earwax for and how is it made? What would happen if we didn't clean it out every once in awhile, besides possibly get very annoying?

Keep doing awesome science and bringing it to the public in interesting ways!

Cheers from California! Kate in sunny Santa Clara

Answer

Earwax is made in the outer canal of your ear. Your outer ear is basically the bit that you can see. It's the bit that funnels all of the pressure - the sound wave pressure - into your middle ear and your inner ear, which then converts those sound wave pressures into electrical energy which you can then use to hear.

Earwax, or cerumen, basically acts as a lubricant to help the sound waves to travel through, and it also protects against nasty bugs sitting in your ear and multiplying there and causing infections. So, perhaps counter-intuitively, it's actually quite a cleansing thing to have as long as you don't have too much of it.

If there's too much of it then it can cause a blockage and prevent the sound waves from passing through into your middle ear and therefore cause impairments or problems with your hearing.

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