The Facts about Earwax
Earwax, also known as cerumen (pronounced seh-ruh-muhn) and produced by glands in the outer ear canal. Healthy earwax is made up of oil from the skin, dead skin cells, sweat, and dirt. It has a few important functions such as:
- protecting ears against infections
- keeping the ear canal moist (so it doesn’t get dry and itchy)
- trapping dust and dirt
If you don’t have a blocked ear canal (from earwax) you can just leave earwax as is because it usually takes care of itself. It is normally secreted in small amounts and moves out of the ear when you talk and chew, and from movement of hair cells in ears. However, a few things can disrupt the normal movement of wax to the outer ear, resulting in the buildup of earwax (also called impaction). Read on to find out about:
- How Does Ear Wax Build Up?
- What Should I Do If I Have A Earwax Block?
- What Is Cerumol®?
- What Ingredients are in Cerumol®?
- How Does Cerumol® Work?
- Is Cerumol® Effective (What Does the Evidence Say?)
- Is Cerumol® Safe?
- What About Ear Candling?
- Bottom Line
How Does Ear Wax Build Up?
- Drier earwax – as you age, the number of glands in the ear decrease, producing earwax that is drier and hard to remove naturally
- Use of hearing aids
- Use of ear plugs
- Using cotton-tipped applicators
- Bony growths in the canal
Overtime, earwax buildup or block can lead to decreased hearing, sensation of fullness in the ear, and discomfort . It is one of the most common ear-related problems that requires care from general practitioners .
What Should I Do If I Have A Earwax Block?
When an earwax block occurs, there are many ways to remove the earwax. (Click here to read a Q&A with an audiologist about earwax removal). It is generally discouraged to manually remove the earwax yourself, especially with cotton-tipped applicators because it can actually push the earwax further into the canal and worsen the condition . There are a number of ear drops that can help remove earwax and/or you may require going to see a qualified health care professional.
Health Tip: Avoid using cotton tip applicators like Q-Tips® because they can actually push earwax further in
Eardrops can help by breaking down or softening the earwax. If the type of ear drop breaks down the earwax, it is called a “cerumenolytic”. They can be used alone or with other types of treatment like irrigation, which can be completed by qualified health care professional to flush out the external ear canal with sterile water or sterile saline.
“cerumenolytic” – something that breaks down earwax
There are generally three types of ear drops:
- Water Based Products: hydrate the wax which causes breakdown of the keratin and then the wax
- Oil Based Products: lubricate and softens and loosens the wax (not considered a true cerumenolytic because it doesn’t break down the wax)
- Non-Oil, Non-Water Based: the way nonoil-, nonwater-based eardrops manage earwax has not been quite figured out yet
What Is Cerumol® ?
Cerumol® is a popular and commonly used ear drop that is marketed to relieve earwax impaction. It is an oil-based ear drop that loosens and lubricates blocked earwax to ease its removal. It is classified as a “cerumenolytic” even though it is not a “true cerumenolytic” because it only softens and lubricates the wax, so there is no actual breakdown. Since this product has been on the market for over 50 years, we wanted to take a look at the evidence behind its safety and effectiveness.
What Ingredients are in Cerumol® ?
Cerumol® has two active ingredients:
- peanut oil (arachis oil) (57.3%)
- chlorbutol (5%)
- oil of turpentine (10%)
- 3-methoxy butyl acetate
- paradichlorobenzene (2%)
How Does Cerumol® Work?
The different ingredients in the drops serve different functions:
- peanut oil: lubcricating agent that softens the oil
- chlorobutanol: antibacterial and antifungal agent that helps reduce the thickness of the oils so it can get into the ear canal more easily
- oil of turpentine: lubcricating agent that softens the oil
- paradichlorobenzene: insecticide that also acts to reduce the thickness
Is Cerumol® Effective (What does the Evidence Say)?
Cerumol® is effective in breaking down ear wax blockages. However, if you are deciding between a few different drops, most studies found that no ear drop is any better than another and one review even found that none of these agents were better than using sterile saline or saline water.
If you choose to use an over-the-counter ear drop for your blocked ear canal (from ear wax), these drops can be used alone or with irrigation (flushing the external ear canal with sterile water or sterile saline). If irrigation is needed, it is recommended to see a health care professional to do this.
Is Cerumol® Safe?
- In children under 3 years old
- If you have an allergy to any of the ingredients OR peanut oil OR soya
- A sore or inflamed ear canal
- Dermatitis or eczema on the outer ear
- A perforated ear drum
See your doctor if:
- You are pregnant or breastfeeding
- Have been using these drops for longer than 3 days without any benefit
- You are not sure if your symptoms from earwax (ie. if you have symptoms of hearing loss, ear pain, ear infection)
What About Ear Candling?
Ear candling is not recommended. Studies have shown that “ear candling” is not effective. On several occasions, ear candling has led to severe burns of the face and ear, worsened earwax blockages and even broken eardrums3.
Earwax is normal. Unless your earwax is causing symptoms from blocking the ear canal you can leave it alone. If you do have discomfort and choose to use an ear drop to to break up the earwax studies have not shown that no ear drop is better than another. Cerumol® is not better than other available ear drops (and possibly even sterile saline/water), but it is effective in breaking down ear wax blockages. If you’re unsure whether or not you are experiencing symptoms impacted earwax, it is safest to visit a health care professional.
Ema Allemano, Jenna Buxton, Bingjie Jin, Chen-En Ma, & Binh Nguyen, B.Sc. Pharm Candidate(s)
Faculty of Pharmacy & Pharmaceutical Sciences
University of Alberta
Edited and Reviewed by The Health Aisle Team
(Note: We are not associated with or endorse any particular products or brands)
Last Updated: August 2019
1. Shevchuk, Yvonne M. (2013). Impacted Earwax. Therapeutic Choices for Minor Ailments: Pg. 166-169.
2. Burton MJ, Doree C (2009). Eardrops for the removal of earwax (review). The Cochrane Collaboration. Issue 1: 1 – 33. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004326.pub2
3. Schwartz, S. R., Magit, A. E., Rosenfeld, R. M., Ballachanda, B. B., Hackell, J. M., Krouse, H. J., Cunningham, E. R. (2017). Clinical Practice Guideline (Update): Earwax (Cerumen Impaction). Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, 156(1_suppl), S1–S29. https://doi.org/10.1177/0194599816671491
4. Hand C, Harvey I (2004). The effectiveness of topical preparations for the treatment of earwax: systematic review. British Journal of General Practice. 54: 862-867.
5. National Pesticide Information Center. Paradicholorbenzene Technical Fact Sheet. Retrieved from http://www.medicines.org.uk/emc/medicine/25285/SPC/Cerumol Ear Drops/
6. Oron Y. et al (2011). Cerumen removal: Comparison of cerumenolytic agents and effect on cognition among the elderly. Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics. 52: 228-232.