Is earwax flammable? (A complete guide)

In this article, we will discuss the following question: “Is earwax flammable?”, and other important topics on the subject.

Is earwax flammable?

Yes, it can burn under certain conditions like conventional candle wax, which could be dangerous just like commercialized waxes. However, there are several setbacks to performing this experiment.

What is Ear Wax?

Earwax is a waxy secretion present in mammals (including humans) of brown, yellow, orange, red, and even grayish colors.

It has hydrophobic (water repellent), antimicrobial, and antifungal characteristics and helps in cleaning and protecting the canal. auditory.

For better understanding, the ear canal can be divided into three parts. The outermost portion, where the ear is up to the eardrum, is called the outer ear. 

The stretch then enters after the eardrum, called the middle ear or tympanic cavity. And finally, in the labyrinth region, we have the inner ear. The figure below shows this distribution better.

In the external ear, we have a portion called the external acoustic meatus, which is the path that the sound will travel through the ear to the eardrum, it is in this region where the cerumen will be produced. 

And it is important to note that after the ear, this is the first barrier of the ear canal to the outside world, which makes sense that a secretion that serves mainly for protection is produced there.

When placing a cut of the outer ear under the microscope, we can see that there is a furthest epithelial (skin) layer (upper part of the image), and below this layer, there is another layer of connective tissue, where sebaceous and ceruminous glands can be found.

Below this layer, is the third and last layer, of cartilage, which gives this characteristic of resistance and flexibility to the ear.

Earwax is then produced by mixing the secretions of these two glands with dead epithelial cells (hair and skin basically), which are the sources of keratin.

Ceruminous glands, in turn, are modified sweat glands (sweat producers). About 60% of earwax is composed of keratin, the other components are saturated and unsaturated long-chain fatty acids, alcohols, scalene, and cholesterol. 

These last components vary whether your wax is dry or wet.

Dry or wet ear wax?

The type of earwax is genetically determined and can be of two types, wet wax, or dry wax. Wet wax is dominant, therefore, the most common on the planet. While dry wax is recessive and rarer.

The difference between dry and wet is mainly due to the pigmentation of the wax and the number of lipids. There is also a correlation between wet wax and greater odor in the armpits, due to the sweat glands, which in the ear change to ceruminous glands.

Wet wax, more common in most humans, is mostly found in people of European and African ancestry. Its lipid concentration is higher, reaching up to 50% of the wax composition. 

Their colors can be brown, red, yellow, and orange.

Dry wax is mostly found in Southeast and East Asian people and Native Americans (although it can be found in other parts of the world as well). 

Dry waxes, in addition to the colors found in wet waxes, can also have dark and grayish colors. Its lipid concentration is about 20%.

What is the use of ear wax?

Epithelial tissues exposed to the environment, such as the skin and the ear, suffer from the weather and one of the main problems is desiccation, which is tissue dehydration.

Ear wax constantly lubricates and protects the ear from this problem, thanks to its high lipid content, which serves as a protection of the skin from the external environment.

In addition, there is a constant “automatic cleaning” of the ear. Dead and discarded materials from the body are transported through a process called “epithelial migration” from the eardrum towards the outside of the ear.

This “dirt” that is pushed out of the ear, agglutinates with the ear wax, facilitating transport, since the path is also lubricated and particles that enter through the ear, also end up catching this wax and pushed out of the body.

One way to expel “dirt” and ear wax more easily is through the movement of the jaw, which helps in this transport. Another important use of earwax is its antimicrobial and antifungal function.

Varieties of two of the best-known microorganisms, for example, Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli, have their viability and proliferation reduced thanks to cerumen.

Everything indicates that the antimicrobial function of ear wax is due to the presence of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids, such as lysozyme, and its slightly acidic pH.

Despite this, some microorganisms reproduce easily in cerumen, but most are commensals, that is, they benefit without causing harm to the host.

Should I clean earwax?

Ear wax cleaning is a process that must occur naturally and only the outermost part of the earwax can be cleaned when in excess. It is not recommended the use cotton swabs or clean the outer ear.

One way to help and increase the natural cleaning of the ear is through jaw movement, which can be done with chewing, for example. 

If there is excess wax an otolaryngologist should be consulted.

What happens if I burn earwax?

Earwax is perhaps the most flammable by-product of our physiology produced by our bodies, second only to body fat. All of its components are somehow flammable, but that doesn’t mean it burns well.

Because cerumen is a mixture of different combustible substances (alcohols, lipids, keratin, etc.), each substance has a different temperature and burning characteristic. 

This attributes some characteristics to its flammability.

If you make an ear wax candle, in addition to needing a lot of material and a lot of time (or people) to collect it (unless you’re an ogre that lives in a swamp), you won’t create a good candle.

The candle will burn unevenly, with variations in intensity and color of the flame, burning temperature, smell, and other volatile products.

The flame would probably extinguish several times, hardly keeping constant. Almost all of its burning will actually be through popping rather than the gradual melting and turning into steam, as in commercial candles.

Is burning ear wax dangerous?

Burning earwax will basically produce water vapor, carbon dioxide, and aromatic substances. 

Just like any other burning, it would generate toxic vapors and fumes due to the incomplete combustion of the wax compounds. 

Every time you see smoke from a burning you’re experiencing toxic compounds being unleashed.

There may still be residues from the incomplete combustion of carbon, such as tar, creosote, etc. All in small amounts and without major health risks, unless you had crafted a really big candle.

Perhaps the biggest risk of burning earwax is due to its melting during the temperature rise. Wax when hot, becomes liquid before burning (like candle paraffin). 

This hot liquid in contact with the skin is capable of generating burns. If it drips into a better source of fuel, could be hazardous.

Another risk to be taken into account is that earwax is not a homogenized substance. While burning, small pieces of flaming material can jump out and cause other fires, similar to what happens in fireplaces.

General characteristics of ear wax

Earwax is made up of about 60% keratin, 12% to 20% saturated and unsaturated long-chain fatty acids, alcohols, and 6% to 9% cholesterol. 

Its lipid part can be about 50% of its constitution in the case of wet wax and about 20% in the case of dry wax.

When analyzing wet ear wax, studies found the following lipid components, counting about 52% of its weight:

  • Squalene (6.4%), 
  • cholesterol esters (9.6%), 
  • wax esters (9.3%), 
  • triacylglycerols (3.0%), 
  • fatty acids (22.7%), 
  • cholesterol (20.9 %), 
  • ceramides (18.6%), 
  • cholesterol sulfate (2.0%) 
  • and unidentified polar components (7.5%).

It is composed of simple aromatic hydrocarbons and C5-C25 linear chain hydrocarbons (from five to twenty-five carbons).

It is a hydrophobic, flammable substance and its density is close to that of water but very variable depending on the individual and their type of wax.

Conclusion

Ear wax is flammable, but only possibly. You would need to harvest a lot for it to become a fire hazard of any kind, or for simply lighting it up once.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQS): Is earwax flammable?

is earwax good?

Earwax is a type of secretion that serves purposes in our bodies.

It protects and hydrates the skin of the ear canal, preventing it from getting dried and having itchy ears. Also, it contains useful compounds that can fight off infections that could hurt the skin inside the ear canal. 

It also acts as a shield between the outside world and the eardrum.

is earwax a type of sweat?

It’s not sweat, but both sweat and earwax are secretions. Also, they’re expelled using similar glands, called Ceruminous glands.

Ear wax is a combination of dead skin cells, sebum (which is similar to the one on the scalp), and various waxes the ceruminous glands produce. The apocrine glands produce sweat that contains fats and proteins.

is earwax dirty?

Practically, yes, but probably not for the same reason you’re wondering. It’s something that shouldn’t be cleaned out.

Earwax is not simply dirty, it is a form of cerumen that occurs naturally in our ears. It’s produced by our bodies to help prevent dirt, bacteria, debris, and even insects into our ear canal.

Earwax is produced by mixing the secretions of two glands with dead epithelial cells (hair and skin basically), which are the sources of keratin. I do believe that it’s dirty if you ask me, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not useful and that you should “clean” it.

Ear wax cleaning is a process that must occur naturally and only the outermost part of the earwax can be cleaned when in excess. It is not recommended the use cotton swabs or clean the outer ear.

Citations

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earwax
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keratinocyte
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-dangers-of-excessive-earwax/
https://www.britannica.com/science/earwax
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2254469/
https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11698786/

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