Earwax, eczema, and oils

Tldr: Got eczema and need to treat earwax? Pharmaceutical grade pure white mineral oil bought on eBay worked for me.

I have had eczema of varying severity since 1990. Something about going to university seemed to bring it on. I have also had hearing problems since I was a child due to having very narrow ear canals and a great ability to produce earwax.

I have treated the earwax buildup from time to time with olive oil drops and occasionally I have had my ears syringed. My memory of having my ears syringed as a child is that it was a painful and prolonged process. The last time I had it done was in 2006 and to my surprise it was no longer a manual process. Instead, the water-flow was controlled by a machine. It took about three painless seconds and was such a relief.

As I have got older, my ears have reacted more and more badly to olive oil. The skin in my ears becomes hard and dry and flaky. The last time I tried it I developed a painful crack in my skin that took a long time to heal. This surprised me. I had assumed that olive oil would be good for my skin.

After that experience, I went online to find out whether there is a link between olive oil and eczema. I quickly found a very interesting article about massaging babies and what liquids could be used. That was informative and mentioned some research at the University of Manchester that compared the use of olive oil, sunflower oil and no oil, in the massage of newborn babies. The part of the abstract that interests me most is:

Topical oils on baby skin may contribute to development of childhood atopic eczema ... The study was not powered for clinical significance, but until further research is conducted, caution should be exercised when recommending oils for neonatal skin.

A bit of internet searching found several alternatives to olive oil mentioned for earwax softening. These included various other oils and also dilute hydrogen peroxide. I found a chart in a research paper about the composition of vegetable oils (see table 1 in that link) and saw that coconut oil had a very different composition from the other oils, being mostly saturated fats. I tried coconut oil and it was less harsh on my ears than olive oil but it still caused skin irritation.

The article on the Blossom and Berry site mentions mineral oil. In the UK, pharmaceutical and body-care products, such as Johnson's Baby Oil, list this as "paraffinum liquidum". It is a petrochemical product and Blossom and Berry do not recommend it for baby massage because

...it does not allow the skin to “breathe” and it has no nutritional value to the skin as it contains no vitamins. Again it has a strong artificial smell which can mask the natural smell of the parent/baby.

But mineral oil appealed to me for a related reason, i.e. it is a mixture of very simple chemicals (alkanes) that should not react with the chemicals that skin is composed of. This is very different from vegetable oils that are composed of fatty acids. Acids will react with the constituents of skin.

Buying pure mineral oil turned out to be harder than I expected. It is a component in things like Johnson's baby oil, which also contains perfume and a thickening agent. In the end I found what I wanted on eBay. Mineral oil is also sold as "chopping block oil" for conditioning wooden chopping boards. I found some that was listed as pharmaceutical grade (£4.50 for 250ml) and I have been using that in my ears for a couple of weeks now.

I alternate which ear I treat each day. If skin needs to breath and if mineral oil stops that then I think it's best to leave some time between treatments. The main thing I have noticed is what great condition the skin in my ears is in. The painful crack that I had in one ear never fully healed until I started using the mineral oil. Having a benign alternative to olive oil is such a relief.

Justin Hellings

I'm a geek in a world that insists on being irrational and a greenie in a society that insists on speeding towards its own destruction. There's some work to be done here. Nah, let's go snowboard. Woo!

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