Hair is almost everywhere on our bodies. The only places we don’t have hair follicles are the lips, palms, and soles of the feet. Most of the hair on our bodies is there for a very specific reason — head hair for protection from the sun, arm and leg hair for heat regulation, and yes, pubic hair for protection from germs. But ear hairs can seem like a bit of a joke of nature, especially when coarse, long hair suddenly starts growing in your ears, seemingly out of nowhere. So why do people grow ear hair, and why does it sometimes pop up suddenly as we age? What are the best ways to approach ear hair removal? Here, Dr. Ron Chao, M.D., a hair transplant surgeon, explains.
Ear Hair vs. Body Hair
Not all hair is created equal, and there’s variability in what types of hair grow on your head, compared to, say, on your chest, legs, and in your ears.
First, there’s what we call “peach fuzz” — known to science as vellus hair — which is really fine, super short hair that grows all over your body and face to help your skin regulate temperature. You’ll find this fuzz on the outside of your ear and earlobe too.
Then, there are head hairs that grow the longest and in groupings called “follicular units” — groups of usually one to three hairs, and occasionally four to six hairs, according to Dr. Ron Chao. Head hair can usually grow much longer and healthier than body hair, and it keeps your head safe from the sunshine.
Lastly, there’s the rest of your body hair, also known as tragi hair, which mostly serves the purpose of protecting the body. “Most other hairs not on the head grow out as single hairs and are shorter,” says Chao. They grow to slightly different lengths and thicknesses depending on where they are on your person, with hormones signaling how to grow and when to stop growing.
Ear hairs inside the auditory canal tend to be short and coarse because they’re designed to work with earwax to prevent germs, dirt, debris, and other foreign substances from entering the hearing system. Pubic hairs serve the same purpose for the genitals and nose hairs for the nostrils.
Some people grow more, longer, and thicker ear hair as they age, Chao says — particularly men. Although the scientific community is still uncertain on the exact reason for this, some researchers chalk it up to men’s higher testosterone levels. Because hormones regulate hair growth, and hormones change as you age, testosterone changes as men get older may signal different growth patterns to their ear hair.
“This may be why many young people don’t have visible ear hair growth, but ear hairs may start to grow and get thicker and become visible out of their ears as they age,” says Chao.
As testosterone is used in the body, it creates a byproduct called dihydrotestosterone, or DHT for short. As a consequence of DHT production, people who are genetically susceptible may be subject to both balding and body hair growth. “Some doctors believe this same DHT that causes hair to become thinner or bald on the head also causes the overgrowth and thickening of nose and ear hairs as people age,” says Chao. This effect is called the “androgen paradox.”
Because DHT blockers such as finasteride, commercially known as Propecia, are often used to treat balding, they could hinder the overgrowth of ear and nose hairs too, Chao notes, although there’s no research on this yet.
How To Approach Ear Hair Removal
Ear hair is mostly innocuous to your health, but there is a small risk that it may increase the risk of ear infections. An overabundance of ear hair can block the ear canal and act as a nest for all the nasty stuff those hairs are meant to keep out. They could also trap water in the ear canal if you’re doing a lot of swimming, causing a condition called “swimmer’s ear.”
Some researchers have suggested a link between ear hair and coronary heart disease, but findings are still inconclusive, and some experts argue that aging alone increases ear hair growth as well as the risk for coronary artery disease anyway. It never hurts to get a heart screening, says Chao, but increased ear hairs tend to be a normal process of aging.
Ultimately, excess ear hair is more a concern for aesthetics than health, as hair in the ears is meant to be protective and rarely causes any harm.
“Most of the time, excess ear hairs are part of the normal process of aging and harmless, but many people will find the overgrowth of visible ear hairs unsightly,” says Chao. “Several methods of treatment are available from trimming to plucking, waxing, and laser hair removal.”
Trimming is the easiest and most painless option, and it simply entails making sure your electric razor comes with an attachment designed for your ears. This method does, however, mean the hair will come back quite soon because it’s just been cut, not eradicated.
Plucking is a little more painful and time-consuming because it requires precisely picking the ear hairs one by one with a pair of tweezers, but it will ensure your canal stays hairless for a little longer. If somebody can help you out on this one, it might be worth it as plucking “can risk infection, ingrown hairs, damage to the ear,” says Chao.
If you’re up for getting professional help, you can head to a salon and get your ears waxed. This can be painful, but waxing only lasts a couple of seconds and actually gets rid of all of your ear hairs. It does come with the same risks as plucking though.
If you want to get rid of ear hairs for good, laser hair removal is an option. This is more expensive, however, and requires a consultation with a professional and multiple sessions for a definitive result. “Since hairs are in various cycles of growth,” Chao says, “it may take several treatments to get all of the hairs.”