Earwax is essential to keeping your ears clean and healthy, but it can also interfere with healthy hearing. When it builds up, it can cause hearing loss, physical discomfort, tinnitus, ear infections and other problems. Even though you can’t always control how much earwax you produce (a large part of it is genetic), you can take charge of other daily habits that are contributing to the problem. Here are three habits that encourage excess earwax.

1. Heavy use of headphones and earbuds

Earwax production is often triggered by what hearing health care professionals call a contact stimulus. Objects like headphones, earbuds and even hearing aids that contact and rub the ears are the biggest culprits. By producing more earwax, your ears are trying to protect themselves from irritation or infection. If you notice you’re producing extra earwax, try to limit the use of contact listening devices, but if you can’t (in the case of hearing aids), at least make sure you keep them clean and bacteria-free.

2. Incorrect cleaning methods or excess cleaning

You may think you’re helping remove earwax by inserting cotton swabs and other objects into your ears. These can irritate and scratch the sensitive skin on the inside of your ears, triggering even more wax production. You’re also pushing wax and other dirt further into your ear canal and risking damage to your eardrum.

In addition to method, the frequency of cleaning can also cause excess earwax buildup. Even safe cleaners like hydrogen peroxide or over-the-counter drops can remove too much earwax and leave dry, irritated skin. The body reacts by creating even more to protect and coat the ear canal, and you’re back to square one. Limit these cleaning methods to once or twice a month if you notice this effect.

3. Exposure to environmental debris and irritants

At certain times of year, the pollen count increases, affecting not only the sinuses, but also the ears. Maybe you live near a factory that puts out environmental pollution or spend a lot of time in a dusty workplace. All these tiny particles can irritate your ears and stimulate extra earwax production. If you can’t control your environment, protect yourself from it. Wear hats and ear protection when pollen counts and environmental pollutants are high and spend less time outside.

You can’t always control how much earwax you have, but paying attention to these and other lifestyle habits that trigger excess production can help keep your ears buildup-free, hearing well, and free of infection.