Six things you’d never dream about ear wax
You might find it gross, but turns out that ear wax – the sticky yellow ooze that protects our ear canal – can tell us a lot about ourselves.
It seems that icky mix of sweat, dead skin cells, dust, dirt and hair holds untold secrets on everything from our stress levels to our ethnicity, and even our smell.
We were all ears when we chatted with Earworx founder Lisa Hellwege on all things waxy:
1. Ear wax is an odour meter
Ear wax, or cerumen to give it its medical name, comes in two types – wet and dry.
Sorry to say, but if you’re one of those people with the wet type – usually sticky and yellow or brownish – you’re more likely to be sweaty, smelly and in need of a daily shower.
That’s because the same gene controls both the type of ear wax we produce and our underarm odour, says Lisa. Strange but true!
2. Ear wax reflects your ethnicity
Lisa says there’s also a lot to be told about people’s heritage by the sort of ear wax they make.
“Most people of Caucasian or African descent have the wet type while East Asians usually have light and flaky dry wax,” she reveals.
3. Your ear wax can change colour
It turns out your ear wax hue can say a lot about your health.
Lisa says wet ear wax is usually anywhere from a light honey colour to dark brown and even black, while dry wax is lighter in colour.
“Older wax is darker and firmer and while it might look a bit scary, it is nothing to be alarmed about, it’s usually just been in your ear for a long time and might contain some dirt or bacteria,” she says.
But, she warns, dark brown wax tinged with red can signify a bleeding injury such as a scratch in the ear canal.
And if your ear wax turns green and develops a bad smell or a runny, cloudy consistency you’re probably fighting an infection and should see your GP.
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4. Ear wax senses stress
We love this one! If you’re feeling a little waxier than usual, it could be a sign of stress.
“Stress and fear can accelerate wax production because the apocrine glands that produce sweat also make ear wax,” Lisa says.
“However some people just produce more wax than others, as do people with a lot of hair in their ear canals or those who wear hearing aids, as well as surfers and divers.
“If you feel like stress is causing your ear wax, try some ear softening drops or have it removed (by a health professional).”
5. Ear wax an insect repellent
“Ear wax is bitter to the taste and yes, we’re not quite sure how people worked that out and I don’t want to go there,” laughs Lisa.
“But that bitter taste is a deterrent to insects.”
That’s as well as the wax forming a physical barrier to prevent bugs crawling or buzzing into our ear canals.
If a creepy crawly does defy the odds and get into your ear, Lisa advises pouring olive oil in to drown it. If necessary, see a professional to have it removed.
6. Ear wax fights infection
There’s no doubt about it, ear wax is clever.
It not only lubricates the ear canal but its stickiness also collects microscopic debris that would otherwise their way into our ear canal and ear drum, placing them at risk.
“Ear wax is acidic and also contains lysosomes, which are enzymes that break down bacterial cell walls, preventing infections,” Lisa says.
The wax is also known to give the heads-up to two odour-causing diseases before they can be detected in blood or urine – maple syrup urine disease and alkaptonuria, or black urine disease.
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Bonus fun fact about ear wax (and whales)
Whales never clean out their ears, so a giant wax plug pulled from a blue whale recently revealed all sorts of information about the animal’s exposure to pollutants and stress levels throughout its life.
Researchers were able to work out the animals’ responses to human activities by measuring the levels of cortisol in the wax, finding that everything from whaling (not surprisingly), to war, to climate change had caused great stress to the mammal.
Scientists now plan to analyse more than 1000 whale specimens in museums worldwide, which is a whole lot of ear wax indeed!
Written by Liz McGrath.