Digging For Gold: Study Says Your Race Determines Your Earwax Scent
Didn't your doctor tell you never to stick Q-tips in your ear? Who follows that rule, anyway?
I'm not sure what type of situation would lead you to compare your
earwax with anybody else's earwax. (Because, gross.) But researchers at
the Monell Chemical Senses Center have . The volatile organic compounds
in earwax — call it cerumen, if you're in a scientific mood — can
contain key information about your body and your environment.
So Why Did The Researchers Start Digging?
head researcher, George Preti, has been looking into animal and human
body odors for more than 40 years. He tells me he's had a "long-standing
interest" in underarm odor. Preti came across an article from Japanese
researchers that examined the scents of East Asians and people of
European backgrounds, and he says it linked earwax to underarm odor.
was curious about what odors are being produced in the ear and how
similar or different they are to underarm odor. We already had a pretty
good inkling that underarm odor is different in most East Asians than
[people of] European or African descent," Preti says.
says that regardless of race, we all produce the same odors — just in
different amounts. For instance: White men have more volatile organic
compounds in their earwax than Asian men.
compared samples from East Asian and Caucasian men. (They're planning on
sampling women — whose scents change during menstrual cycles — in the
future, and don't think the results will change.)
East Asian, for example, the scents of your earwax and underarms are
most likely different from those of non-Asians. The earwax from the
study's East Asian donors was "consistently drier and colorless." The
samples of the white donors were "yellow and sticky in nature."
mentioned in the study: "Africans" have "wet, yellowish-brown wax," and
Native Americans — similar to East Asian folks — typically have "dry,
"The difference between [the earwax] is caused by a
single gene in the genome. And a change in that single gene gives you
different earwax and different underarm odor," Preti explains.
What Does It All Mean?
In , a set of
different researchers ran a chemical analysis on the earwax plug of a
blue whale that had been struck by a boat. Since whales don't have hands
or Q-tips to clean their ears out with, Preti says, the wax
"[The wax] gave a life history of the whale, much like tree rings
tell you things about the life of a tree — when it grew or didn't grow,"
Preti explains. The scientists were able to figure out the whale's life
history — where it had been, what was in the water with it, when it
went through hormonal changes during puberty, when it was sexually
mature — through the different molecules that got stuck in the earwax.
So what, besides one's ethnicity, can earwax tell us about people? Preti says this is their next big question.
can be a pretty valuable source of information, according to these
researchers. Molecules get trapped in the sticky, waxy goo, holding
clues about a person's life. But since people tend to clean their ears
(because, again, gross), it's not clear how long information can be
retained in the wax — a couple of hours, a couple of months.
like to think it's going to be an exciting, novel area for
environmental information as well as disease metabolites which may
accumulate in the earwax — we're going to see what we can find," Preti
One of the burning questions I had for Preti after
learning about the research was: Does earwax really have a scent that's
strong enough for me, a mere human, to notice sans equipment?
you take a Q-tip and roll it around in your ear and stick it around in
your nose," Preti tells me, "I think you'd be able to smell it. Give it a