Unlike all of our other senses, we have no direct line of sight into our ears. What goes on in there tends to stay “out of sight and out of mind.” Except, of course, when we have pain or hearing loss. And then there’s earwax.
Most of us spend as much time contemplating our earwax as we do thinking about our navel lint. New studies, however, have elevated human earwax to a greater importance.
Earwax, technically known as cerumen, is a mix of secretions from modified sweat glands and fatty materials secreted from specialized sebaceous glands. We humans create one of two types: the moist yellow-brown wax or the dry white wax.
Recently, scientists at the Monell Center, a research facility in Philadelphia dedicated to issues involving smell and taste, have used analytical organic chemistry to reveal some surprising new facts about our humble earwax.
“Our research has shown that underarm odors contain a great deal of information about an individual, including personal identity, gender, sexual orientation, and health status,” said George Preti, PhD, an organic chemist at Monell. “We think it’s possible that earwax likely contains similar information.”
Previous research showed that subtle gene differences exist between Caucasian and Asian earwax samples, acting as markers within the groups. “Iwe could obtain information about a subject’s ethnic background simply by looking in his ears,” said study lead author Katharine Prokop-Prigge, a Monell researcher. Prokop-Prigge explained that at least two metabolic diseases (maple syrup urine disease and alkaptonuria) can be identified in earwax before they could be diagnosed using traditional techniques like blood and urine analysis.
Odors in earwax may be able to tell us what a person has ingested and what environmental agents they’ve been exposed to,” said Preti. “Earwax is a body secretion whose usefulness as an information source remains under-utilized.”