Gross, but Cool: Your Race Determines What Your Earwax Smells Like

The nose knows: it has the power to detect one trillion scents that can transport you to passed memories, help you sniff out true love and, as recent research has discovered, discern differing racial backgrounds. 

It has to do with earwax, you see. 

Yup, a team of researchers at Monell Chemical Senses Center has discovered that while all people are created equal, our earwax is not. National Public Radio brings us the story that's as revolting as it is intriguing. "I 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," the lead researcher reported. 

(Someone's gotta be into it, right?)

So, should we compare our stench to that of our friends'? No. It’s not that one ethnicity smells better or worse than any other (contrary to what you may think). Apparently, we all produce the same odors, but we don’t produce them in uniform amounts. It's not only the smell of our earwax that differs, but the—blech— texture and stickiness varies too.

According to NPR:

“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." Also mentioned in the study: "Africans" have "wet, yellowish-brown wax," and Native Americans — similar to East Asian folks — typically have "dry, white wax."

The difference in smell comes supposedly comes from one itty bitty change in our genes and it’s the same change that causes our pits to smell differently too.

Ahhh, the smells of the human experience. Why research these stinky scents? 

Well, there once was a different team of experts who observed the massive earwax buildup of a blue whale who was accidentally hit by a boat. (We can only imagine the mountain of mucky wax in those ears). What the scientists found was that the preserved, un-Q-tipped ears told the story of the whale’s life just like the rings of a tree trunk. Where it lived, what had been in the water then, when it hit puberty and adulthood . . . all this from the sticky cave of the whale’s ear canal.

If researchers were able to find out all that about a whale, imagine what waxy untold histories could unfurl from human ears. 

Right now, smelly earwax experiments have only been conducted on male volunteers. The team of odor research specialists plan on extending their sample group to include us girls (our scents change while we're on our period), but they don't expect that the results will shift dramatically. 

The nose may know, but our ears hold secrets yet to be sniffed out. 


Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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