Kat Chow, NPR, March 20, 2014
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 found that the smell of ear gold varies by race. 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.
The 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.
Preti 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.
The researchers 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.)
If you’re 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.”
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 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.
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?
“If 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 try.”