The color of cerumen

This post is about earwax. If you have no interest in earwax, or find the idea of a post about earwax repellant, you may wish to stop reading now.

I happen to enjoy learning new things, and what I learned about earwax today was certainly new. To begin with, the medical term for earwax is cerumen. It is a mix that includes shed layers of skin, keratin (the same stuff our hair and nails are made of), fatty acids, alcohols, an organic compound I never heard of before called squalene, and cholesterol. And whatever dirt happens to get in the ear and get trapped by the earwax (that is one of its protective functions).

What got me interested in earwax today was its color. I had used a Q-tip, as usual, to dry my ears after taking a shower. I know, you’re not supposed to put Q-tips in your ears, but I can’t stand the feeling of water in my ears. The Q-tip does a great job of drying them, and if it happens to remove some bits of earwax that’s just fine with me. But what looked so strange this morning was the dark gray on the Q-tip, along with the usual yellowish and brownish residue.

What in the world was in my right ear that produced that gray stuff? I tried another Q-tip – more gray, though by the time I had used the other end of it, either the gray was gone or my ear was too dry for anything to stick to the Q-tip. I figured it was probably nothing, but I was curious enough to do a search on the internet.

I found nothing much about finding gray on your Q-tip when you clean your ears, but I did find out more about earwax. Such as the fact that some people have “wet” earwax and some have “dry” earwax. The dry earwax is often a darker color, and some people do have a mix of the two, but I’m pretty sure I don’t, since I never saw anything like that before today.

However, it also turns out that, unlike many physical traits, the type of earwax can be easily traced to a single gene, which has a dominant and recessive form. The dominant form produces wet earwax, the recessive produces dry earwax. You can learn all about the genetics of it here.

So I still don’t know why my Q-tip is gray. But I know a bit more about cerumen now. And so do you.

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