Ear wax is one of those body fluids that evokes a polarizing reaction in most people–one of fascination or utter disgust. Hidden inside our body’s sole cul de sac, it is rarely discussed in polite society. We take it for granted, except when we are being naughty and dig in our ears with cotton swabs even though we know we’re not supposed to. When wax builds up and blocks our hearing, we resent it. Although we judge ear wax harshly, we are lucky to have it. Along with its role in protecting our ears, wax has had a surprising variety of other uses over the years. And just like its smell, these uses may fascinate or disgust.
Ear wax wasn’t always a dirty little secret.
In the 1800s, before the invention of Chapstick (and perhaps a precursor to it), people used it as lip balm. Lydia Maria Child memorialized this use in her book from 1828, The American Frugal Housewife, a must-read at the time for every homemaker.
In a later edition, she suggested using ear wax as a salve for puncture wounds. It probably wasn’t much use against tetanus, but, back then, they couldn’t just reach for Neosporin. Before sewing machines, seamstresses smeared a dab of ear wax on the end of their thread to keep it from fraying; something to consider the next time you snuggle underneath your grandmother’s heirloom quilt.
More recently, there has been research on the medical uses of ear wax. Some have called it a “neglected biological matrix” because it is easily sampled and readily available but rarely used. Ear wax provides information about ethnicity, gender, diet, and exposure to pollutants. One group of researchers diagnosed diabetes mellitus through ear wax. The same group has studied the use of ear wax in diagnosing drug abuse, intoxication, and even cancer.