According to chemist Katherine Prokop-Prigge at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, “We could obtain information about a person’s ethnicity simply by looking in his ears.” It turns out that a single gene controls both a person’s underarm odor and the type of earwax (cerumen) their body produces. Other research has shown that you can tell a person’s gender, health status, and more from their underarm odor. According to George Preti, another Monell chemist, “We think it possible that earwax may contain similar information.”
How Genetics Controls Your Earwax
- The same gene controls the type of earwax you have and how smelly your underarms are
- People with wet, sticky earwax have smelly underarm odor
- People with dry earwax have less smelly underarm odor
- Most East Asians, Koreans and Native Americans have dry earwax
- 97% to 100% of people with European and African ancestry have the smelly-armpit version of the gene
- If you have an A instead of a G in the ABCC11 gene, your earwax will be dry and less smelly. If you inherit an A from both parents, you will have dry, less smelly earwax. If you inherit a G from both parents or one A and one G, you will have wet, more smelly earwax
It’s All in Your Genes
People who have smelly underarm odor also have smelly and sticky earwax. These different earwax odors and textures came about because of a tiny change, just one little letter, in the genetic alphabet that long ago granted an East Asian population a reprieve from both smelly underarms and sticky earwax. According to a study published in 2011, this mutation appeared about 2,000 generations ago, and became more common across Asia over time. Today, 80% to 95% of East Asians, including people from northern China, and nearly all Koreans lack a chemical in their armpits that bacteria live on and make body odor because they carry this variant of the ABCC11 gene. If you have an A instead of a G in this gene, your earwax will be dry and less smelly. If you inherit the version of the gene that has an A from both parents, you will have dry, less smelly earwax. If you inherit the version that has a G from both parents or one A and one G, you will have wet, more smelly earwax.
Because Native Americans came to the North American continent from Siberia via the Bering Strait about 15,000 years ago, they also carry the same variant of the ABCC11 gene, and therefore also have dry, non-smelly earwax.
In contrast, about 97% to 100% of people with European and African ancestry have the smelly-armpit version of the gene, and therefore stickier and smellier earwax. Thirty to fifty percent of South Asians, Central Asians, and Pacific Islanders have the dry type of earwax.
What Caused the Genetic Change?
The simple answer is we don’t know. Some researchers think that the gene variation that favors dry earwax may have been favored by natural selection, since it is associated with less sweating. East Asian populations in which this genetic variation occurred lived in colder climates, where less sweating may be an advantage. However, other scientists point out that new versions of a gene can become universal in a population through a random process called “genetic drift.” The genetic change that favors dry earwax could have become common in the East Asian population by genetic drift alone and then spread to other regions of the world through migration.
YW Doctors Laboratories was founded by board-certified Ear, Nose, and Throat specialists—Dr. Nina Yoshpe and Dr. Ayal Willner. The company is a developer and manufacturer of specialized products formulated to provide exceptionally safe and effective remedies for common health problems. Comfort Ear™ Natural Moisturizer is a gentle yet effective all-natural product formulated to soothe ear irritation from a variety of causes. For more information, please visit our website at www.comfortear.com and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.