Earwax Type & the Genetics of Earwax
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Everyone has earwax. Technically, it's not really “wax.” Instead, it's a combination of dead skin cells, hair, oil, sweat, and other secretions. Which type of earwax you have—wet or dry—is entirely determined by your genes. An AncestryDNA® test can tell you which type your DNA indicates you’re most likely to have.
Dry Earwax and Wet Earwax
The two main types of earwax are dry and wet. Dry earwax is flaky and gray or tan. Wet earwax is sticky and yellow or brown. Dry earwax doesn't have cerumen, a waxy substance.
Your earwax type is linked to your origins. Dry earwax first appeared in Asia and is thus more common among Asian and Native American populations. Wet earwax is common among most other populations.
Scientists still aren't sure why Asian and Native American populations' earwax is different from the rest of the world's. One theory is drier earwax could've been an advantage to ancient populations in the frigid climates of northeast Eurasia.
The Inheritance of Earwax Types
Earwax genetics can explain why you have a certain earwax type. One significant marker in the ABCC11 gene seems to determine whether you have wet or dry earwax.
There are two versions of the gene: one codes for wet earwax, and the other codes for dry.
That means if you get a “wet” version from either your mom or dad, you'll probably have wet earwax.
If you have dry earwax, it's because both of your parents passed a "dry" version of the gene on to you. Wet earwax is a dominant trait, and dry is recessive.
Scientists think the dry earwax type became common in ancient northeast Eurasia and spread to East Asia and the Americas.
The Biology of Earwax Type
The main purpose of earwax is to protect your ears, blocking things like dirt from getting inside of them. It can fight infections because it has antibacterial and antifungal properties. And earwax also lubricates your ears to keep them from feeling itchy and dry.
Scientists don't know exactly why there are two earwax types. It's possible that having fewer body secretions, like wet earwax, that could freeze made it easier for people to survive in cold climates. So dry earwax became more common in areas with colder climates.
Most likely dry earwax appeared because of a mutation and spread as ancient populations migrated to other parts of the world.
Interesting Facts About Earwax
ABCC11, the same gene that controls earwax type, also plays a role in underarm odor. People who have one particular variant in this gene are likely to have dry, relatively low odor armpits.
And speaking of odor, there’s a rare genetic disorder that can be diagnosed by the smell of earwax: maple syrup urine disease. It’s characterized by earwax with a maple syrup-like scent.
Your outer ear canal is constantly making new earwax. Those of you with wet earwax may be tempted to clean your ears with cotton swabs, but don't do it. You may push the earwax back and block the ear canal. The good news is your ears are generally self-cleaning.
Does your DNA predict that you most likely have wet or dry earwax? Find out with AncestryDNA.
What does your earwax smell like? Smithsonian Magazine. March 20, 2014.
What your earwax says about your ancestry. Science News. February 24, 2014.
Yoshiura K-I, Kinoshita A, Ishida T, et al. A SNP in the ABCC11 gene is the determinant of human earwax type. Nature Genetics. 2006;38(3):324–330. doi:10.1038/ng1733.
You’ve got what in your ears? Science Magazine. January 30, 2006.