Earwax: Live With It

Despite tons of people using cotton swabs each day to clean the earwax from their ears, cerumen (as earwax is clinically known) is actually quite beneficial to the health of your ears - and even kind of ingenious as your body's defense goes.

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Josh: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. There is Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant, there is Jeri. Yeah, it's Stuff You Should Know.

Chuck: [LAUGHS] He just shrugged.

Josh: Yeah, like "eh, what are we going to do? That's what we are."

Chuck: Yeah. Episode number-

Josh: Seven something.

Chuck: Yeah. I have no idea.

Josh: I don't either.

Chuck: It's in the seven hundreds, though, folks; if you think there is only 300 because you're on iTunes, you're in for-to be doubly surprised.

Josh: Yeah. Well, somebody tweeted recently, I just found the HowStuffWorks app and there is way more Stuff You Should Knows than there is on iTunes.

Chuck: I hate you guys now. [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Right. You're like, "Wait, I was cool with 301 but that's it."

Chuck: I had someone ask the other day if we feel like we're running out of things-topics.

Josh: Clearly we are, because we're recording on earwax today. [LAUGHTER]

Chuck: Yeah, exactly.

Josh: What did you tell them?

Chuck: Look for boogers in the near future.

Josh: Mm-hmm.

Chuck: No, I said, "No, that sometimes it feels a little like, oh my gosh, what are going to do," but there is gazillions of topics in the world.

Josh: At least. And gazillions in scientific.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: What is that, how many zeroes?

Chuck: Is that a real number?

Josh: I don't know.

Chuck: I don't think it is.

Josh: Let's say 90 zeroes.

Chuck: It's a real number if you're eight years old.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: But watch, it probably is a real number.

Josh: Yeah. I think a jillion is a real number.

Chuck: A bazillion? [LAUGHS]

Josh: A jillion definitely is. I would guess gazillion is by now.

Chuck: I might actually look that up.

Josh: I mean there is just like a handful of mathematicians who are in charge of naming that kind of stuff. So Chuckers.

Chuck: Yes.

Josh: While you're looking that up, do you have earwax?

Chuck: Um.

Josh: Do you have problem earwax?

Chuck: No.

Josh: I don't either.

Chuck: No, I wouldn't say so. It is a little distressing, though, even though we will find out it is awesome and exactly how it's supposed to work when it just sort of falls out of your ear onto your shoulder; that's ideal actually.

Josh: Yeah, because earwax and your physiology in general doesn't care about what social group you're a part of.

Chuck: Nope.

Josh: It's just like, "Here is some earwax on your shoulder, deal with it."

Chuck: Although, and I didn't look up why this is true, apparently in northeastern Asian countries like Korea and China, their earwax is a little different. They're more likely to have the dry earwax, which can be hard and red to black in color, which sounds gross, and flaky or pale yellow. Whereas over here we have that nasty, gooey, orangey mess.

Josh: Wet earwax is what it's called.

Chuck: Yes.

Josh: And the reason why actually is because of the ABC11 gene.

Chuck: Oh, is that why?

Josh: Yeah, they isolated the gene that-

Chuck: I knew there was a reason.

Josh: -causes the type of earwax that you get, and it turns out that, say the W mutation, or the D mutation, dry earwax, is recessive. So the only way to get dry earwax is if both of your parents have dry earwax, both carry the D gene, or D mutation of the ABC11 gene.

Chuck: Well, I have both.

Josh: Most people are WDs.

Chuck: Oh, okay.

Josh: Yeah. So you have to get two D alleles, two dry earwax alleles to have dry earwax yourself. If you have a W and a D, or two W's, you're going to have wet. And for some reason-

Chuck: But I have both, can't-

Josh: One ear is dry and the other is wet?

Chuck: [LAUGHS] No. If I get the old cotton swab out, which-

Josh: All right, now you're introducing something way beyond genetics. That's not even epigenetics, that's human intervention.

Chuck: The point is, if I get the cotton swab out, that's when I'll get out the orangey wax, wet stuff, but I'll also have the dry, flakey stuff that falls out sometimes.

Josh: Probably, I would guess, and I'm no cerumen expert, I'm no cerumenist.

Chuck: Now what's the word? I actually looked it up for someone who studies this.

Josh: Oh, really? It has to have to do with cerumen.

Chuck: Mm, I can't find it, no.

Josh: So cerumenist isn't ringing a bell?

Chuck: No, it's not.

Josh: It's wrong. [LAUGHTER]

Chuck: I can't find what it is, sorry.

Josh: Okay, well, the person who-I'm not a person who studies earwax, but what I would guess is that when you're digging in there, you're getting to the fresher earwax.

Chuck: That's what I think.

Josh: And then as it works itself further and further out your ear, which is the natural process, it's exposed to drier air, that ambient air, and it dries out and flakes off, which is what it's supposed to do.

Chuck: Yeah, I think that's probably right.

Josh: So I don't think you have both. I think if you had both, the stuff inside your ear-

Chuck: Would be dry and flakey.

Josh: -would be dry as well, yeah.

Chuck: Okay. All right, well, that makes sense. So what earwax is or cerumen, C-E-R-U-M-E-N is the scientific name, but I'm sure they call it wax.

Josh: It's the third chubby angel.

Chuck: [LAUGHS] No, that's cherubim.

Josh: Oh yeah.

Chuck: Okay. It is made up of secretions of a couple of little, specialized glands in the skin on the outer third of the ear canal.

Josh: Yes.

Chuck: So you have your sebaceous glands, and they're going to secrete-and these names all sound so gross.

Josh: Do they really? But they're perfect for describing what they are.

Chuck: Oh yeah. They secrete sebum, S-E-B-U-M, and then you have an apocrine sweat gland that's modified that produced that-

Josh: It's got a hemi.

Chuck: Yeah, [LAUGHS] it combines with the sebum and that's where you get your cerumen.

Josh: And so sebum, in and of itself, is fairly normal. If you take your fingertip and rub it alongside where your nose folds into your face.

Chuck: Yeah, I get a little dry skin there.

Josh: Well, if your stuff is at all oily, that oil is sebum.

Chuck: Oh, okay.

Josh: So apparently it mixes in, in your ear, with that kind of apocrine gland, like you said, to form cerumen, which is its own thing; it's not just cebum.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: But all of it is basically fatty, oily, lipidy compound that's secreted by these glands in the skin cells, these specialized glands.

Chuck: Yeah, about 60% keratin, which is a protein, and then, like you said, the fatty acids, you've got dead skin cells, you've got hair follicles.

Josh: Dead bugs, little bugs.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Lots of stuff that comes out in this. And like you said-

Chuck: Dust.

Josh: Probably dust mites then, too.

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: And like you said, it's produced in the inner third of the outer ear.

Chuck: Outer one-third of the ear canal.

Josh: Okay. And when it's produced in there, it migrates outward thanks to the motion of-

Chuck: The ocean? [LAUGHS]

Josh: Right. And you talking and chewing.

Chuck: Oh, is that what it is?

Josh: Yeah, I couldn't figure out how does your earwax move, but it's just from jaw movement, normal jaw movement moves the old-or the newer stuff outward. And as it's coming out, all the gunk and stuff that it's protected your ear from are moved out with it. So the stuff that flakes off and falls on your shoulder that everybody points and laughs at, at the party, that is filled with all the stuff that your earwax caught along the way. It's a beautiful, elegant process.

Chuck: It is.

Josh: It's probably the most beautiful aspect of the entire human experience.

Chuck: Well, I think you're making a joke, but I really do think that it's the little things like that about-I'm amazed about the function of the brain and of course the organs and all that, but just something as simple as that mechanical talking and chewing will work earwax out of your ear; it's just so basic and I think it's awesome. I think it's really cool actually.

Josh: I know what you mean, I agree with you.

Chuck: So some people produce a lot of this, I was going to say gross stuff, but-

Josh: Have you seen Paddington?

Chuck: The movie?

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: No, I heard it was really good.

Josh: It's very good. Super, super cute, really well done.

Chuck: Why did you see that?

Josh: Just because it's a cute movie.

Chuck: Really?

Josh: Yeah. I saw it in theaters and everything.

Chuck: All right. Please tell me you took Umi. [LAUGHS]

Josh: Yeah, it was me and Umi. And as a matter of fact, it was just me and Umi in the whole theater.

Chuck: But if it's just you and no kids, then it's like somebody might want to call the security.

Josh: And they did.

Chuck: I'm just a Paddington fan.

Josh: But I am now.

Chuck: Yeah?

Josh: So anyway, there is a part, or there is a part featuring earwax in Paddington.

Chuck: Oh, really?

Josh: And it does not celebrate the beauty of earwax; it's the exact opposite, and actually Umi was like, "Bleh."

Chuck: Oh, really?

Josh: It got her. It was really gross but awesome.

Chuck: Is that a spoiler?

Josh: So anyway, go see Paddington.

Chuck: [LAUGHS] Is that a spoiler?

Josh: No.

Chuck: No, okay.

Josh: I don't think so. Maybe for a five-year-old.

Chuck: Right. So like I said, some people produce a lot of the stuff, some people don't produce as much, and they don't really know why. But they do know that sometimes stress and anxiety can increase production of earwax, which I think is interesting.

Josh: It makes sense. Hormones?

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: Hormones affected, your glands go off. It also said that some drugs can increase your earwax production, and I looked all over and couldn't find the drugs, but if stress and anxiety does-

Chuck: Ayahuasca.

Josh: -I imagine-yeah. Or cocaine would probably make you produce more earwax or something.

Chuck: Oh yeah, when you put that stuff in your ear?

Josh: Yeah. Or something that makes you chew your jaw a lot.

Chuck: Oh sure.

Josh: That could probably get more earwax out.

Chuck: Yeah, interesting, I never thought about that.

Josh: I couldn't find anything else.

Chuck: As gross as you might think earwax is, though, it actually is a great thing for your body, and there is a very good reason why you have it, because there are four main functions that your earwax is going to serve, my friend.

Josh: Okay.

Chuck: One of them is it creates an acidic environment-

Josh: That's great.

Chuck: -that kills-helps kill bacteria and fungi.

Josh: Oh, even better.

Chuck: [LAUGHS] Number two, it is-well, that's a big deal too, because your ear, your inner ear like that is really a place where fungus and bacteria would thrive because it's moist and dark, and you know what we always say about moist, dark places.

Josh: Fungi thrives.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: The thing is, is it doesn't seem like that'd be a big problem to have fungi in your ear, but it would because it would affect things like your balance, nausea, earaches; it just wouldn't be good. So the fact that earwax produces an acidic environment alone makes earwax a beautiful thing and to be celebrated.

Chuck: And so we could just stop there.

Josh: We could, but you can go on. Like you said, there is four, and that was just one quarter of these benefits that earwax bestows.

Chuck: Secondly, it is a lube. It lubricates your ear canal, basically to keep it from drying out, and you don't want the inner ear becoming all itchy and dry and craggity.

Josh: No. And you want to hear something weird that I've-a new personal hygiene thing I have do as of yesterday? Starting yesterday, something I'll probably have to do my whole life-

Chuck: Hair?

Josh: -I have to moisturize my ears now.

Chuck: I thought you were going to say hair inside the ear, I was like-

Josh: I have been doing that for a while. It's getting-I've got a little fro inside there.

Chuck: [LAUGHS] An ear fro?

Josh: Yeah. But no, taking moisturizer and rubbing it on my ears because I got a haircut yesterday, and my ears were exposed, and all of sudden I'm like, "Wait, why is there a streak of white on my ear and they're bright red?" And I realized my ears are chapped.

Chuck: Interesting.

Josh: And that is brand-new, or else I just noticed it, so I'm an ear moisturizer now.

Chuck: Yeah, you had that '70s ear muff hairstyle cut off of your ears, so your ears were exposed.

Josh: Yeah, it was pretty '70s, wasn't it? Well, I was growing my hair out to create a blank slate that could be worked with.

Chuck: It was kind of longish for you.

Josh: Yeah, it was really long. And it was that '70s ear muff thing.

Chuck: It wasn't quite.

Josh: It was getting there.

Chuck: It looks good, very nice.

Josh: Thanks.

Chuck: Sure. Did that make you uncomfortable?

Josh: No, I was fishing for that. That's the whole reason I brought that story up.

Chuck: You looked either sheepish or really uncomfortable with that.

Josh: Well, a little bit of both.

Chuck: All right, gotcha. All right, number three on top four things that earwax does is that your cerumen and you hair-

Josh: Just like Letterman.

Chuck: Exactly. It's going to discourage everyone's worst nightmare, which is a spider crawling in there, which I covered, you know that happened to Emily, I think I talked about that on one of the shows.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: That was genuinely one of the most awesome things that I have ever experienced because it did not happen to me.

Josh: Wasn't there a picture? Didn't you post a picture of it or something like that?

Chuck: No, but there-I think I posted a picture of it happening to some woman in China, I think, that was frightening.

Josh: And it was a picture of a spider looking out of the woman's ear canal, right?

Chuck: Yeah. But Emily is-if people haven't heard this story, I think it was in the middle of the night or something, she was like, "I've got this weird fluttering in my ear and I don't know what's going on in there." And I was like, well, I took her in the bathroom and shined a light and I was like, "Holy crap."

Josh: And the spider eye thing worked, didn't it, with the flashlight? Remember?

Chuck: Did it?

Josh: If you look at your-I don't know. Did the-

Chuck: Jeri is saying yes.

Josh: Yes, okay, so there you go.

Chuck: Well, all I remember thinking is, "Emily, I don't want to have to break this to you, but you have a spider in your ear."

Josh: You didn't chloroform her first?

Chuck: I should have.

Josh: Yeah, you should have.

Chuck: Yeah, she was not excited about that.

Josh: I'm sure.

Chuck: She was not pumped. But I-

Josh: So well, what was the process for getting it out?

Chuck: Well, I looked on the internet super quickly to see how, and they said to flush it out and use some tweezers.

Josh: Just like a little warm-oh my gosh, you did use tweezers?

Chuck: Yeah. And I put the water in there and it kind of loosened it up and went in there and got the tweezers and I was like, "Look at this."

Josh: How big was it?

Chuck: Oh, I mean it wasn't huge but it was enough spider for her taste. [LAUGHS]

Josh: Sure.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: More than enough, right?

Chuck: Dude, it was-I can't imagine that.

Josh: Some people sleep with Vaseline in their ears-

Chuck: Oh, to prevent that?

Josh: -to keep bugs from crawling in, yeah. That is a thing.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: I mean people don't want bugs in their ears.

Chuck: No, but that's taken-I mean that's just severe paranoia, I think, if you're sleeping with ear muffs or Vaseline in your ears.

Josh: Yeah. Ear muffs, I hadn't thought about that.

Chuck: Oh, so you think that's-

Josh: [LAUGHS]

Chuck: All right, and number four, finally, is your ear wax is going to trap some dead skin and hair cells, and basically all of that junk to carry it back out to keep it clean. So it sounds sort of counterintuitive to trap that stuff, but it's trapping it so it can carry it out. And if you didn't have the earwax, it would just go in there.

Josh: Right. And if you chew things like celery and you talk, then the earwax is going to work its way out in a slow process, where all this stuff is cleaned out and you don't ever have to do anything with it, under ideal circumstances. Not always are circumstances ideal, and we'll talk about how things can go wrong after this.


Josh: Chuck, everybody knows that probably the greatest thing that ever happened to the internet, after the advent of StuffYouShouldKnow.com, is the advent of Squarespace.

Chuck: Yeah, because, buddy, if you need your own website and you want it to look super cool and clean and designy, Squarespace is the easiest and most affordable way to make that happen.

Josh: That's right. And with the launch of Squarespace 7, Squarespace has made their jam even more enjoyable. They've integrated with Google Apps, they partnered with Getty Images, they have new templates, new cover pages, they redesigned the whole Squarespace 7 interface-it's just beautiful, and it's going to make your website beautiful, as well.

Chuck: Yeah, and it's super simple to use, like we said. And even if you get lost, there is 24/7 support via live chat and email. And, to boot, it's only $8 a month and you get a free domain name if you buy Squarespace for a year.

Josh: So start a trial with no credit card required and start building your website today. When you decide to sign up for Squarespace, make sure to use the promo code STUFF, and get 10% off your first purchase, and it supports us, Stuff You Should Know, your pals.

Chuck: That's right. You support them, they support us, the circle is closed. Squarespace: "Start here. Go anywhere."


Josh: Okay, Chuck, so ideally you don't have to ever think about earwax or anything like that except to brush it off your shoulder, right?

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: But for some people, earwax can build up and become impacted. A lot of times it's because people mess with it, like with cotton swabs on a stick.

Chuck: Yeah. [LAUGHS]

Josh: You may have seen the advertisement on the big game.

Chuck: I think they're just called cotton swabs.

Josh: Right, yeah, okay. [LAUGHTER] If you use that, a lot of people use those to clear out their earwax, right?

Chuck: Yeah, you're not supposed to.

Josh: No, it's doing the exact opposite. Because your earwax is created and moves from the outside third of your inner ear, when you rub a cotton swab on it, you're actually pushing it in further than it's supposed to be. And it can't get out as easily there, so what you're going to do eventually is have earwax buildup.

Chuck: Yeah, and it's so hard to get people to not do that because it's so rewarding when you get out the shower and you use that swab and you get that orange gunk, and you're like, "Oh man, I'm so glad that's out of my body." But it's got a purpose.

Josh: Leave it there.

Chuck: You're supposed to leave it there.

Josh: Plus, I mean using cotton swabs can lead to other kinds of dangers, like you can push too hard and perforate your ear drum.

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: I think it really is true, you're not supposed to put anything larger than the end of a football in your ear. You can also clean it too much. It can result in something called swimmer's ear, where basically for people who spend a lot of time in the pool, their ears are constantly irrigated and the canal becomes basically free of earwax. And as a result, bad things can happen.

Chuck: Yeah. And they say if you do have swimmer's ear, put a few drops of acidic, slightly acidic, not acid, not like hydrochloric acid.

Josh: Just put a 55-gallon drum of hydrochloric acid in there.

Chuck: What is a slightly acidic fluid, I wonder?

Josh: Maybe lemon juice.

Chuck: That's what I would guess.

Josh: That's probably what I would do.

Chuck: I hope we're not advising something that's really dangerous.

Josh: No, as a matter of fact maybe you should go look up what you should put in there, or go to your doctor.

Chuck: Yes, but they advise some slightly acidic fluid in the ear after you swim, and that reestablishes what should be a normal acidic environment.

Josh: Yeah, because you-when you strip out that earwax, you lose those big four benefits, and all of sudden your ear is dry and cracky and you've got fungus and bacteria growing in there and you get ear infections, and it's not fun.

Chuck: The big four.

Josh: And back to creating a buildup of earwax, you get what's called cerumen impaction.

Chuck: Gross.

Josh: And that is when you have a bunch of earwax pressed against your eardrum, and it can result in all sorts of stuff like headaches, nausea, earaches, coughing for some reason, and that can be from using Q-tips, people who use hearing aids run into this a lot, and when your cerumen becomes impacted, you have to do the doctor.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: Which my sweet wife had to go to the doctor when she was a little girl because she got earwax impaction, yeah.

Chuck: Oh no.

Josh: And she said it sucked.

Chuck: Well, when you go to the doctor, if it comes to that, they're going to have quite a few techniques they could use. Ear syringing is one of them.

Josh: That sounds painful.

Chuck: It does. I don't think it is, though; I bet it's actually quite a relief.

Josh: Yeah, that's not how I hear it.

Chuck: Oh really, is it painful?

Josh: Yeah, Umi says it really is not fun.

Chuck: Well, I didn't know if that was like a five-year-old Umi or-

Josh: Well, yeah.

Chuck: Yeah. [LAUGHS]

Josh: But even as an adult she remembers it as not being very fun.

Chuck: Is this Paddington Umi? [LAUGHTER] Maybe that's why she had such a reaction.

Josh: Maybe.

Chuck: They'll use other instruments; sometimes they'll use a microphone-or I'm sorry, a microscope, that would be weird, to magnify the ear canal.

Josh: They shout into it to shatter your earwax.

Chuck: [LAUGHS] And some people have a more narrow ear canal, or if you have a perforated eardrum or something, that can be a problem. Basically you want to go to a doctor. You could try some home methods, like peroxide or maybe mineral oil.

Josh: Yeah, apparently warm mineral oil kind of breaks it up a little bit.

Chuck: Yeah, I used to-that's one of my most pleasing memories as a kid when I earaches, is my mom would heat up mineral oil and put it in my ear, it was-

Josh: Yeah, I bet that was nice.

Chuck: It felt really nice, it was very warm. For some reason I like the feeling of water closing my ear like when I get in a pool.

Josh: Oh yeah, I'll bet probably because of that.

Chuck: Yeah, maybe so, I didn't think about that. Do you like that or is it-what? [LAUGHS]

Josh: I was just imagining you just crawl into the fetal position, like "ah."

Chuck: Why is Chuck just floating in the pool like a baby?

Josh: No, I've never had much of an affinity for water in my ears.

Chuck: Because some people hate it.

Josh: I don't hate it, I don't like it.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And I'll bang on the side of my head if it feels like there is a drop of water in there.

Chuck: Does that work?

Josh: It can. Not always. I think normally the water just has to dry.

Chuck: Right. Sometimes I get dizzy and my head-

Josh: It hurts, yeah.

Chuck: I used to see-when I lifeguarded, I would see swim team members do that, though, and I was always like, "I don't know if you-that just doesn't seem right."

Josh: Once in a while it does, and just goes [MAKES NOISE] and all of a sudden you can hear normally again.

Chuck: Interesting. I didn't see the reason for this, though, but they did in this one article I saw, caution people against ear irrigation if you had diabetes.

Josh: What?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Why?

Chuck: I have no idea.

Josh: Oh, okay. [LAUGHS]

Chuck: I meant to follow up on that.

Josh: So we don't know what drugs cause an increase in earwax buildup, and we don't why if you have diabetes you shouldn't do ear canal irrigation.

Chuck: I don't know. They said not to use irrigation if you have a perforated eardrum-

Josh: Yeah, I get that.

Chuck: -a tube in the eardrum, a weakened immune system, or diabetes.

Josh: Huh.

Chuck: I have no idea.

Josh: I don't either.

Chuck: I'll have to follow up on social media and let people know.

Josh: Okay.

Chuck: But they do say if you do want to clean your ear, it's not like you can't clean your ears, but just wash you external ear with a cloth, but you should never stick something into your ear canal. It's just no good. But it's interesting that the cotton swab business is huge. I mean they've made a-I mean if you think about it, they've made-I don't want to say it's they shouldn't be selling these things.

Josh: No, I know what you mean, though.

Chuck: You know?

Josh: Yeah. Apparently-and I couldn't find out how much people spend on cotton swabs every year or how many are produced.

Chuck: We couldn't find out that, either. [LAUGHS]

Josh: But for 2011, apparently Americans spent $63 million on ear cleaning stuff, home ear cleaning stuff, and I imagine a lot of that went to cotton swabs, but also home irrigation kits and stuff like that.

Chuck: Yeah, because you can get those at the drugstore, right?

Josh: Right.

Chuck: And those are fine.

Josh: I guess.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: I don't know, I mean, everything is upside down right now.

Chuck: [LAUGHS] No, I think the irrigation is fine if you don't fall into one of those categories that I mentioned, because you're not sticking an object into your ear.

Josh: That, and then if you don't do it too frequently to where you're stripping the earwax out of your ear.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: Because it's not like that thing just replenishes overnight, guys.

Chuck: I know. And I use the cotton swabs, not a lot, but occasionally, but I'm not going to do it anymore. But it is, like I said, it feels so good get a big hunk of that stuff out.

Josh: Yeah, I've never been into those, never.

Chuck: Yeah, I'm not going to do it anymore. I'm going to tell Emily, too. I'm going to burn all of that stuff.

Josh: All I do is I take some soap and lather up my hands, do the outside of my ears, and then I guess I just kind of follow the contours of the inside of my ears, and I'm trying to remember, do I go into my ear canals, and I think I intuitively stop-

Chuck: With your fingers?

Josh: Yeah. At about the outside, so I don't really go into the ear canal. And then rinse it out and get off and get out of the shower and then now I moisturize my ears afterward, is the last step.

Chuck: That's great. The other thing too that they, of course you should never, ever do-cotton swabs is one thing, but like a car key, or bobby pin or a toothpick.

Josh: What is wrong with you?

Chuck: I don't know, you should never, ever stick something like that in your ear because you're just asking for trouble.

Josh: Big trouble.

Chuck: All right, well, after this break, we are going to talk about ear candling.


Chuck: 90% Josh.

Josh: What?

Chuck: 90% of your life is spent in your underwear.

Josh: Oh yeah, that's true.

Chuck: Did you know that?

Josh: Yeah, the other 10% you're what, showering, I guess.

Chuck: I guess so, that's a lot of showering. But you know that feeling when you put on the old, saggy underwear that the waistband is all worn out and you just feel like "I need some new stuff down there."

Josh: Yeah, well, luckily, Chuck, we know where to go for some new stuff. It's called MeUndies.com.

Chuck: That's right. They are the most comfortable underwear you will ever wear, and trust me, we wear the stuff; it's really great. It is insane how good they can make you feel.

Josh: Yeah. They fit perfectly, they don't ride up, they literally pull moisture away from your skin so you stay cool. They are really great underwear.

Chuck: Yeah. And you know what, I'm wearing mine right now.

Josh: I know you are.

Chuck: That's why I have this big smile on my face. And you know what, they have men and women's styles, they all look great, and they typically could retail for like two times what they charge.

Josh: Yeah. You don't need to take our word for it, though. Go to MeUndies.com/Stuff and get 20% off your first order and free shipping, and you'll save even more when you buy a whole pack of them. They guarantee you're going to be happy with them or your first pair is free. Once you feel MeUndies on your body, you're never going to go back.

Chuck: That's right. But to get that 20% off, you have to go to MeUndies.com/Stuff.


Josh: All right, so Chuck.

Chuck: Mm-hmm.

Josh: You teased everybody with ear candling. Why don't you tell everyone what that is?

Chuck: It's hokum.

Josh: Okay. Describe the hokum.

Chuck: Well, ear candling, and a lot of people don't know this, I think-I think a lot of folks say like, "Oh my gosh, this is the best thing ever." It is also known as auricular candling or coning. And it is a procedure in which you put a cone-shaped, a waxy cone-shaped device in the ear canal, and it's got usually a plate underneath it between the cone and your ear, and you light it on fire and supposedly what it does is it-

Josh: You stick the thing in your ear-

Chuck: And light it on fire.

Josh: -and then light in on fire.

Chuck: Yeah. Supposedly what it does is this creates a vacuum to pull out impurities.

Josh: Right. Because the flame supposedly needs oxygen-well, the flame definitely needs oxygen to burn, and it's getting its oxygen by sucking it out of the ear canal through the cone, hence creating a vacuum. And as it does, like you said, it sucks out impurities and the earwax and supposedly also clears your sinuses and clears the plaque out of your dendrites and all sorts of stuff like that.

Chuck: Yeah. This one article by Lisa Rozen, M.D., said that she went to a-and this is in the '90s, but she went to a discovery expo in Atlanta, and said that they had ear candlers there in one of the exhibitions and the lady said, that ran the booth, quote, "It cleans the whole head, brains and all. They're all connected, you know." [LAUGHTER]

Josh: Is that quote in there?

Chuck: Oh yeah, end quote. And of course it was in Atlanta, I'm like, "Oh great." Although that doesn't necessarily mean.

Josh: That could be anywhere.

Chuck: Yeah, you're right. But there are a lot of people that think it's a cleanse for your ear and it does connect to your brain and it clears your head and it's a spiritual thing and they don't know where exactly it came from, but China and ancient Tibet and pre-Columbian South America.

Josh: Atlantis.

Chuck: Yeah, they all are cited as places where it might have happened.

Josh: Yeah, no one has any idea where this stuff originated. It could have been created in the U.S. in the '70s for all anybody knows.

Chuck: Should we read some of the things that it supposedly helps?

Josh: Yeah. We should probably also say, if you haven't been able to tell by now, science has thoroughly debunked ear candling.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: And this is from that article that Dr. Rozen and some of her colleagues got together and kind of, step by step, took down the idea.

Chuck: Yeah, there is a list of 40 things, and we won't go through them all, but it relieves vertigo, clears the eyes, purifies the blood, aids sinusitis, relieves earaches, opens an aligns your chakra, releases blocked energy, reduces stress and tension, stabilizes your emotions-it does none of that because it has just been proven to be an outright not only fraud, but dangerous.

Josh: Right. So, and here's why. So the first one is that you can't pass liquid and gases through an eardrum that isn't perforated or ruptured.

Chuck: No.

Josh: So it's not sucking anything out of your inner ear or your lymph system or your sinuses or your brain.

Chuck: That's why your ears pop when you're on a plane. If you could pass air through there, that wouldn't happen; there would be no atmospheric pressure going on.

Josh: Right. So that means that sticking an ear candle in your outer ear is not going to suck anything out because it can't pass through. That's point one, right.

Chuck: That's point one. Point two is oxygen, it'll create that vacuum.

Josh: And suck out the impurities.

Chuck: Yeah, and that is just not true.

Josh: Yeah, apparently in-

Chuck: They've tested it.

Josh: Yeah. Doing trials of ear candles, they weren't able to create a vacuum in any of them, so there is no vacuum created.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: There is also the idea that if a vacuum were created, it would suck impurities out. Apparently, after ear candling, some of these-at least one of the same trials studied the stuff, the residue that was found afterward, I guess, in the stump of the ear candle.

Chuck: Well, yeah, and that's what people point to because there is all this gunk, and they're like, "Look at all this stuff that came out of my ear, oh my God."

Josh: Right. So what it turns out to be is ash from the ears candle and leftover wax from the ear candle, but not-

Chuck: It's just ear candle.

Josh: -earwax.

Chuck: No.

Josh: Just the candle residue.

Chuck: Yeah, they tested the substance; it is not cerumen, in any form or fashion.

Josh: What about the idea that it's safe and effective? I think we took care of the effective part.

Chuck: [LAUGHS] Yeah.

Josh: But the safe thing, apparently there is a lot of injuries you can get from it. You can be burned is one thing. You can perforate your eardrum, you can get infections, you can get buildup of the candle wax to replace whatever wax you think you're getting out.

Chuck: Yeah, it can have the reverse effect.

Josh: Exactly. And then one woman actually died from a fire that was caused in 2005 from ear candling. I looked it up. She was doing it, I guess by herself on her bed, and the ear candle fell out of her ear and caught her bed sheets on fire, and she made it out of her house fine but she was asthmatic and had an asthmatic reaction to the smoke and died.

Chuck: How did it happen that fast?

Josh: I don't know. I guess she had some-

Chuck: A bunch of-a can of gasoline-

Josh: -1940s bedsheets or something-

Chuck: Oh right, they were made out of some flammable material.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: There is a company-I won't name the company, but one company that made it, and if you-it came with a 75-page manual and 30-minute videotape. I guess this was a while ago if it was a videotape. And candles, and plate guards, and flame-retardant cloths, and oil, and then an otoscope. And if you read the flyer with this kit, it says, quote, "It supplies you with everything you need for a safe and effective session of entertainment." [LAUGHS]

Josh: Right, for entertainment purposes only. Because apparently I think it says that Canada regulates those things, or the U.S. does as medical devices, if they make any health claims.

Chuck: Yeah, I think they're illegal in Canada, outright.

Josh: Gotcha.

Chuck: Or at least they were; I'm not sure if they still are. But yeah, the FDA won't even-I mean, you can't make any kind of claim on the box. If you get an ear candle at your little health food store, just read it carefully. They can't make any claims.

Josh: For entertainment purposes only, because it's a hoot.

Chuck: To put a candle in your ear and light it on fire.

Josh: There was one other thing I came across in the articles you sent me, and I don't know if it's true but it sounds fantastic, that if you could create a vacuum with an ear candle, the negative pressure created by the vacuum would rupture your eardrum, which sounds pretty awesome. I don't know if it's true; it wasn't backed up with a source or anything like that, and I couldn't find it anywhere else. But it's pretty hilarious.

Chuck: Yeah, so don't ear-candle, people. And if you write in and say, "No, you should see the stuff that comes out," it is not your earwax.

Josh: Yeah, you should put that stuff beneath a gas chromatograph and see what you think.

Chuck: [LAUGHS] I mean it's proven. This is like, what was it we talked about recently?

Josh: Crop circles?

Chuck: Yeah, we got heat from that, too, people like, "No, it's not proven."

Josh: What was it?

Chuck: I think it was that-it was crop circles, when we're like, "No, they've proven-these guys came out and said, 'We made it up.'"

Josh: No, I know what they were saying, though. It's just like we were talking about with ESP: just because you can disprove some of it doesn't mean it disproves all of it. Except with crop circles.

Chuck: We should come up with a Stuff You Should Know t-shirt: "Friends don't let friends ear-candle."

Josh: [LAUGHS] That's a good one.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Yeah, just love your earwax.

Chuck: Yeah, let it fall out on your shoulder and let someone point it out and you say, "That's nature baby. It's because I eat celery."

Josh: If you want to know more about earwax, you can type that word into the search bar at HowStuffWorks.com. I think we have it down as one word maybe.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And I said search bar, which means it's time for listener mail.


Chuck: I'm going to call this ice cream follow-up. We got a lot of good stuff on ice cream.

Josh: Yeah, we did.

Chuck: People really liked that episode. "Hey, guys, I'm a student at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. I started listening to your podcast just this week and I'm officially hooked. I am listening to your podcast on ice cream, which is really interesting because I've worked in an ice cream parlor for the last five summers. Wilson's opened in 1906 and is still going strong today, one of the most famous restaurants in Wisconsin. There are definitely different types of vanilla ice cream. We use two types: French, or deluxe vanilla, and purple vanilla. The label on this other vanilla is purple." [LAUGHS] "We use purple vanilla for shakes and malts because it's less rich and allows for the flavor of the shake or malt to be more distinguished. We serve French vanilla in ice cream cones, sundaes, and floats. And you mentioned having root beer floats reminded me of an interesting thing that I've noticed. People often get offended when they order a black cow and we have to ask them what it is, that's because almost everyone has a different idea of what a black cow consists of. Some say that it's a root beer float, some say that it's a root beer float with chocolate ice cream, some say it's a Coke float, some say it's a blended root beer float, et cetera, et cetera. Somehow they all got labeled as 'black cow.' Thanks for giving me more ice cream knowledge. I'll actually be able to answer customers now when they ask what the difference between ice cream and frozen yogurt is." And that is from Andrea Nelson. And she says, "P.S., those nasty, cheap cones with the flat bottoms are known as cake cones."

Josh: Yeah, I saw that afterward.

Chuck: Don't order them ever.

Josh: I mean if you're at Jason's Deli and that's all they got.

Chuck: Oh, they have the free ice cream, right?

Josh: Uh-huh.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And that's how I-it was the day that we recorded "Ice Cream," and I couldn't remember the name of the cone. I think I ended up going that night and there it was, cake cone. I was like, "Yes, cake cone." Somebody else called it a wafer cone, but I think that's just wrong.

Chuck: I see where that would come from, because it's wafer-esque.

Josh: Yeah, I mean it makes sense but I've never seen it called that before.

Chuck: And that's too close to waffle cone.

Josh: Right. It makes people confused.

Chuck: So thanks, Andrea Nelson, for that one.

Josh: Yeah, thanks, Andrea. If you want to get in touch with us to say hi or tell us about ice cream or anything like that, you can tweet to us @SYSKPodcast, you can join us on Facebook.com/StuffYouShouldKnow, you can send us an email at Stuffpodcast@HowStuffWorks.com, and as always, you can join us at our home on the web, the luxurious StuffYouShouldKnow.com.


Vo: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit HowStuffWorks.com.