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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Wax

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What do sperm whales, lipstick, and gummy bears have in common? They all contain wax. Read on to find out what wax is, what it’s done for you lately, and where exactly earwax fits in to the picture.

What Is Wax, Anyway?

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines wax as any of a class of pliable substances of animal, plant, mineral, or synthetic origin that differ from fats in being less greasy, harder, and more brittle and in containing principally compounds of high molecular weight. 

Like paraffin, which is a byproduct of petroleum refinement, many waxes are manmade—but a surprising waxy smorgasbord also appears in the natural world. We’ve all been told to mind our beeswax, which worker bees secrete from glands on their bellies, but what about our sheep wax? Lanolin—the oil that makes sheep wool so soft—is technically also a wax.

And then there’s whale wax. The head cavities of sperm whales are filled with a wax called spermaceti. Scientists aren’t sure what the wax does, exactly, but they think it may help with buoyancy or echolocation. Early seamen mistook the head wax for semen, which is how the sperm whale got its malapropic name.

But the animal kingdom doesn’t have a monopoly on waxes. The carnauba palm and the candelilla plant both produce wax to help their leaves retain moisture in the heat, and the stem of the sugarcane plant is swaddled in a thin layer of wax. Carnauba wax is the hardest natural wax and is known as the “Queen of Waxes” (what an honor), but all three varieties are harvested on a grand scale, processed, and applied to some very unlikely targets. 

How Is Wax Used?

The applications of our friend Wax are nearly endless, and range from the obvious—candles, crayons, and cars—to the downright sneaky. Eagle-eyed consumers can find wax in…

Cosmetics. Going far beyond the basic bikini wax, beauty products have embraced the flexibility, shine, and durability that wax has to offer. Paraffin, beeswax, carnauba wax, lanolin, and even spermaceti are added to lipstick, mascara, deodorant, eye shadow, eye pencils, skin creams, shaving cream, make-up removers, and shampoo.

Drugs. Just a coat of carnauba makes the medicine go down—drug manufacturers spray tablets with a thin coat of wax to make the pills easier to swallow.

Fruit. Did you really think apples were naturally that shiny? Did you think pears just last for months in nature? Much of the conventionally grown produce you’ll find in the grocery store has been shellacked with food-grade wax to keep it fresh and make it pretty. (In small quantities, the wax doesn’t do any harm to the human digestive system, but if you’re freaked out by polished fruit, the wax is easy enough to wash off.) For those who are curious: Yes, waxed fruit is still Kosher.

Sugary Snacks. Remember that time you accidentally bit off a piece of those wax lips you were wearing and wondered if it was okay to swallow it? Rest easy—you’ve probably eaten more wax than you’ll ever know. Edible waxes lend gloss and staying power to fruit snacks, chocolate chips, soft drinks, gummy bears, Altoids, Tic Tacs, Skittles, chewing gum, donuts, juice, cake frosting … you get the point.

Where Does Earwax Fit In?

Earwax, tragically, is not really a wax at all, but a water-soluble mixture of ear oils, hair, and dead skin (sorry—you weren’t eating, were you?) that helps protect our tender inner ears from damage and infection. The technical term for this ear gunk is “cerumen,” from the Latin word for “wax,” so at least it’s not like we’re the first ones to make that mistake. 

As gross as it might seem, earwax is supposed to be there, and doctors advise against cleaning it out yourself. They know you won’t listen. 

What Does Your Earwax Say About You?

It may not be wax, but cerumen still has a lot to offer. In recent years, scientists have discovered that the type of earwax you have—the wet, yellow-brown kind or the dry white kind—seems to be determined by your ethnicity. People with roots in China, Japan, and Korea are far more likely to have dry white earwax than folks from other parts of the world.

Earwax type may also be a predictor of disease. In 2007, a Japanese team discovered that a gene responsible for breast cancer can also cause super-smelly armpits and goopy wet earwax. Don’t be too worried if you’ve got the stinky-pits-sticky-ears combo, though—the trifecta isn’t a sure bet. “At this point the research is very early,” USC-LA’s Dr. Christy Russell told WebMD, “and women should not be concerned.”

Other researchers see earwax as a time capsule, recording information like the rings of a tree. Since baleen whales do not use Q-tips, their earwax accumulates in their ear canals as they age. Scientists analyzing these massive earwax plugs can trace the rising and falling of stress hormones, pollutants, and other chemicals throughout the whale’s life, a gunky biography.

Fighting Fire with Earwax

One last little earwax nugget before we close: Cerumen, or cerumen flavor, anyway, can also be a punishment. Researchers at Penn State conducted an experiment in which volunteers—all women of color—conversed via Instant Messenger with a “racist” (actually a research assistant making intentionally offensive comments). After the conversation, the women were asked to choose which flavor of jellybean the offender would be given: cherry, lemon, earwax, or dirt. Volunteers who did not directly confront their conversation partner’s racist statements were far more likely to feed the offender earwax-flavored jellybeans. The experiment seems bizarre, but the world would be a very different place if every racist statement earned its speaker a talking-to or a mouthful of earwax. 

So be kind. Put the Q-Tip down. And wax on, dear readers. Wax off.

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What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder
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From the characters in Fight Club to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, popular culture is filled with "split" personalities. These dramatic figures might be entertaining, but they're rarely (if ever) scientifically accurate, SciShow Psych's Hank Green explains in the channel's latest video. Most representations contribute to a collective misunderstanding of dissociative identity disorder, or DID, which was once known as multiple personality disorder.

Experts often disagree about DID's diagnostic criteria, what causes it, and in some cases, whether it exists at all. Many, however, agree that people with DID don't have multiple figures living inside their heads, all clamoring to take over their body at a moment's notice. Those with DID do have fragmented personalities, which can cause lapses of memory, psychological distress, and impaired daily function, among other side effects.

Learn more about DID (and what the media gets wrong about mental illness) by watching the video below.

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25 Dapper Outfit Choices for Fashionable Pets
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Lavishing your furry friends with adorable attire is a benefit of pet ownership that they don't mention on the adoption forms. Whether you prefer practical clothing like sweaters and jackets or statement pieces like bow ties and tutus, these dapper duds are perfect for a howl-iday or "gotcha day" gift, or simply for saying, "Who's the cutest little pupper in pajamas? You are!"

1. CASHMERE DOG SWEATER; FROM $165

dog in sweater
Canine Styles

This classic cable-knit cashmere sweater is a sophisticated look for Fido or Finn. Get it from Canine Styles, a luxury dog emporium in New York City that has plenty of posh and preppy outfits.

Find It: Canine Styles

2. TOGGLE DOG COAT; $85

dog in coat
Canine Styles

This toggle coat (available in orange, navy, and tan) is as fashionable as it is warm. Made of Melton wool, it has Velcro closures to make getting dressed easy. It's great for long walks in the country.

Find It: Canine Styles

3. DOG TUXEDO; FROM $90

Dog in tuxedo
Etsy

This satin tuxedo is perfect for the canine members of your wedding party, though it will brighten up any other occasion as well. The custom, handmade outfit comes complete with a snappy bow tie.

Find It: Etsy

4. DOG BELLE DRESS; FROM $45

Dog Belle Dress
Etsy

The queen of your castle can feel like a Disney princess in her very own version of Belle's iconic yellow dress from Beauty and the Beast. This ball gown is made from yellow crepe satin with chiffon overlay on the bodice and features hand-painted gold detailing on the skirt. Enchanted rose not included.

Find It: Etsy

5. POODLE SKIRT OUTFIT FOR DOGS; $26

Rubies Pink Fifties Girl Pet Costume
Amazon

What if you could buy a 1950s poodle skirt for your poodle? This retro dress is comprised of a pink poodle skirt, striped bodice, and sequined belt, and comes with a bow headband.

Find It: Amazon

6. RIBBED CROCHET BUNNY SWEATER; $25

bunny in a sweater
Etsy

Your snuggle-bunny will look like a little fancy-pants in this ribbed crochet sweater. Choose from seven colors, including this dashing deep red.

Find It: Etsy

7. BESPOKE MONOGRAM DOG SWEATER; FROM $155

Dog in sweater
Ruby Rufus

Bespoke clothing isn't just for humans: British luxury dog clothing brand Ruby Rufus will make your pooch a custom monogram sweater made with 100 percent Italian cashmere. You can even order it in your dog's favorite color.

Find It: Ruby Rufus

8. HOT PINK DOG TUTU; $17

Dog in hot pink tutu
Etsy

Tutus look absolutely adorable on tiny humans and animals alike. If your pooch wants to get in touch with its inner ballerina, then grab this hot pink number from Etsy. Rave reviews are a sure thing.

Find It: Etsy

9. PINK DOG POLO SHIRT; $35

Dog Pink Polo Shirt
Canine Styles

This pink polo shirt is perfect for your preppy fur baby. It features not one but a veritable multitude of crocodiles. They'll be the most dapper dog at the country club.

Find It: Canine Styles

10. DOG BARN COAT WITH BROWN CORDUROY COLLAR; $85

Dog in barn coat
Canine Styles

When it's time for a walk, your dog will look effortlessly chic in this fancy barn coat. It comes in navy, cranberry, orange, hot pink, and loden and features convenient pockets for anyone with opposable thumbs.

Find It: Canine Styles

11. WHITE PET NECK RUFF; $26

Pet Neck Ruff
Etsy

Your canine or kitty will look like their painting belongs in London's National Portrait Gallery with this Elizabethan neck ruff.

Find It: Etsy

12. CHICKEN SWEATER; $25

chicken wearing sweater
Etsy

Chickens can get cold when they're strutting around outside. A sweater (well, more like sweater vest) for your bird can also help prevent feather picking during molting season. Or, it can simply keep them warm while they stare pensively across a snowy landscape.

Find It: Etsy

13. PET CIRCLE SCARF; $15

dog in scarf
Etsy

An infinity scarf is a perfect burst of color on a dreary early morning walk. The proprietor of Mitten Made on Etsy originally designed this wool snood for her miniature Dachshund to help keep her warm during the long, cold winters in Michigan.

Find It: Etsy

14. FAB DOG TRAVEL RAINCOAT; FROM $18

Fab Dog Travel Raincoat
Chewy

This timeless yellow rain slicker will look great on any puppy when it's raining cats and dogs. It's made of 100 percent waterproof nylon shell that keeps fur dry. Bonus: It's perfect for an It Halloween costume.

Find It: Chewy

15. LACE CAT OR DOG COLLAR; FROM $10

cat in lace collar
Etsy

This handmade, white lace collar is a must-have for fancy felines. It's also embellished with a large rhinestone.

Find It: Etsy

16. FITWARM PENGUIN PAJAMAS FOR DOGS; FROM $10

Fitwarm Cute Penguin Xmas Dog Pajamas
Amazon

Keep your pupper warm on cold winter nights with these penguin PJs. They're great for doggie sleepovers or lazy weekends on the couch watching Netflix.

Find It: Amazon

17. PLAID CASHMERE DOG COAT; FROM $225

dog in plaid coat
Canine Styles

Your dog will look like a proper gentleman in this smart plaid peacoat. This fine garment is made of cashmere with a faux fur lining and leather buttons, and is a perfect shield against chill and fog.

Find It: Canine Styles

18. SATIN PET BOW TIE; FROM $8

Satin Bow Tie for Dog
Etsy

This satin doggie bow tie is perfect for any occasion. It comes in several colors and features a Velcro fastener that makes it easy to attach to a collar. Plus, 10 percent of every sale goes to charity: specifically to SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) and Feeding Pets of the Homeless.

Find It: Etsy

19. RED DOG DRESS; FROM $34

dog in dress
Etsy

Your good boy or girl will look red carpet-ready in this elegant gown. The voluminous tulle skirt is to die for, and each bow is embellished with beads. Custom orders are also available.

Find It: Etsy

20. DOG TIE; FROM $13

Dog tie
Etsy

Your pooch will be ready to stun at any black tie event. This tie is designed like a collar, making it easy to dress your four-legged friend. This Etsy store gives back: 10 perfect of all sales are donated to an animal protection association.

Find It: Etsy

21. NAUTICAL DOG DRESS WITH MATCHING LEASH; $20

Dog sailor dress
BaxterBoo

Perfect for a day on the town or setting sail in a schooner, this is the sailor outfit you never knew your best furry friend needed. This vintage throwback also comes with a matching leash.

Find It: BaxterBoo

22. TARTAN FLANNEL PET BOW TIE; $5.50

tartan pet bow tie
Etsy

Your dog or cat will turn heads in this flannel tartan bow tie. It has a convenient elastic loop that slides over your pup's collar.

Find It: Etsy

23. PUCCI DOG SHIRT; $23

dog in Pucci dog shirt
Etsy

Only the fanciest dogs wear, err, Pucci. Grab this punny "designer" t-shirt for your pup. This high-quality cotton statement piece is perfect for small breeds.

Find It: Etsy

24. PINK POLKA DOT AND LACE DOG HARNESS DRESS; $20

Pink Polka Dot and Lace Designer Dog Harness Dress
BaxterBoo

This feminine pink polka dot dress is simply adorable. It features a convenient built-in harness and comes with a matching leash.

Find It: BaxterBoo

25. PET SWEATER VEST; $6

pet sweater vest
Amazon

Your dog or cat will look like an erudite Oxford professor in this sweater vest. Note that the button on the pocket is shaped like a bone.

Find It: Amazon

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