Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Wax (But Were Afraid to Ask)

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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.

July 14, 2014 - 12:00am
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