Tell me how accurate this scenario is: You're sitting at your desk in the office, or cozied up on the couch, twirling your earring back (which is a soothing thing to do with your hands, much like twirling your hair or clicking a pen or making a friendship bracelet), only to catch a whiff of your fingers which smell like... white cheddar popcorn? Nutritional yeast? Stinky cheese? WTF?
I know it's not just me. Every single person I've talked to about this nods in solidarity, because it's just a fact of having piercings that nobody happens to talk about. So, since I'm now fearful that someone in my life will think my fingers smell like yeast, I have done the important job of investigating the cheesy-behind-the-ear situation. And it all stems from oil and bacteria.
Your ears are a nice, warm anatomical crevice for oil, bacteria, and the accumulation of dead skin cells. Hence why your mom always told you to wash behind your ears. "It's so that you clean off the oil that accumulates there," explains Purvisha Patel, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare. "These cause 'ear cheese,' aka an accumulation of rancid oil—oil that gets exposed to air—dead skin cells, as we're constantly shedding, bacteria, and sweat. It's more common in people who do not change their earrings much and who sweat a lot." (Me.)
Your earring backs are the perfect breeding ground for that cheesy smell, especially if you workout with your earrings on (guilty), don't clean them on the reg (also me), and use large, tight earring backs (yep). "Tight and larger earring backs can accumulate more sweat and sebum, as well as make it more difficult to clean or wash when in the shower," says Dr. Patel, who points out that those big plastic backs are major culprits for gathering funky gunk.
If the backs of your ears smell gross, but don't exactly smell like white cheddar popcorn like mine do, it's likely because of your body chemistry. The oil, bacteria, and metal can smell different on different people," she says. Either way, it's probably not a scent you'd want others to catch a whiff of. Dr. Patel's pro tip? "Take off the earrings, clean your ears and lobes with soap and water, and wash your earrings after every wash," she says. She also recommends to make sure your pillowcases and headgear that you sweat into stay clean, and that scrubbing with an exfoliating cleanser behind your ears will help keep things cheese smell-free. The more you know.
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