You’re sitting at your desk or the couch, playing with your earring, only to catch a whiff of your fingers which smell like… white cheddar popcorn? Nutritional yeast? Stinky cheese? WTF? If you haven’t consumed any of these things, your earrings might be to blame for the odor—and if upon further investigation, this proves to be the case, you might be wondering, “Why do my earrings smell?” and moreover, “Is it normal?”
Why do my earrings smell?
There are a number of reasons that cause a foul earring smell, but one common cause is 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,” says Purvisha Patel, MD, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Visha Skincare. According to board-certified dermatologist Geeta Yadav, MD, founder of Facet Dermatology, sebum is the “perfect food for bacteria,” and“the protected, dark, and damp conditions made by the piercing hole allow the bacteria to build up.”
As such, earring backs and posts accumulate ear cheese, and it is especially common among people who don’t change their earrings much and sweat a lot, says Dr. Patel, resulting in a funky odor that is reminiscent of—you guessed it—cheese. It may not always smell like cheese, though—“it can smell different on different people,” she says. Dr. Yadav agrees, adding that people who live or work in hot, humid environments (which can result in sweaty ears) or have oily skin are more likely to experience a foul earring smell.
Additionally, certain types of earrings are more likely to develop a smell, including ones with “tight and larger earring backs,” says Dr. Patel as they “accumulate more sweat and sebum, as well as make it more difficult to clean or wash when in the shower.” She also says that earrings with large plastic backs are another common culprit, and Dr. Yadav adds that jewelry made with plated metal “can chip or lift, which allows bacteria to grow underneath,” which in turn, can lead to a cheesy odor.
It’s also worth noting that earrings made of nickel can cause an allergic reaction in some individuals. If you’re one of those people, you might want to select earrings made for sensitive ears, such as ones made from surgical-grade stainless steel, pure sterling silver, platinum, or 18- to 24-karat yellow gold.
Is it normal for earrings to smell?
If your earrings smell, Dr. Yadav assures it’s usually nothing to worry about. “It’s normal and not particularly a cause for concern unless the piercing is new, as this bacteria buildup can cause an infection,” she says.
If you’ve recently had your ears pierced, know that your ear lobe piercings will take about six to eight weeks to heal, whereas ear cartilage piercings can take anywhere from four months up to a year to heal. While your piercing is healing, proper care is important to avoid the risk of possible infection. Aftercare will usually involve cleaning your piercing with a cleansing solution up to three times per day, Denise Pate, MD, a board-certified internal medicine physician at the Medical Offices of Manhattan in New York City, told Well+Good.
Redness, a clear or bloody discharge, and swelling are all to be expected within the first day or two of a piercing. However, if these persist, and additionally, you experience pain, throbbing, skin that is tender to the touch, or fever, it’s important to speak with a healthcare provider to rule out the possibility of an infection.
Preventing earring odor
If you want to prevent and stop the earring odor, it’s best to clean your earrings and ears as part of your regular hygiene routine—the process of which is simple. “Take off the earrings, clean your ears and lobes with soap and water, and wash your earrings after every wash,” says Dr. Patel. When cleaning earring backs, Dr. Yadav recommends using isopropyl alcohol or, if jewelry posts are more fragile, an antibacterial hand soap. Dr. Patel adds that you’ll want to keep anything that absorbs sweat and comes into regular contact with your ears clean, too. (Think: pillowcases, earphones or headphones, and your cell phone.)
In addition to cleaning your earrings, you’ll want to change your earrings at least once a week. As Dr. Patel previously mentioned, leaving your earrings in for too long can also result in smelly ear cheese—and Dr. Yadav agrees: “The smell gets worse if you don’t regularly clean your piercings or remove them to clean them.” If your ears are newly pierced, it’s likely that you won’t be able to remove the piercing until it has completely healed. Still, it’s essential to keep your piercing—or multiple ear piercings—and the surrounding area clean. As mentioned, you’ll want to clean the piercing two to three times per day using a cleansing or sterile saline solution.
How often should you clean your earrings?
When it comes to how often to clean earrings, Dr. Patel typically recommends doing so daily. And if not daily, Dr. Yadav says that you’ll want to clean your earrings at least once a week—a sentiment echoed by Shari Sperling, DO, board-certified dermatologist and founder of Sperling Dermatology, in a previous interview with Well+Good.
Frequently asked questions
Why do my ears smell bad when I remove my earrings?
This is typically due to“a buildup of bacteria mixing with sebum, or skin oils,” says Dr. Yadav, which is also known as “ear cheese.” As your ears are a warm anatomical crevice for oil, bacteria, and the accumulation of dead skin cells, your ears can take on the scent of the said cheese—if not a funky odor—which may also build up on your earrings. This unpleasant, albeit typically normal, odor may be more common among people who don’t clean or change their earrings regularly, live or work in hot, humid environments, or have oily skin.
How do I stop my earring holes from smelling?
Cleaning your ears regularly can prevent—and put an end—to the smell. You’ll also want to clean and change your earrings as well, which as mentioned, can smell, too. When cleaning your earring backs, you can use isopropyl alcohol, but if your jewelry is more delicate, you can opt to use an antibacterial hand soap, says Dr. Yadav.
How do you clean earring holes?
Remove your earrings and thoroughly clean the outer crevices, your earring holes, and the backs of your ears with soap and water, says Dr. Patel. You’ll want to clean your ears and earring holes regularly to avoid ear cheese buildup and, in turn, the accompanying smell.
How often should earrings be cleaned?
Ideally, you’ll want to clean your earrings regularly—or every time you clean your ears, says Dr. Patel. However, Dr. Yadav and Dr. Shearling both agree that cleaning your earrings at least once a week is enough to keep stinky ear cheese at bay.
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