Your Gross Out Guide

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Everything you need to know about crusty eyes, waxy ears, stinky pits, and other icky (but kind of cool) stuff your body’s got going on.

Snot. Earwax. Zits. Gas.

Why does your body produce such icky extras? The answer lies in the more than 100 trillion bacteria living inside and on top of your body right now. (If you add it up, that’s almost five pounds!) Most of these bacteria are actually essential to human health. But there are still some types can make you sick. In fact, most of the eww-factor substances your body produces are part of its defense system against the bad types.

The bottom line is this: “Your body is a wonderful machine that’s always trying to take care of itself,” says Sylvia Branzei, a microbiologist and author of the book Grossology.

Why do I get zits?

Pores in your skin make an oily substance called sebum, which keeps your skin from drying out. During puberty, your body often produces more than you need. This causes your pores to get clogged with a combo of dead skin and sebum, trapping bacteria inside and causing swelling and redness—in other words, a zit. No matter how tempting it is, “don’t pop them,” cautions Hernan Sabio, a pediatrician. You’ll only make the problem worse, and might even cause permanent scarring.

Does everyone pass gas?

Yep. In fact, the average person cuts the cheese 14 times a day, but most of those episodes go unnoticed. The noisy incidents are mostly caused by swallowed air, while the quieter ones are created by bacterial gas that is smaller and more concentrated, but also, unfortunately, stinkier.

Both are the result of air we swallow mixed with gas that bacteria in our stomachs produce. Farts smell because they contain small amounts of sulfur—a gas that reeks like rotten eggs.

When I wake up, my eyes are all crusty. What gives?

The reason you feel like rubbing your eyes is that they’re filled with a combination of mucus and a substance called mucin. During the day, the fluid is washed away when you blink. Since you don’t blink when you’re asleep, it collects at the corners of your eyes, where it combines with dust and other particles and dries into eye gunk (or, as it’s technically called, gound). Eye gunk is an important barrier between your eyes and bacteria and dust.

Is toe jam normal?

Totally. Slang for the dead skin cells, sock lint, sweat, and oils that accumulate between your toes, toe jam is harmless. But that doesn’t mean it’s not kind of icky. You can’t prevent it completely, but scrubbing your feet every day will keep the gunk from building up. In some cases, toe jam can be caused by a fungal infection, like athlete’s foot. So if your feet are peeling or itchy, ask your parents to buy you an over-the-counter antifungal cream.

What is sweat for?

When your body overheats, your sweat glands turn on the waterworks. The fluid they release evaporates from your skin, cooling you back to normal. Sweat by itself doesn’t smell bad; it’s almost entirely water. The problem is the bacteria that live on the surface of your skin. “Bacteria just love to munch on sweat,” explains Branzei. Those bacteria are the source of your body odor. Bacteria in your armpits find your sweat extra-tasty, which is why you may notice your pits are, well, extra-stinky. Your feet are another happy home for bacteria. The 250,000 pores on the soles of your feet produce almost a quarter of a cup of sweat every day—which is a pretty good reason to change your socks.

Why do I have ear wax?

Earwax protects and moisturizes your ear canal. The scientific term for it is cerumen, and it’s a brew of sweat and dead skin. That may not sound impressive, but this gunk has antibacterial and antifungal powers. That’s good news, as your ear canal is warm, dark, and moist—in other words, a perfect home for germs. Most of your earwax naturally dries up and falls out by itself—you don’t even notice it. But if it builds up, don’t go digging around. Cotton swabs (or anything else you put in there) can damage your ear canal or even perforate your eardrum. Instead, wipe the outside of your ear with a washcloth. If your ears feel really stuffed, head to the doctor for help.

What’s snot?

“It’s the lubricant of the lining of your nose,” explains Dr. Sabio. Mucus—the technical word for snot or boogers—acts as a filtering system, trapping dirt, bacteria, and other particles so that they can’t get into your lungs. “Snot can be more abundant, get thicker, and have interesting green or yellow colors when we get sick,” says Dr. Sabio. So your stuffy nose is just your body working harder to try to protect you from getting sicker. Oh, and your mom is right. Don’t pick your nose. Aside from being rude, it spreads bacteria in your nose and onto your hands. Blow into a tissue instead. . . and wash your hands.

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