As John Mayer helpfully pointed out, your body is a wonderland.
A disgusting, gross wonderland, that is.
If your body’s functioning properly, it’ll produce quite a bit of disgusting stuff—waxes, oils, and various other secretions, not to mention a tremendous amount of hair.
But all of that stuff serves a purpose. For instance…
1. Sweat protects you from heat (and doesn’t really stink).
You’re probably aware of the primary function of sweat: It keeps you cool through the process of evaporation. It also helps with grip strength and expels salts from your body.
“It also stinks,” you probably just said. Well, you clearly didn’t read the headline. Most sweat doesn’t actually stink, since it’s just salt and water. But it does interact with bacteria on your skin. Certain bacteria will feed on the salts and oils, creating odors.
However, some people don’t have the gene that allows these bacteria to exist. That means that some people truly don’t need deodorant. Are you one of them? Well, there’s only one way to find out: Stop wearing deodorant. Godspeed.
2. Earwax actually cleans your ears for you.
There’s nothing grosser than a big glob of earwax. However, earwax—also known as cerumen—is one of the most effective cleaning tools your body has. It stops microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, and viruses) and macroorganisms (insects and arachnids—try not to think about that too much) from making their way through your ear canal.
Without earwax, your ears would be prone to constant infection. That’s not to say that cerumen is always a good thing; too much of it can cause hearing loss. But if you have an excess buildup, you should always visit a doctor for “irrigation.” Don’t use cotton swabs, as they can actually cause the earwax to become impacted, which will make the problem worse.
So, what is earwax, exactly? It’s a blend of skin cells, sebaceous secretions, ceruminous secretions, and cholesterol, among other things. Yep, it’s pretty gross, but it does an extremely important job.
3. The bacteria in your gut could kill you (but it keeps you alive instead).
Let’s get something straight: Scientists hate it when we describe something as “good” or “bad,” as every person’s body is different. That’s why we’re not going to say that there are good bacteria in your gut. There are certainly beneficial bacteria, but whether they’re helpful or harmful depends on the environment.
Escherichia coli (E. coli), for instance, can make you very sick if you consume it, but it’s probably living in your gut right now. Many other species of bacteria aid in digestion but would quickly begin feeding on your organs if your body didn’t have defenses to keep them in place.
There’s even some evidence that your gut flora—the community of microorganisms living in your digestive tract—could influence how you think and feel. It’s an exciting field of research, but it’s far from complete. The one thing we know is that we rely on bacteria a lot more than we’d previously thought.
4. Without mucus, you’d get extremely sick.
We’re talking about all types of mucus here, from the mucus in your nose to the mucus in your throat to the mucus in the corners of your eyes. It’s all similar stuff, although it goes by different names—”phlegm” is the mucus of the respiratory system, whereas “nasal mucus” is the mucus of the nose, and “eye mucus” is the…well, that one’s sort of obvious.
Your body produces from 1 to 1.5 liters of mucus per day, but you don’t notice most of it unless there’s a problem. It’s filled with antibodies, which fight potentially harmful viruses, bacteria, and fungi. It can also coat particles, allowing your body to easily expel them with a quick cough or wipe of a tissue.
When you get an infection, your body produces more mucus, which might turn different colors depending on the type and severity of the infection. It’s not pretty, but it’s effective.
5. Your nostril hair is your body’s first line of defense.
Nasal hair stops foreign particles from entering your body. That’s especially important if you have allergies or respiratory conditions; one 2011 study found that having only a “few nasal hairs significantly increased the risk of developing asthma.”
Why’s that? Well, the hairs hold the allergens outside of your body, where they can’t really do any harm. The allergens are then encased in mucus and turned into boogers. Hey, we never said that it was a sexy process.
As the study points out, “Increased hair density provides an improvement in the filtering efficiency of the nose, while reduced amounts of nasal hair cause a decrease in its efficiency.” If you’ve got a ton of nose hair, be thankful.
In any case, trimming your nose hair isn’t usually a big deal, but plucking out or waxing nose hair can actually put your body at risk. Additionally, removing hair can create a risk of infection, since ripping out the follicle will create another entrance point for microorganisms.
6. Your skin oil is another layer of protection.
Sebum is the oily substance on the surface of your skin. It can be a breeding ground for bacteria, including the microorganisms that cause acne. Sebum can give you greasy hair, smelly skin, and an overall feeling of unpleasantness. When you shower, the soap washes a layer of sebum away…and your body quickly replaces it.
However, sebum also stops bacteria from entering your body. It stops water from leaving, and it stops salts and waters from entering your body through the skin (which is one of the reasons that Epsom salt baths probably don’t do anything to relieve muscle pain).
As you age, your body produces less sebum, which may be one of the reasons that older people are more susceptible to some viruses and bacteria. Although your body can certainly produce too much skin oil in some cases, it’s an incredibly important (if disgusting) substance.
7. Eye gunk is just your eyes getting rid of contaminants.
Call it what you want: sleep dust, eye boogers, or rheum, if you want to get scientific (and we do). It’s gross.
Rheum is made up of skin cells, mucus, oils, and the various contaminants that your eye catches as you go about your day. Your tear ducts work constantly to lubricate your eye, and that lubrication allows dirt, dust, and other debris to travel to the corners of your eyelids, where they’re expelled.
But before they’re expelled, the oils and mucus from your eyelids build up around the contaminant. If you’re awake, you’ll also be blinking regularly, which will help to move the contaminant away from your eye. If you’re asleep, however, that gunk will keep building up.
Excess rheum can be a sign of an infection, but a small amount is perfectly normal. Seems like a fair trade-off for healthy eyesight.
8. Pus is made from fallen soldiers who died defending your body from invaders.
Okay, we’re being a little romantic, but white blood cells do tremendous work. When your body notices an infection, it sends thousands of white blood cells—also called leukocytes—to fight off the invaders. These helpful little soldiers fight until they die, at which point they just sort of pile up at the site of the infection.
Pus is mostly made of white blood cells, and it’s rich in protein. It looks frightening, but it’s completely normal. In fact, if your body isn’t producing pus, it might not be fighting the infection—or the dead leukocytes are simply being re-absorbed into the bloodstream.
Still, if you notice a large amount of pus, tell your doctor. It could be a sign that your body’s having trouble fighting an infection, particularly if you’ve recently had surgery.