You could be walking to work, canceling out background noise in the office or sweating through a workout – all go better with your own choice of soundtrack. Stick your earbuds in and press play on Run DMC’s “Walk This Way,” or Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” followed by Olivia Newton John’s “Let’s Get Physical.” All come as music to the ears – but apparently not without a cost to the listener.
Music may well be the food of love, but medical professionals are giving music lovers food for thought with their latest findings. Doctors have discovered something disconcerting about the humble set of ear buds. The seemingly innocuous accessories that deliver delightful sounds directly to the ear are unfortunately bringing something else to the party. And it sounds bad – an unpleasant, yet not uncommon, skin problem in your ears.
Many people were first alerted to the issue by a shocking video posted on YouTube by the Cheng Ying Spa. Uploaded on August 2, 2017, the only thing visible when the clip starts is a close-up shot of a client’s ear. The deceptively placid soundtrack features a tasteful acoustic guitar and piano track. Then the technician’s tweezers enter the picture, and what follows in the next few minutes is anything but tasteful.
Even before the spa staffer gets to work, large dark dots are plain to see in the client’s inner ear. They look like blackheads but far bigger and more deeply ingrained than the average crop. In fact, the video is called Giant Ear Acne in Chinese script. The unpalatable video lasts for almost nine minutes, which – unbelievably – is also how long it takes for the technician to dig the dirt out of just one of the pores.
However, the eight-minute and 39-second video has gone super viral, racking up almost ten million views. It also made instant waves on social media sites such as Reddit, and women’s beauty magazine Allure proved it had its ear to the ground when it highlighted the clip on August 4. Digital beauty writer Devon Abelman wrote, “My face wrinkled up so much while watching that video that I’m afraid I created creases so deep that even Botox wouldn’t be able to iron it out.”
The video was also featured on medical magazine TV show The Doctors in November 2017. One of the five hosts of the episode, Dr. Travis Lane Stork, works in an emergency room. So it can be safely imagined that he must have seen some grizzly sights in his time. Nevertheless, Dr. Stork introduces the item by warning, “Now, this video is gross.” Members of the studio audience are then shown reacting to the clip with the same kind of shock and revulsion as Abelman.
Another of the Emmy Award-winning talk show hosts, Dr. Drew Ordon was on hand to answer the question on everyone’s lips. Namely, why did this happen to this poor person? And, as an experienced cosmetic surgeon, he has a deeper understanding than most of how the body works. Sure enough, Dr. Ordon had an explanation as to why these extra-large, extra-deep blackheads had formed.
“This is severe open comedones – blackheads – involving the external auditory canal,” Dr. Ordon told the show’s aghast audience. The camera took in the crowd as they hid their faces, gagged or winced while watching footage of the infamous extraction on a giant screen. Comedones are basically clogged pores and can vary in color and size. Closed comedones are more commonly known as whiteheads. Open ones are blackheads – but black not because of dirt but because they adopt color from melanin – the skin’s pigment.
Allure writer Abelman took her sense of disquiet along to New York University to learn more about the condition. She spoke to Shari Marchbein who is assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the institution’s Langone Hospital. Marchbein confirmed that the villains of the video were, indeed, open comedones or blackheads. She explained that they form when skin pores fill with dead skin, oil or dirt.
On The Doctors, Dr. Ordon expanded on the topic to the fellow medical professionals on the panel and the watching audience. He spoke about why some parts of the skin appear to be more prone to blackheads than others. Apparently, it all comes down to the amount of sebaceous glands in the area. These tiny glands excrete sebum, an oily substance which simultaneously acts as a lubricant and a barrier to liquids for the skin.
“We have sebaceous units, sebaceous glands in the skin all over our body,” Dr. Ordon explained. In fact, these glands are found everywhere on the body save for the soles of the feet and the palms of the hands. The good doctor continued, “There’s certain parts of the body that have more. For example, on the tip of the nose. You see, you have more on the tip of the nose – fewer on the top of the nose.”
It is true that as human beings we can’t see the inside of our ears as easily as we can the nose on our face. Nonetheless, Dr. Ordon assured viewers that they have at least one thing in common. A similar concentration of sebaceous glands can crowd the area, just as they do the end of the nose. He added, “You’re more likely to have those comedones where you have more sebaceous units – in the outer ear.”
This flies in the face of the visual evidence presented by the video. But Dr. Ordon maintained that the inside of the ear – which generally has less of the glands – is more unlikely to host open comedones. But in order to keep it that way, Dr. Ordon was able to offer up a handy hint. And one which can also help to prevent blackheads on the external part of the ear.
Cotton buds come with a warning about not sticking them in your ear, but apparently using them around the organ can be beneficial. Dr. Ordon advised, “Now, you can use a Q-tip on the outer part of the ear, and just on the inner part of the ear canal.” He demonstrated gentle cleaning techniques with a giant cotton swab to a still recovering audience. On the other hand, he did warn viewers about one thing they should never do to themselves.
Extracting an open comedone, as shown to vivid effect in the viral video, is a huge medical no-no. Dr. Ordon indicated the video screen and said, “When you get a case this bad, you need to go to an expert. Either a dermatologist or an ear, nose and throat [doctor can] extract those comedones, because they can get secondarily infected and actually close down that ear canal.”
Dr. Stork then tastelessly joked about the waste matter extracted in the video. “Don’t throw it away,” he advised, adding, “It’s great on eggs.” The poor audience had been overly sensitized by the horrific video and reacted to Dr. Stork’s quip with groans of disbelief. But, it was at this point of the show that the hosts of The Doctors finally dropped the bomb regarding ear buds.
When the panel began to delve further into steps one could take to improve aural hygiene, the accessories so regularly popped into peoples’ ears were bound to come up. Dr. Judy Ho, a licensed clinical psychologist, started the ball rolling. “Please, practice good ear hygiene everybody,” she urged, adding the suggestion, “Wash your ears when you’re in the shower.”
Then her fellow female panelist, obstetrician and gynecologist Dr. Nita Landry, put in her two cents. She said that viewers of the show should clean their earbuds and wipe their phones into the bargain. This drew approval from Dr. Ordon. “Good point,” he exclaimed, saying, “Everybody using earbuds is a big source of… because it’s all about plugging those pores.”
“If you keep cramming those earbuds into your ears, you’re more likely to plug those pores,” he went on. And when pores already exposed to oil and dirt become clogged, what do they become? Open comedones – or blackheads – of course. Dr. Ordon continued with some more sage words of advice, saying, “Clean your earbuds, don’t wear them for too long.”
Fortunately, however, it is easy to avoid an extra-large blackhead like the ones in the viral video. Dr. Ordon finished up by addressing the camera, and the viewers at home, directly. “Keep your ears clean for heaven’s sake,” he said. To which Dr. Landry enthusiastically responded, referring to the giant video screen, “Yeah, don’t be that guy!” After all, the only things you really want to pop in your ears are clean buds.