Although earwax is naturally odoriferous to prevent insects from entering the ear canal, according to the Gallo Institute of Health and Nutrition, poor hygiene and ear infections can worsen the smell. Researcher George Preti discovered that ethnicity also plays a role.
Preti discovered that the earwax in individuals of different races has different amounts of a volatile organic compound called cerumen. The amount of cerumen present in the wax determines how strong or unpleasant the odor is. Preti has attributed the natural differences in smell to a single gene that also has been linked to underarm odor. Researchers at Monell described normal earwax as smelling like sweaty feet with a pungent fecal aroma. Earwax is partially composed of dead cells, fungus and bacteria, accounting for the smell. However, the smell should not be strong enough to detect without inserting a Q-tip in the ear and then in the nose.
Contrary to popular belief, excessive cleaning of the ear can contribute to unpleasant-smelling earwax, according to the Gallo Institute. Manually cleaning interferes with the ear's natural cleaning process and can lead to build-ups of earwax being pushed deep into the canal, increasing the likelihood of odor-causing infection. As ear infections progress, they produce a green or yellow discharge with a strong, foul smell.