Among all the motherly and parental advice, to wash behind your ears is but one. But is this an affectionate saying, an admonishment, or the result of some other cultural or religious notion? Or, is the phrase so pervasive because you should, in fact, wash behind your ears?
Wash Behind Your Ears: Literal Meaning
Many attribute this expression to a literal mandate to get out the soap and water. And perhaps you should wash behind you ears. Just Google the key word “ear cheese” and it will be difficult to believe otherwise. There are glands, appropriately called the sebaceous glans, that among many other areas of the body secrete oil and sebum in the creases behind your ears . In daily life, those naturally lubricating and protective oils mix with dead skin cells, dirt, perspiration, and bacteria on the skin. When allowed to build up, presumably due to lack of dedicated scrubbing, this unique mixture can lead to dry, flaking skin or even a layer of a waxy substance behind your ears. To give you a more vivid picture, this substance has been said to smell of cheese. The smell certainly ups the ick factor, but like other bodily odors, it is likely produced by the types of bacteria lingering on your skin. If you don’t wash behind your ears, you may also want to be on the look out for seborrheic dermatitis, a lovely skin disorder that affects areas rich in sebaceous glands – like behind the ears.
Though you may hold the belief that your daily bathing routine rids you from worry about ear cheese or other nasty substances behind your ears, you may be wrong. It has been noted that the daily shower or hair washing doesn’t always alleviate the problem. Next time you’re in the shower, you might want to spend a little extra quality time in those hidden crevices.
But despite the fact that you should probably pay attention to the area behind your ears, the idea of washing behind your ears may go above and beyond specific hygiene instructions.
Wash Behind Your Ears: Figurative Meaning
To some, the phrase simply suggests that one should always wash thoroughly, being sure to not overlook the crevices and more hidden body parts. So when your mother reminded you to wash behind your ears, she may have been prompting you to be more thorough in your bathing routine. Not a bad piece of advice considering our culture’s compulsion toward everything anti-bacterial and fresh smelling. But some have gone as far as to say that the phrase is a reminder to not forget an essential element simply because it isn’t obvious, effectively generalizing the phrase beyond its personal hygiene implications. While an interesting idea, it’s rare that you hear the expression out of its bathing context.
Cleanliness also has great cultural and religious implications. Many resources link washing behind your ears to ensuring that attention is paid to not only all that is seen, but what is unseen. How many people look behind your ears? Others ascribe to a variation on the proverb “cleanliness is next to godliness,” which asserts that people have a moral duty to keep themselves clean – the kind of clean that includes a little scrubbing behind the ears. If someone other than your mother is watching, then that just might require a whole other level of clean, ears not withstanding.
Washing behind the ears also seems to carry some historic significance in old folk wisdom and superstition. Your mother may not have scolded you in the name of pain management, but some old stories suggested that washing behind the ears could prevent toothache. We’d merely suggest paying a visit to your dentist.
Mother Is Always Right
Whatever the implications behind being told to wash behind your ears, it might be worth real consideration. Though your mother may have threatened that failure to comply would have dire effects, no, you can’t grow potatoes behind your ears. But it sounds like maybe you can make some cheese…