Dear Alice,

Okay, so this may be a little weird, but what is belly button lint? Where does it come from, and why do I have it?


Dear Curious,

Rest assured that many have pondered this very question! It’s been a decade since the results of a year-long belly button lint survey of some 5000 individuals were released by an Australian scientist-turned-science-commentator, Karl Kruszelnicki. His conclusion? Kruszelnicki suspects that belly button lint is the fibers of clothing (from below the belly button) that get channeled to the navel by hairs acting similar to a conveyer belt, or moshing pit — take your pick. According to his research, belly button lint is more prevalent in hairy than hairless people, and affects more men than women. But Kruszelnicki did find hair-free women who still ended up with lint. Too many abdominal crunches, perhaps? And, as could be expected, people with "innies" are more likely to have belly button lint than people with "outies."

Now the next question on your mind, as with thousands of other curious belly button lint-pickers out there, is obviously, "Why is my lint always blue-gray?" According to the survey, the lint color reflects the color of the clothes a person is wearing, and the most popular colors all taken together produce a blue-gray hue, much the same as they do in dryer lint.

Kruszelnicki won an Ig Nobel Prize for his work in 2002, a parody of the Nobel Prize award that “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” You can take a look at the survey's web site for yourself, but remember that this isn't really scientific. And there’s not been much else on the belly button lint front since. A more recent pseudo-study that only looked at males backed up Kruszelnicki’s finding that hairs channel fuzz into the navel. In addition, the study also found that belly button lint was made up of cellulose fibers of shirts that were contaminated with a mixture of foreign materials, including house dust, cutaneous scales, fat, proteins, and sweat. Yum.

Interesting end note: to bust the belly button lint, you can get a navel ring. Apparently, most people who have their belly buttons pierced notice a significant reduction — sometimes even complete eradication — of belly button lint from their adorned midriffs. If cotton swabs and/or fingers fail, lint brushes, rollers, and vacuum cleaners (using the attachments for hard-to-reach places) can help dislodge the lint, but may result in skin irritation, pinching, and strange looks.


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