top of page
  • Kirsten Bell

The snot that we forgot: Part II

Look up ‘nose picking’ on Google and a plethora of articles will appear with titles like ‘Is it dangerous to pick my nose, and how do I stop?’ and ‘How harmful is it to pick your nose?’. These articles invariably warn of the health risks of the habit, from infections and nosebleeds to spreading illnesses, and highlight the need to ‘quit the pick’. Nose picking, we are told, is unsanitary and unhygienic.1

Although these accounts condemn the practice on the grounds of hygiene, as I discussed in Part I, this is as much a reflection of our changing cultural attitudes towards snot as our improved knowledge of science. As the sociologist Norbert Elias showed in his book The Civilizing Process, the growing preoccupation of Europeans with ‘civilised’ and ‘barbaric’ behaviour during the Enlightenment led to an expanding threshold of repugnance around bodily excretions such as snot. Something viewed in largely neutral terms in the thirteenth century, by the eighteenth, snot was something we pretended we didn’t produce. Strict norms developed around nose blowing that focused on disguising and minimising the evidence of our secretions.

As social norms tightened around the disposal of snot outside the nose, etiquette guides increasingly turned to the snot within it – particularly in its dried, crusty form.2 Nose picking, previously invisible in discussions of nose blowing (presumably because it was ubiquitous3) had now become a problem.

French cartoon published in Almanach Pour Rire (‘Almanac for Laughs’) in 1870 which implies that the farmer’s manners are worse than the pig’s (public domain)

From the eighteenth century, nose picking became associated with a lack of breeding – something clearly evident in a cartoon from a nineteenth century French almanac, where a farmer affirms the association of nose picking with bad manners and ‘piggish’ behaviour. During this period, etiquette guides began to concern themselves with children’s habit of putting their fingers in their nose. In Elias’s words, ‘as with other childish habits, the health warning now appeared alongside or in place of the social one as an instrument of social conditioning, in the reference to the harm that could be done by doing “such a thing” too often’. In this framing, nose picking was something One Must Not Do – not only in front of others, but at all.

Here, the work of the anthropologist Mary Douglas on the concept of pollution helps to make sense of the historical changes Elias documents. In Purity and Danger, Douglas argues that contemporary notions of cleanliness are not merely the result of scientific knowledge about the relationship between dirt and disease; moral and aesthetic concerns are equally central. Dirt, according to Douglas, is matter out of place, so what is ‘dirty’ offends not just (or even primarily) medical imperatives but moral ones as well.

Snot, along with other bodily refuse (spittle, nail clipping, farts, etc.) exemplifies matter out of space. Because it traverses the body’s boundaries, it is liable to be perceived as especially polluting. We see this clearly in the different reception of nose picking and eye rubbing. Although both carry similar risks of infection, abrasions, etc., most of us would deem the former to be far less hygienic than the latter, because of snot’s association with dirt. For Douglas, then, hygiene is never just about physical hygiene but moral hygiene as well.

Although the moral connotations of the term ‘hygiene’ tend to be downplayed in contemporary accounts of the health risks of nose picking, they are strongly evident in earlier discussions of the health effects of the habit. A case in point is an article published in 1963 in the Journal of the American Medical Association by the physician Albert Seltzer. Simply titled ‘Nose picking’, the piece is basically a personal diatribe against nose picking disguised (poorly, it must be said) as an impartial examination of its health effects.

‘The physician is not so much interested in the social dictates of custom,’ Seltzer writes, ‘but he knows that nose-picking is not only a vulgar, ill-bred habit but a habit dangerous to health’. Nose picking, the reader is gravely informed, is associated not just with bleeding and infection, but perforation of the nasal septum,4 cancer, and even insanity.5

But despite warnings of the health risks posed by nose picking, it’s clearly very common6

– something every driver will have observed, given the number of people who choose to excavate their nose while stopped at traffic lights, presumably based on the premise that sitting in their car has magically made them invisible.

Sadly, this topic has been the focus of very little study, the primary exception being the handful of psychologists interested in rhinotillexomania, or compulsive nose-picking. However, the few available studies suggest that nose picking is basically universal.

For example, one survey of a random selection of adults in Wisconsin found that 91% of respondents were current nose pickers.7 Another survey of adolescents in schools in Bangalore, India, found that 96.5% picked their nose. In both studies, the reasons given for nose-picking were primarily functional – to unclog nasal passages or relieve discomfort, although about a fifth of respondents indicated that it was a habit, and a small minority indicated that it was actively pleasurable.

Significantly, nose picking is not just common in human primates but non-human ones. Although not exactly a well-studied topic, the evolutionary biologist Anne-Claire Fabre became interested the practice after filming an aye-aye (a type of Madagascan lemur) pick its nose.8 Fabre and her colleagues subsequently conducted a review of the literature and online sources on primate nose picking and found that at least twelve species of primate pick their nose, although the practice is understandably more common in primates with fine motor skills.9 Even more interestingly (or disgustingly, depending on your perspective) the majority ingested their nasal mucus.

For obvious reasons, mucophagy – a.k.a. eating snot – has not been studied in humans, although I’m pretty sure most of us have at least witnessed it, if not tried it ourselves.10 However, the authors of the Wisconsin study reported that 8% of their sample confessed to engaging in the practice, and the authors of the Indian study likewise reported that 4.5% were snot eaters. In Gastronaut, Stefan Gates suggests this figure is even higher. In his survey of 500 people, 44% of respondents admitted to eating their own snot as an adult, although ‘only 2% admitted to ever having eaten someone else’s’.

As Gates points out, our bodies are designed to consume snot. In point of fact, we actually eat it all the time. According to the rhinologist Carl Philpott, an adult’s nose produces approximately 750 ml of mucus everyday day – about three quarters of a carton of orange juice. Most of it flows down the inside of the nose to the back of the mouth, so we are constantly swallowing snot without thinking about it, except when a cold brings on postnastal drip, and we’re suddenly knocking back a gallon of mucus a day.

This places a somewhat different complexion on nose picking and snot eating. Indeed, one medical opinion (albeit a minority one) is that eating our dried snot actually boosts our immune system. Likewise, Fabre and her colleagues suggest that the prevalence of nose picking and mucophagy in our closest living relatives ‘casts a new light on nose picking as a behaviour and suggests that rather than being harmful or disgusting it may actually have an important functional role that remains to be understood’.

In sum, although snot is something we like to pretend we don’t produce, the disgust it currently induces is neither universal nor particularly old. Four hundred years ago, we were far less squeamish about the substance – a laissez-faire attitude retained in both our closest primate relatives and evident in children (at least, before they are enculturated out of it). Yet, based on the number of nose pickers and snot examiners amongst us, we can’t quite rid ourselves of our fascination with the substance, despite our best efforts. At the end of the day, we can’t forget snot and its gentle daily reminder11 that whatever else we might accomplish, we can’t transcend our bodies, or the debris they produce.



1 As evidenced by the fact that the practice has warranted its own linguistic upgrade in medical dictionaries: rhinotillexis.

2 This is today known by various terms such as ‘boogers’ (the American variant), ‘boogies’ or ‘bogeys’ (the British variant), and ‘dried snot’, which is the term I knew it by in Australia.*

*This basically proves Bill Bryson’s point in In A Sunburned Country that Australians are a deeply unimaginative lot when it comes to naming things – as evidenced by the hundreds of beaches in the country named ‘Sandy Bay’, ‘Shark Bay’, and ‘Mile-Long Beach’.

3 However, although the satiric site Hyperdiscordia suggests otherwise, we do not have numerous ancient images of people unconcernedly picking each other’s noses. The images posted on the website, such as one of ‘Nut, the Sky-goddess of ancient Egypt, delicately picking the nose of the young pharaoh’, have all been faked (quite effectively, it must be said; the site owner has some impressive Photoshop skills).

4 Although predating the film by decades, his description of the act of nose-picking seems to be based on a human prototype rivalling Edward Scissorhands: ‘When a finger is inserted into the nostril, the chief danger is from that hard horny protrusion at its end, the finger-nail, which can, at times, be almost razor-sharp and lethal’. While there have been instances of people perforating their nasal septum, this is limited to rare cases of rhinotillexomania, i.e., compulsive nose picking.

5 Seltzer doesn’t outright state this, he merely implies it. In his words, ‘This is not to say that nose-picking is a symptom of insanity, but the relationship of a habit mannerism to emotional trouble is good to remember’. Nose picking, by this measure, might not directly cause insanity, but it’s clearly a gateway to it.

6 Indeed, I have picked my nose at least twice while writing this piece – although writing it has certainly made me aware of how much I pick it!

7 In addition to the widespread prevalence of nose picking, the authors of the Wisconsin study found other frequent violations of snot etiquette, noting that ‘once removed, the nasal debris was examined, at least some of the time, by most respondents’ and while it was usually disposed of in a tissue, 28.6% used the floor and 7.6% the furniture.*

*Personally, I don’t find either of these practices objectionable. I, myself, keep a small pile of snot and fingernail clippings on my bedside table to keep such debris contained for later removal. And, yes, I should probably invest in a box of tissues for my nightstand.

8 This footage is worth watching if you can stomach it, because the aye-aye has an extremely long finger and a very small head and nose. Trying to figure out where on earth that finger was going (it looks like it’s going straight into its brain!) was part of what got Fabre interested in the topic. As it turns out, the finger goes from the sinus into the throat and then the mouth. In effect, what you are witnessing is a highly evolved delivery mechanism for eating one’s own snot.

9 Just think of the universe in Everything Everywhere All at Once where humans evolved to have hotdog fingers – good luck trying to excavate a nostril with sausage hands! That said, it’s anatomically possible to pick a nose with one’s toes, so perhaps the habit would not disappear entirely.

10 While not being a regular snot eater, I recall doing it at least once as a child, presumably out of curiosity; however, the taste was not compelling enough to repeat the experience.

11 And not so gentle reminder, when we have a head cold.

bottom of page