I gently pulled my kid’s glistening, golden booger-topped finger away from his mouth. Grimacing, I pleaded for him to stop. He giggled nervously, but the second my hand left his arm, he popped the snot-crowned finger between his lips.
“Gross, dude!” I exclaimed, exasperated.
I added that he had to stop. I didn’t know if that was true in a medical sense, but I did know his 4-year-old brother had recently picked up the habit. Every time I caught the two placidly munching mucus, I was flooded with a wave of disgust and anxiety. However, in moments of quiet reflection, I could never come up with a substantial reason to be concerned by this behavior, aside from it being dry-heave worthy and potentially romantically limiting in a decade or so. So I decided I wouldn’t sweat the small stuff, provided I could confirm that this was indeed small stuff. Naturally, I turned to the internet, which knows from gross.
The snot content from various websites ranged from enthusiastic (“Study: Children who eat their own boogers may have stronger immunity than peers”) to prescriptive (“How to teach your child to stop eating his boogers”) to frightening (“Is Picking Your Nose and Eating Boogers a Disorder?”). More than that it was confusing and conflicting.
Some sites suggested that picking and eating was a good way for kids to get sick—not from the snot, but from their filthy hands. Some suggested that it could be linked to a psychological disorder called PICA which causes sufferers to consume the unconsumable, like clay or couch stuffing. Some suggested that it could actually help a kid build their immune system by micro-dosing him or her with bacteria.
But for all the supposed facts, there were very few sources of any repute. Being a reporter by trade, I decided to do the reporting necessary to provide a thorough review of Chez Nez.
I started with the pre-eminent booger-doctor most often quoted in the nose nug stories, an “Innsbruck-based lung specialist” named Dr. Friedrich Bischinger. His comments on the subject of eating sinus gems are effusive and common online. He’s often quoted as saying: “Medically it makes great sense and is a perfectly natural thing to do … and when this mixture arrives in the intestines it works just like a medicine.”
Any reasonable person would assume a doctor who makes such grand statements would have peer-reviewed research to back it up. Not so. I failed to find a single study by Bischinger on nasal mucus. The source of the quote seems to be the Avanova news service, which was an early aughts platform created for a newsreading robot. I was not, as they say, biting.
Lacking a way to reach out to the possibly non-existent Austrian doc, I found another researcher, Dr. Scott Napper of the University of Saskatchewan. Napper is a biochemist cited in the most contemporary stories about supposed studies regarding slurping schnoz-solids. He’s quoted as telling the Telegraph: “Maybe when you have an urge to pick your nose and eat it, you should just go with nature.”
Again, the elusive Dr. Friedrich Bischinger makes an appearance as a supposed co-author of the study. But there is no study. The idea of the study seems to come from a CTV News Saskatchewan (seriously) segment in which Napper, who is both real and really a doctor, discussed the possibility of conducting an experiment at some point in the future. I reached out to Napper himself several times to confirm that such a study had taken place—all to no avail. I tracked down another study referenced in an article by Bustle. The title of that study: Salivary Mucins Protect Surfaces from Colonization by Cariogenic Bacteria at least had the word “mucins” in it. Leaping on this promising lead I sent an email to study co-author, Professor Katharina Ribbeck of MIT. This following reply soon arrived:
“I want to clarify that the ‘nose picking’ study that is brought in association with our work is originally from Professor Friedrich Bischinger and not from my research group. The media has incorrectly linked our study with Bischinger’s conclusion. The study from my lab that is being cited here is on salivary mucins and our work more broadly suggests that mucus across the internal linings of our body (such as in the mouth, the lungs, the intestine and the cervix) has protective effects which we could potentially leverage for new lines of therapeutics. We did not study boogers, or even nasal mucus.”
Bischinger! (Shakes fist.)
I’d arrived at a dead end and launched myself through the netherworlds of increasingly desperate Google Scholar searches. I read studies about people so obsessed with nose picking they drilled holes through their septums. I read reports about people who ate mucus being associated with increasingly disturbing mental disorders. I discovered a study suggesting 91 percent of people pick their nose. Another study suggested all of this nose picking was spreading Staphylococcus aureus. One study examined nasal mucus proteins including one frighteningly named “Deleted in Malignant Brain Tumors 1”
It was all too much. My anxiety and frustration reached a fever pitch. Based on my research, my kids were either going to be fine or very sick or have the septums of 1980s day traders. In a moment of clarity, I did what I should have done in the first place: I reached out to a doctor. Dr. Gary Freed, director of the Division of General Pediatrics at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, sent a curt but helpful reply:
“Bottom line: It is safe. However, kids who pick their noses more than others are at higher risk of nosebleeds.”
Good enough. I’ve decided to wash my hands of the issue, and encourage my boys to wash theirs more often. My parenting intervention for my little booger eaters now consists of nothing more than a little life advice: Private body things should, speaking generally, not be done in public. They can pick their noses and eat it until they’re married or until there’s definite proof that it makes them sick. I just don’t want to see it. Me being totally grossed out is the one negative side effect I could absolutely confirm.