Why We Cry and What Tears Are Made Of

Fascinating facts about what tears do for your eyes and more
girl crying close up

Wondering what are tears good for? Well, lots of things. According to wellness expert Michael Roizen, MD, tears are extremely useful. They help you see clearly. They wash debris from your eyes. They communicate all kinds of feelings.

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On the subject, you may also be wondering other things like what are tears made of? Why do tears taste salty? Do women cry more than men? Or what happens when you make too many tears?

Dr. Roizen walks us through all of the amazing facts about the fluid that fills our eyes each and every day.

Why do we cry?

We cry for a variety of reasons. “Crying for emotional reasons makes you feel better, releases tension and gives you a psychic reboot,” Dr. Roizen says. “Crying also happens for physical reasons to deliver nutrients and wash out stress-related toxins. And we cry for social reasons to communicate distress, sincerity, attraction, aversion – depending on the context.” 

The fluid that makes up tears contains water, for moisture and oils for lubrication and to prevent evaporation of tear liquid. Tears also contain mucus for even spreading of tears on the surface of the eyes as well as antibodies and special proteins for resistance to infection. Oxygen and nutrients are also transported to the surface cells of the eyes by tears, since there are no blood vessels on the eyes.

There are three kinds of tears, and each has very different jobs. Some tears keep your eyes moist, some wash away debris and protect your eyes from infections, Dr. Roizen says. Some tears are paired with our emotions. 

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Here’s why without all three kinds, life would look much blurrier.

The 3 kinds of tears

  1. Basal tears. These are your basic tears. The eyes roll around in them all day. They contain oil, mucus, water and salt, and help to fight infections. The oil keeps your tears in place and prevents them from evaporating into the atmosphere. Blinking spreads them evenly over the surface of the eye.
  2. Irritant tears. These are your eyewash tears. They come gushing out of glands under the eyebrows when you peel onions, vomit or get dust in your eye. They flush out irritants to keep your eyes clean.
  3. Psychic or emotional tears. These tears gush in response to strong emotions like sadness, grief, joy or anger. They all contain the same chemical makeup, but more stress hormones and natural painkillers than other kinds of tears. Humans and animals have compounds in our body fluids that give off subtle messages to other members of the species. That’s why sometimes our tears can relay chemical messages (either intended or unintended) to someone close by like, “stay away,” for example.

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology emotional tears are triggered by empathy, compassionate and societal pain, physical pain, attachment-related pain, and sentimental or moral feelings. Some studies also suggest people are more likely to feel better after crying if they received social support while doing it.

Why are tears salty?

All fluids in the body have a little salt in them, Dr. Roizen notes. The salt content in tears is about the same as the salt content of blood plasma. Salt is necessary to the proper functioning of the body overall.

Do women cry more often than men?

Yes. About 60% more in fact. Nobody knows why. But a chemical in psychic tears is associated with the production of breast milk. So that’s something research does consider. Men also have smaller tear ducts which may factor in. 

Why do tears come out of your nose?

 This is not pretty, but it’s nature’s way. The nose and eyes are connected by tiny passages. Tears are, in fact, meant to drain down your nose and throat.

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When you have too many tears

The tiny openings in the inner corner of your eyelids are drains. When you get a cold, they can swell and get blocked. Then tears overflow onto your face. Sometimes the tear glands produce too little oil for the basal tear mix. This can also cause an ongoing tear spill. If you have this problem, talk to your doctor because there are treatments that can help.

Why do my eyes get dry?

Your eyes can temporarily dry out because of atmospheric conditions. But they can also dry out from disease. Some medications and cancer treatments can also cause dry eyes. “Drug stores carry different types of artificial tears to treat dry eyes,” Dr. Roizen recommends. “But if this sort of thing goes on, see your doctor to obtain treatments that can help with any eye conditions you may have and treat the underlying causes.”

Uncontrollable tears

There’s a neurological condition called pathological laughing and crying. It’s caused by Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and other brain diseases. If this happens, be sure to consult your doctor and details your symptoms so you can receive the proper treatment, Dr. Roizen says.

True or false?

If the first tear comes from the right eye, it means happiness and if it comes from the left eye, it’s sadness. Short answer: No. Long answer: Not true.

“Remember, all tears are there for the greater good,” Dr. Roizen says, “so there’s absolutely no need for you to ever hold them back.”

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