If you’ve ever had tears run down your cheeks into your mouth, you’ve probably noticed that they have a distinctly salty flavor.

So why are tears salty? The answer to this question is quite simple. Our tears are mostly made from the water in our body, and this water contains salt ions (electrolytes).

Of course, there’s a lot more to tears that just a salty taste. Keep reading to learn what tears are made of, where they come from, how they protect and lubricate our eyes, and why a good cry may make us feel better.

Tears are a complex mixture. According to the National Eye Institute (NEI), they’re made up of:

  • water
  • mucus
  • fatty oils
  • over 1,500 different proteins

Tears are formed in three layers that work to lubricate, nourish, and protect our eyes:

  • Outer layer. The oily outer layer is produced by the meibomian glands. This layer helps tears stay in the eye and keeps tears from evaporating too quickly.
  • Middle layer. The watery middle layer includes water-soluble proteins. It’s produced by the main lacrimal gland and accessory lacrimal glands. This layer protects and nourishes the cornea and conjunctiva, which is the mucous membrane covering the inside of the eyelids and the front of the eye.
  • Inner layer. The mucous inner layer is produced by goblet cells. It binds water from the middle layer, allowing it to spread evenly to keep the eye lubricated.

Tears are produced by glands located above the eyes and under your eyelids. Tears spread down from the glands and across the surface of your eye.

Some of the tears drain out through tear ducts, which are small holes near the corners of your eyelids. From there, they travel down to your nose.

In a typical year, a person will produce 15 to 30 gallons of tears, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO).

There are three primary types of tears:

  1. Basal tears. Basal tears are in your eyes at all time to lubricate, protect, and nourish your cornea.
  2. Reflex tears. Reflex tears are produced in response to irritation, such as by smoke, wind, or dust. Reflex tears are what we produce when confronted with syn-propanethial-S-oxide from slicing onions.
  3. Emotional tears. Emotional tears are produced in response to pain, including physical pain, empathetic pain, sentimental pain, as well as emotional states, such as sadness, happiness, fear, and other emotional states.

Waking up with crust in the corners of your eyes is quite common. According to the University of Utah, these hardened bits are typically a mix of:

  • tears
  • mucus
  • oils
  • exfoliated skin cells

While this mix is usually taken care of during the day by blinking, during sleep your eyes are closed and there’s no blinking. Gravity helps it collect and harden in the corners and at the edges of your eyes.

According to a 2018 study, as you age, the protein profiles of your tears can change. Also, according to the National Institute of Aging, dry eye — a condition caused by tear glands not performing at optimal level — is more common as people age, especially for women after menopause.

The beneficial effects of crying has been studied in recent literature. Researchers hypothesize that the act of crying and expressing one’s emotions can bring relief, while holding in or bottling up one’s emotions may lead to mental distress.

There’s also research about the composition of emotional tears. Scientists believe that emotional tears may contain proteins and hormones not typically found in basal or reflex tears. And these hormones may be linked to mood enhancement and stress reduction.

However, a 2015 study found that it’s the “dip and subsequent return of emotions to previous levels that might make criers feel as if they are in a much better mood after they have shed some tears.”

More research about the effects of crying and the composition of emotional tears is needed before we can determine whether they can provide emotional therapy.

Every time you blink, your tears clean your eyes. Tears keep your eyes smooth, moist, and protected from:

  • the environment
  • irritants
  • infectious pathogens

Your tears are salty because they contain natural salts called electrolytes.