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What is an MX Record?

MX records showing sender to recipient communication and mail server routing.

If you’re interested in learning more about online security and how different components of the Internet work, a basic search of terms can feel overwhelming. When you see technical vocabulary like SMTP, CNAME, and MX record, you may be tempted to let your mind drift and dream about penguins. You are not alone.

However, most of these technical terms can be easily broken down into understandable language. If you possess even basic knowledge of how different aspects of the Internet operate, you may find it’s easier to protect yourself online and troubleshoot your own online issues.

Let’s take a look at what an MX record is and why it’s an important component to help you send email. 

What you need to know about MX records

MX records are extremely important to a seamless email process. The name exudes coolness, and it should — it provides a vital function. Nevertheless, the average Internet user may not even be aware that MX records exist.

The semi-uncomplicated definition of an MX record 

The MX stands for “mail exchange.” An MX record is integrated as part of the Domain Name System (DNS). It acts as a signal for where emails should go. Without an MX record, your email wouldn’t go to a designated address and you wouldn’t receive email, either. 

It provides a list of email data within the DNS such as email addresses and domain hosts. 

For example, say you send a work email to a specific person at a company, but that individual was recently let go from said company. Their prior email address will no longer show up in the company’s servers’ MX records. You will receive an “email could not be sent” message.

How does it work?

If an IP address is like a home address for computers, an MX record is a postal code. It communicates with your email service provider and essentially says, “Here’s where you should direct this email. Thanks.”

It directs email to specific server addresses and indicates the route of an email within the Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). Think of it as an email sensei. It always knows just where your email belongs, and servers turn to it for this guided wisdom.

Domain names and MX records

The domain name (or the information after the “@” symbol) is where MX records earn their magical wisdom. After you’ve entered [email protected] as your intended email recipient, the MX record will do a quick scan of their endless treasure trove of domain knowledge.

If the domain name appears in the database, you can exhale a sigh of relief. Your email won’t get lost in the endless ether of the Internet. However, if a recipient has closed their email account, or you’re unwittingly sending your message to a dark, false domain kingdom, the MX record will stop the transmission.

An MX record specifies the mail server responsible for receiving email messages on behalf of a domain.

The role of an MX record in cyber security

This magical Internet tool helps with cyber security as well. The MX record requires no real work from you. As long as you’re entering a legitimate address, it will take over and do the rest.

MX records can help:

Block erroneous or shady domains from infiltrating your operating system (OS):

Say the MX record cannot identify a domain that’s trying to connect with you, or if you’ve accidentally entered a scammy email address into your email’s “send” field. It will then block these messages from appearing in your inbox.

Reduce phishing scams from appearing in your inbox:

A high-functioning MX record can help filter out malicious emails that employ phishing tactics or attach files full of malware.

Block spam:

The ability of an email service provider to block spam is directly related to the efficiency of their MX record. 

If you’ve hung onto an email account from the dawn of the Internet, you may find that no matter how many times you’ve marked a domain as “spam,” it still worms its way into your inbox.

However, service providers such as Gmail utilize the most current form and have excellent filters for spam.

Ensure backup servers:

MX records don’t depend on just one server in order to work properly. Thus, if a server experiences a cyber attack, the MX record can divert emails through a backup server. This leaves your email account less exposed to malware attacks.

Provide data protection:

An MX record helps bolster the protection of the data you transmit. Think of it as the difference between “snail” mailing a confidential letter to your friend Blake, and pinning your personal information up to a neighborhood tag board with “For Blake’s Eyes Only” written in big block letters.

It ensures your vital email reaches its intended destination and doesn’t fall into nefarious online hands.    

Can an MX record point toward an IP address?  

The short answer here is yes. But it’s considered a shaky practice to point to an IP address. Anti-spam software may flag anything sent directly to an IP and flag your domain or website.  

What is an MX record and what role does it play in email communication?

What is a backup MX record?

Another term you may see in relation to MX records, DNS, and emails is a backup MX record. A backup MX record functions as a backup email server. Most email service providers utilize more than one MX record and assign each a priority.

The priority designations are somewhat counterintuitive. The lowest priority value goes first. For example, the main MX record may have a priority of 5 and the backup may be assigned a priority of 25.

However, the backups do exactly as one might assume. They allow a different server to step in should the “lowest priority” email server go down. You can even configure backup MX records on your own to ensure you don’t experience email service disruption.

Useful tools and insights from What Is My IP Address 

At What Is My IP Address, we care about keeping you informed on the ever-growing threats in cyber security and teaching you how to protect your online presence. We understand that while technology can be advantageous, fun, and exciting, it can also feel complicated and overwhelming.

We offer tools such as the Blacklist Check, the Data Breach Check, and the VPN Leak Check to help you seamlessly navigate through your online activity and remain safe from cyber criminals. Be sure to check out our blog for answers to other questions and the latest cyber security insights and trends.  

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