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Ear Candling: Not a Good Idea

Frederic E. Levy, MD

"Ear Candling" refers to a procedure that involves placing a wax-covered paper cone device in the ear canal, lighting it and supposedly extracting earwax and other impurities from the ear and other parts of the head. Ear candling is proposed to create a low-level vacuum that draws wax and other debris out of the ear canal. Some claim that candling can: relieve sinus pressure, purify the mind, cure ear infections, stabilize emotions, purify the blood and clear the eyes. Candles sold for home use range from $2-4. The procedure is performed by natural health practitioners and spas for $30-80. Most instructions direct the person undergoing the procedure to lie on their side. A collecting plate is supposed to be placed above the ear, and the candle is inserted through a hole in the plate and into the ear canal. The candle is lit, and heat develops on the inside of the cone. This is claimed to be able to pull wax from the ear. Providers often show the customer material that collected in the cone, claiming that this gray substance is ear wax. In actuality ear wax is golden to orangish brown in color.

There is no scientific proof to support claims that ear candling provides medical benefits. Laboratory tests have showed that ear candling produces no significant heating or suction in the ear canal. It would take a substantial amount of vacuum or negative pressure to be able to suction sticky, moist wax from a narrow ear canal. No ear wax collects in the center of an ear candle, just paraffin that dripped from the flame down into the apex of the cone. One study tested candles by lighting them and placing them in a clean glass of water. The identical grayish buildup seen when the candle is used in a human ear was noted. The buildup has been tested by "mass spectroscopy" showing all of the material came from the paraffin candle and none of it was earwax.

In 1996, a report published in the medical journal Laryngoscope concluded that "ear candles have no benefit in the management if cerumen (ear wax) and may result in serious injury." Authors of a Canadian report, all of whom were medical doctors, conducted a survey of 122 ear specialists. They found 21 cases of serious injury caused by ear candling. These included burns to the ear, paraffin that cooled and blocked the ear canal and perforations of the eardrum requiring surgery. In Gaston and Cleveland counties I have personally seen three patients who came to me with a hole in the eardrum from candling, all of which I surgically repaired.

The Food and Drug Administration has banned importation of ear candles. Domestic produced candles marketed with "health" claims are classified as medical devices. As such, they are illegal to market without FDA approval, which none of them have. Despite these actions, ear candles are still widely available through the internet and at organic and health food stores.

For most people, ear wax moves along the ear canal and eventually makes it to the outside in small fragments. Not everyone's ears produce wax. Only about ten percent of people produce a large amount that requires help with removal. Compacted ear wax should be removed by a physician or other health professional using legitimate instruments. Wax can be flushed from the ear or gently scooped out of the canal. The position of the American Academy of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgeons (Ear, Nose and Throat/ENT Doctors) of which I am one, is that ear candling is ineffective and dangerous.