A few years ago Hearing International briefly touched on the topic of ear candling or ear coning as part of a larger discussion of cerumen management. While ear candling is an obscure procedure in many parts of the world, there are places where alternative medicine advocates use the procedure to address many ear problems. The procedure supposedly creates a low-level vacuum that draws wax and other debris out of the ear canal.
The consensus of ear candling practitioners, who may be barbers, beauticians, witches, voodoo priests or quacks, is that the candles work by producing a vacuum and drawing cerumen (earwax) blockage out of the ear. Even if the practice worked for cerumen removal; Roazen (2013), an emergency physician, notes that proponents claim that ear candling does a lot more, including removal of impurities from the inner ear, the facial sinuses, or even the brain itself, all of which are somehow connected to the ear canal. Below is a list of the functions that ear candling is purported to perform:
To professionals, such as otolaryngologists, family practitioners, and audiologists who routinely assess and treat auditory and other disorders, this sounds like quackery. Nevertheless, ear candling as a means of removing ear wax has become a popular alternative medicine therapy and many patients have been led to believe the process actually removes the cerumen.
Although the technique seems strange to educated people in the West, consider that in some parts of the world cerumen removal is conducted by street vendors and a recent Japanese trend is for a Geisha to remove the wax, offering a sort of EARotic cerumen removal experience. These other procedures notwithstanding, most professionals feel that ear candling is a procedure that does not remove wax and may have some undesirable results.
Ear Candling: History
Although ear candling is said to be an ancient practice, its origin and history are unclear. Places and cultures as diverse as China, Egypt, the pre-Columbian Americas, Tibet, the mythical city of Atlantis, and the Hopi Indian tribe have been mentioned as having originated the practice. No one seems to know for certain, but the Hopi Tribal Council has publicly stated that the Hopi people do not and have never practiced ear candling.
Who really knows how long this procedure has been around, possibly even practiced by witches, such as those at The Mother Moon, who call themselves the Real Witches of Orange County. So it appears that people in many cultures have been ear candling for quite some time and no one really knows who is responsible or when it began.
Ear Candling Procedure: How is it Supposed to Work?
Most ear candles sold in the United States are manufactured here or in Canada and retail for between $2 and $10. They can be made of linen or cotton (often unbleached, as practitioners claim that chlorine is bad for the ears) soaked in wax or paraffin and allowed to harden. Ironically, one manufacturer uses only pure beeswax, claiming that paraffin is carcinogenic. Some candles are colored, which is controversial in ear-candling circles, though the color of pure beeswax varies. Home varieties include wax-soaked newspaper and cones of pottery into which herbal smoke is blown. Some waxes contain herbs or other substances, including sage, chamomile, rose, rosemary, burdock root, osha root, periwinkle, jojoba, quassia bark, yucca root, or honey.
Probably to avoid difficulty with the FDA, White Egret, Inc., offers candles, plate guards, a 73-page manual, a 30-minute videotape, flame-retardant cloths, ear oil, and an otoscope. Its wholesale flyer states that its candles are “for entertainment only” and that its kits “supply you with everything you need for a safe and effective session of entertainment.” The ear candling procedure (Click for video of the procedure) itself involves putting a hollow cone-shaped device or “candle,” typically made of linen or cotton soaked in wax or paraffin, in the ear canal, and lighting it on fire. The person undergoing the procedure lies on his or her side. A paper plate or other collection device is placed above the ear, and the candle is inserted through a hole in the plate into the ear canal. The candle is lit, and trimmed as it burns down. After the candle burns down and is removed from the ear, a cotton swab is used to clean visible wax from the ear, and oil is sometimes applied as a finishing touch.
This reminds us at Hearing International of the classic Doors hit,…Come on, Baby, Light My Fire! The process usually ends with a sort of “earwax looking substance inside the candle. The problem is that this material is likely a result of the process of burning the candle and not earwax. In the picture at right, the left labeled “control” is burning the candle without insertion in the ear and the right labeled “used in patient” is after the ear candling procedure and the material inside the candle is identical.
What About the FDA?
The FDA has prohibited ear candle manufacturers or practitioners from advertising that ear cleaning candles can cure ear aches, sinus infections, tinnitus, headaches, vertigo or other health problems. In 2010 the FDA notified consumers and healthcare providers of its warning not to use ear candles as they can cause serious injuries, even when used according to the manufacturer’s directions.
Their postings cite concerns about the advertised claims by alternative medicine and ear candle manufacturers that a burning ear candle draws ear wax, “impurities” or “toxins” out of the ear canal. They also cite concerns about other claims for ear candles that include relief from sinus and ear infections, headache and earache, as well as improved hearing, “blood purification,” improvements in brain function, and cure cancer.
While the FDA has received reports of burns, perforated eardrums and blockage of the ear canal that required outpatient surgery from the use of ear candles, they have found no valid scientific evidence to support the safety or effectiveness of these devices for any medical claims or benefits.
To make matters even worse, some ear candles are being advertised for use with children. According to the FDA warning, children of any age, including babies, are likely at increased risk for injuries and complications if they are exposed to ear candles. Small children and infants may move during the use of the device, increasing the likelihood of wax burns and ear candle wax plugging up the ear canal. Also, their smaller ear canal size may make children more susceptible than adults to injuries.
What Do Professionals & Researchers Think?
As one might imagine, professionals are totally skeptical about this procedure. There are a few research studies on this topic. One published in Laryngoscope (Seely et al, 1996) denies that any vacuum effect takes place as a result of lighting an ear wax candle, and that ear candling is more likely to result in wax deposits dripping into the ear.
In their study, tympanometric measurements in an ear canal model demonstrated that ear candles do not produce negative pressure. Their limited clinical trial (eight ears) showed no removal of cerumen from the external auditory canal. Candle wax was actually deposited in some of the subjects.
A survey of 122 otolaryngologists identified 21 ear injuries resulting from ear candle use. Their conclusion was that ear candles have no benefit in the management of cerumen and may result in serious injury. Ernst (2004) in an article from the UK indicates ear candling as a “triumph of ignorance over science.”