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About Ear Candles

This article is intended for those who are unfamiliar with ear candles, and those who are looking for an overview that they can refer others to. This information is based on a number of sources, which can be found on the Resources page. It is a work in progress and I welcome any and all suggestions and constructive criticism. Please use the Contact form to submit them.

What are ear candles?

An ear candle, or ear cone, is a thin hollow tube of linen or muslin cloth, soaked in paraffin or beeswax, tapered at one end. Some are scented with herbs, honey, or aromatherapy oils.

What are they used for?

Ear candles are used in an alt-med treatment known as 'ear candling', which is often presented as a substitute for the more standard practice of flushing the ear canal with warm water using a syringe.

During a treatment a candle is lit and placed in the ear, either at a 45 degree angle or sticking straight up in the air (instructions and practices vary). A paper or foil plate is put between the lit end of the candle and the ear of the user to prevent wax and ash from dripping on them. When lit, the cloth itself acts as the wick and it burns fairly slowly. Once the candle has burned down to almost the bottom, the candle is snuffed and the process may be repeated for the other ear, or sometimes doing one or both ears twice. Ear candles are usually sold as a home remedy, but candling is also offered as a service by naturopaths, various other alt-med practitioners, and even beauticians and spa workers.

As with many alternative treatments the claims you'll hear made for this treatment vary greatly from source to source. The most basic claims are that the heat from the flame melts and loosens the wax in the ear canal, and creates negative pressure which draws the ear wax and impurities out of the ear and into the candle. This is referred to as the 'chimney effect'.

But there are far more amazing claims being made for ear candles! Proponents claim they can:

  • Remove 'toxins'
  • Relieve sinus pressure and pain
  • Assist lymphatic circulation
  • 'Fortify' the central nervous system
  • 'Purify' the blood, mind, etc.
  • Improve hearing and other senses
  • Cure/help tinnitus, ear infections, vertigo, migraines
  • 'Open' and 'align' chakras, spiritual centres, etc.
  • ...and much, much more!

As proof of this, proponents often point to the contents left in the candle after a treatment. When a candling session is complete, the practitioner cuts open the stub of the candle (or empties it with a skewer) and shows the contents to the customer. Inside is an unattractive, dark, waxy residue, sometimes accompanied by a black or whitish powder. The practitioner then claims that the residue is the wax which has been drawn out of the customer's ear, and that the powder is the 'impurities' or 'toxins'.

This waxy residue and powder is actually nothing more than the product of the candle itself, left over from the burning. However, to the uninformed consumer this display can be quite impressive, especially when accompanied by the regular contributions of regression to the mean, placebo effects, confirmation bias, etc. I imagine this experience must be similar to that of people seeing the change in colour of the detox foot pads they've been wearing.

Where do ear candles come from?

Visiting alt-med websites you'll see ear candles variously claimed as originating in China, Siberia, ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, or pre-Columbian North and/or South American cultures but there is no strong evidence (that I could find) for any of these claims.

The most widely claimed origin is of the Hopi tribe of North America and for this reason they are sometimes marketed as 'Hopi Ear Candles'. In truth the Hopi people deny that they have ever used ear candles and are quite upset that people continue to use their name in marketing their products.

Does ear candling work? What does the research say?

Ear candling does not work. There is no evidence to support any of the claims made for ear candles.

Beside candle residue the only other argument proponents really have are testimonials and anecdotes, but the results of peer-reviewed research squarely contradicts these.

There isn't a lot of published research on ear candles, and as we might expect the practitioners and manufacturers of the candles have yet to produce any peer-reviewed publications of their own. The few research papers that have been published mainly examined if the claimed method of action, the 'chimney effect', actually exists and if the procedure actually removes wax. All results have been negative.

The abstract of a frequently cited paper, Ear candles--efficacy and safety, published in the journal Laryngoscope, summarized their tests as such:

Tympanometric measurements in an ear canal model demonstrated that ear candles do not produce negative pressure. A limited clinical trial (eight ears) showed no removal of cerumen from the external auditory canal. Candle wax was actually deposited in some.

It's worth noting that even if the chimney effect existed, and the candles did generate negative pressure, the amount that would be required to pull wax from the canal would be so powerful that it would rupture the eardrum in the process.

What are the risks involved?

The above-mentioned Laryngoscope study included survey results of 122 otolaryngologists who identified 21 cases of serious ear injury resulting from ear candle use. Injuries from ear candles can include

  • Temporary loss of hearing
  • Painful burns from wax both in and around ears
  • Burns from fire
  • Ringing in ears
  • Ear canal blockage
  • Ear drum puncture
  • Death

Yes, even death. There have been two reported cases in of people lighting their houses on fire. In one of these cases the person escaped their house but died in the hospital emergency room from an asthma attack.

What is their status in Canada?

In Canada, ear candles are categorized as a Class III Medical Device. This means that they require a licence in order to be made or sold. Because of the danger they pose and the total lack of evidence for efficacy, Health Canada refuses to issue licences. This makes any sale of ear candles in Canada illegal. In addition, it is illegal to import ear candles into Canada.

Health Canada's position is best summed up by this quote from their website:

The practice of ear candling has recently become popular as an alternative therapy. Some promoters say it is an ancient treatment that can cure a number of medical problems. Don't listen: ear candling is dangerous, and has no proven medical benefits.

Unfortunately, some people don't care how dangerous or ineffective ear candles are, and they are still available in Canada. Ear candling is a popular service provided by naturopaths, spas, 'wellness' centres and beauty clinics. My own research has revealed that many of these people are illegally importing the candles from the U.S. In addition, candles are sold both openly and under the table by health food stores, organic markets and other places selling 'natural health products'. I have also learned that there are at least 3 companies in Canada that are still manufacturing them! One of these, Candlear, is currently under investigation as a result of a complaint I submitted in June 2010.

Summary

The sale and importing of ear candles is illegal in Canada. Their use poses considerable potential for injury and is ineffective in the treatment of anything. Health Canada considers them dangerous and has advised the public not to use them.

References

1.  Medical Devices. Health Canada.
2. It's Your Health - Ear Candling. Health Canada.
3. Ear Candling. Wikipedia.
4. Seely DR, Quigley SM, Langman AW. "Ear candles—efficacy and safety". Laryngoscope. 1996 Oct;106(10):1226-9.
5. Kaushall P, Kaushall JN. "On Ear Cones and Candles". Skeptical Inquirer 24.5. Sept/Oct 2000
6. Elizabeth Bromstein. "Wax on, wax off. Does candling clear canal or burn it?" NOW Magazine 24.20. 2005 Jan 13
7. "Beloved nurse dies in apartment fire". Tundra Drums 32.47. 2005 Feb 3

This article also draws on my original research that I have yet to formally write up. I intend to add this research to the site in the near future, after which it will be properly included in these references.

Further reading