Perform a quick online search for “ear candling,” and you’ll be bombarded with over 600,000 results immediately. You’ll find claims ranging from “candling cures a wide number of diseases,” as well as removing ear wax, all the way to warnings about how dangerous and ineffective the process can be.
Ear candling, sometimes referred to as simply “candling” or “ear coning,” is a common therapeutic practice used in natural health centers all over the world. Practitioners will often recommend this procedure to clients with hearing loss, vertigo, tinnitus, cold/flu symptoms and a long list of other symptoms.
However, the FDA in the United States, as well as similar organizations in other countries, have outlawed the use of ear candling to claim any sort of medical benefit and cautioned the public to “just say no.” (1)
That sounds a little mind-boggling, don’t you think?
Let me help you separate the fact from fiction. We’ll dig into what the background, process, pros and cons of ear candling truly are and how to remove ear wax.
What Is Ear Candling?
An ear candle is a hollow cone created from unbleached fabric, usually linen, soaked in paraffin, beeswax or soy wax. They range in length, averaging about a foot long.
First, you’ll be instructed to lie on your side and make sure your face and outer ear are protected by something like a plate. It will have a hole cut in the middle around the candle to avoid burns from wax drippings. Your practitioner should gently insert the tapered end of the candle into your ear canal at a 90 degree angle from the ear.
For 10 to 15 minutes, you’ll enjoy the pleasant, crackling sound of the burning candle as the person burning it cuts off the end of the cloth every two inches or so. When about four inches remain, the candle is removed from the ear and then blown out.
Turn over. Repeat. Then, look at the disgusting gunk that came out of your ears. How could all of that stuff have been in my head, you ask?
Supposedly, ear candling creates a vacuum inside the ear in order to draw out ear wax. Because of the buildup in the ear canal seen on the burned candle, it’s easy to see why people prescribe ear candles for things such as: (2)
- Excess ear wax
- Swimmer’s ear
- Hearing loss
- Sinus infection
- Cold/flu symptoms
So, here we have the million-dollar question — does it really work?
Does Ear Candling Actually Work?
Our preliminary question should actually be, “Do I need to remove excess ear wax?”
The answer, in most cases, is “no.”
Ear wax, or “cerumen,” is present in the ear on purpose. For the vast majority of people, wax removal is completely unnecessary. (Yes, you should pay attention to the warning on the Q-tips® box.)
The ears are designed to self-clean. They should almost always function normally by sloughing off ear wax as necessary, discarding it outside the ear. Sometimes people experience a hardening of ear wax.
Overall, the process of ear wax removal is simply not a common need. (3) However, if you are experiencing excess ear wax, should you turn to ear candling as a safe, proven method to remove the wax?
Let’s look at the science behind this procedure.
First of all, studies from as far back as the 1990s show that no negative pressure results from ear candles. (4) Actually, the amount of vacuum pressure required to “suck out” wax from the ear would burst your eardrum! Research shows that ear candling results in no ear wax removal whatsoever. Sometimes it even leaves behind candle wax inside the ear canal as well as powdery ash. (5)
In addition, many proponents of candling/coning will insist that the gunky residue left inside the candle after its use proves that the practice removes “impurities.” Unfortunately, the evidence is overwhelming that the gunk is nothing more than candle leftovers. The way a used ear candle looks inside is the same, whether or not you burn it attached to an ear or out in the air.
Finally, WebMD, The American Academy of Audiology and Mayo Clinic (as well as other respected sources) warn patients of the potential dangers resulting from ear candling, including burns, candle wax deposits in the ear and even hearing loss. (6, 7)
This is probably one reason why Edzard Ernst, a renowned complementary medicine practitioner, claimed that, “The inescapable conclusion is that ear candles do more harm than good. Their use should be discouraged.” (8)
Still, this practice is encouraged by many today. What benefits might ear candling offer that warrant all this attention? And, more importantly, do the benefits ever outweigh the risks?
The Proposed Benefits of Ear Candling
Some reports indicate that the practice of ear candling was not originally intended to remove ear wax at all. Instead, ancient doctors are said to have performed coning (as it’s referred to in historical literature) as a way to relax the senses and create a sense of calm.
A controversial “Letter of Recommendation” was released in the NY Times in 2016 in favor of ear candling — not as a method for ear wax removal, but as a way to slow down with a circle of close friends, put away their phones and simply spend time in a peaceful atmosphere. (9)
It’s possible that ear candling sessions offer some therapeutic value, if for no other reason than the crackling fire sound accompanied by up to an hour of stillness.
I’m a big fan of natural stress relievers, including meditation and stillness. However, it’s also very important to ensure the benefits outweigh the risks of any stress relief trick.
Risks and Side Effects
1. You can get burned — literally
Otolaryngologists (the ear, nose and throat doctors) have said in various surveys that some injuries they’ve treated as a result of candling include burns on the face, ears and neck.
One Canadian ENT physician reported a case of a patient who had been so badly burned during one session that his ear canal was damaged and his eardrum perforated. Apparently, an entire day was dedicated to the reconstruction of his ear. (10)
And it’s not just skin burns, either — at least one person has died as the result of a fire started during a candling session.
2. You may end up with candle wax and ash inside your ear
Most of the reported damage that occurs during ear candling involves a deposit of candle wax within the ear. This then has to be removed by a doctor.
A case presented in Canadian Family Physician described a middle-aged woman who had visited her general practitioner after an ear candling session in which the person doing the session burned herself and subsequently poured wax into the patient’s ear.
After an internal ear examination, the doctor found a piece of solidified candle wax in the patient’s ear. She then had to be put under general anesthetic and have the wax piece removed by an otolaryngologist. The doctor also located a small tear within the ear that resulted in hearing loss that had not improved after a month of recovery. (12)
Another case study discussed a 4-year-old girl who had an ear infection. During her examination, her doctor found white deposits on her eardrum that were confirmed to be the result of a recent ear candling session. (13)
The London Free Press (in Canada) reported another candling session gone wrong, where a woman required surgery due to the ear wax deposited in her ear.
A Toronto woman now lives with permanent ringing in her ears after a months-long medical battle to remove the candle wax left in her ears after ear candling.
In Iran, a woman visited an ear, nose and throat clinic complaining of ear pain and had to have candle wax left from an ear candling clinic removed. Fortunately, she did not experience any additional injury or hearing loss. (14)
After the publication of an article on ear candling on AudiologyOnline, students in an audiology program at Nova Southeastern University contacted the website after conducting an experiment to figure out what exactly ear candles left behind.
They examined detailed internal photos of the ear before and after ear candling, discovering that the candle ash left behind built up visibly after the first and second sessions. In fact, after irrigation (the commonly accepted medical practice for ear cleaning), the white powdery residue still remained on the tympanic membrane.
3. Your hearing could be negatively affected
Often in correlation to the internal burns left behind, people can experience hearing loss after ear candling. (15)
The FDA’s ban on medicinally-used ear candles specifically warns, not only against hearing loss after candling, but about the potential for people already experiencing hearing loss to try this procedure before consulting a qualified physician.
As a significant deficit of hearing is commonly associated with nerve damage, various diseases or medication side effects, combined with the fact that additional hearing loss is a potential risk factor for ear candling, this “treatment” option can be doubly problematic.
As you can probably tell, there is nothing that suggests ear candling is in any way worth the risks it involves. If you are interested in natural methods to remove ear wax, there are several simple and non-invasive options to try, all without the risk of setting yourself on fire.
Alternatives to Remove Ear Wax Safely
1. Take a shower
Your first option is the simplest — just stand in a shower with water around body temperature and let water rinse through your ear. Feel free to stand there until you feel the clearing of your ear. Then make sure to turn your ear toward the ground to drain the excess water.
2. Soften wax with oil, peroxide or sodium bicarbonate
If a water-only rinse doesn’t seem to help, there is evidence that using safe items to soften ear wax before rinsing your ears again can help to remove excess wax buildup. (16)
When using these items, you can drop about 2–3 drops into your affected ear. Then wait at least 10–15 minutes before showering to allow the softener to work. You shouldn’t have to perform this method more than once a month.
Please note: Do NOT use baby oil or essential oils in your ear unless expressly directed by your physician. These can be dangerous to the sensitive parts of the ear canal. You also should NEVER try this method if you have had ear surgery or have a hole in your eardrum.
3. Moisturize your outer ear
One reason you may experience too much ear wax is from having a dry outer ear. When dry skin flakes into your ear, it can harden the wax and interrupt the body’s normal process. You can moisturize the outside of your ears with mineral oil each day or as necessary.
4. Try an alcohol and vinegar mixture
A well-known homeopathic remedy for ear wax that can help to clean your ears is equal parts rubbing alcohol and vinegar. (18) Put the alcohol and vinegar mixture into a rubber syringe and gently expel it into your ear canal. Lie steady for about five minutes and then rinse your ear canal thoroughly.
5. Increase your omega-3 intake
There is some limited evidence that a deficiency in omega-3 fatty acids can cause an increase in ear wax. Try to increase the amount of omega-3 foods you eat, and try an organic omega-3 supplement. The other health benefits are worth continuing to take such supplements, even if you notice your ear wax level off.
6. Seek medical attention
Still concerned about wax in your ears? It’s probably time to visit an otolaryngologist. While at-home methods are much more cost-effective, irrigation and removal of ear wax at a doctor’s office is a relatively simple, safe process. (19)
There are other methods for ear wax removal that I don’t necessarily recommend, but that you’ll find talked about a lot online.
For example, there are “DIY” ear vacuums that you can purchase over the counter. Research suggests that no ear wax is removed using these vacuums and that the probes used in ENT offices are far more effective. (20)
History & Interesting Facts
Many claim that ear candling is an “ancient” health practice. While it does seem clear that various cultures have practiced candling for some time, the timeline and origins of this process are uncertain.
It seems that coning was practiced in China, some parts of the Americas (before colonization) and Tibet. (21) While you’ll find some claims about the Hopi Indian tribe, their Tribal Council has publicly stated that their people do not and have never practiced ear candling. (22)
Like many old natural medicine practices, ear candling resurged in popularity in modern culture in the 1980s. Because of their inability to stand up to scientific scrutiny, ear candling kits are not permitted to be marketed for health conditions in the US or Canada. They can only be legally marketed “for recreational purposes only.” The FDA conducted large seizures in 1993 (in Ohio) and in California in 1998 for creating these misleading claims.
They took a stronger stance in 2010, openly warning consumers to avoid these items and writing warning letters to at least three large ear candle manufacturing firms. Still, there are various companies marketing at-home candling kits and offering in-office ear candling services.
- Ear candling is a homeopathic remedy practiced for what appears to be centuries and still practiced today.
- There is no scientific evidence that ear candling provides any health benefits.
- Current research indicates that ear candling is completely ineffective in removing ear wax. It actually may deposit ash or candle wax within the ear canal.
- Because of the dangers of burns, foreign objects within the ears and eardrum injury, ear candling should be considered dangerous and unnecessarily risky.
- I do not recommend the use of ear candles in any situation.
- If you’re looking for ways to relieve stress, steer clear of ear candles and find safe, non-invasive stress relief methods, such as massage, essential oils and meditation.
- Most people do not need to remove excess ear wax because the ear is self-cleaning. But if you are wondering how to remove ear wax, there are natural methods you can try at home. These include rinsing your ear, softening ear wax with mineral oil or peroxide and a few others worth trying.
- Increasing your omega-3 intake may help to reduce ear wax production.
- If you experience hearing loss, pain in the eardrum, dizziness or any other serious health symptom relating to your ears, consult a physician immediately.