Ear Candling

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Americans in general are a clean people. They like to spruce up even the hardest-to-reach places on their bodies. This is a country where dental floss comes in several flavors and people willingly engage in colonic irrigation to get all the nasties out of their large intestines--and where otherwise smart folk habitually ignore all warnings and put Q-Tips too far into their ears. But apparently Q-Tips aren't quite enough. The newest instrument for getting the muck out of that pesky ear canal is a lighted candle.

Candling, sometimes called coning, is today's, ahem, hottest natural treatment to remove wax from ears and, according to its proponents, relieve everything from migraines to sinusitis and postnasal drip while "promoting a healthy atmosphere," as one ad puts it. Massage therapists, beauty-salon operators and herbalists all offer the treatment. Women go to the candler for an afternoon--the average candling takes about an hour--of relaxation. And parents, when they're not candling each other with $5 kits from a health-food store, are doing it to their kids to stave off ear infections. "It's a relaxing and exotic experience," says Susan Wallace, 46, of Berkeley, Calif. "Besides, it's fun to do."

The treatment, said to have originated in India or ancient Egypt, involves lighting the wide end of a hollow conical candle made of waxed cloth and gently inserting the narrow tip into the ear. The heat generated by the flame purportedly creates a vacuum that sucks out all manner of nasty things, like ear mites, along with the earwax. Afterward, adventurous souls can cut open the candle and examine their ear debris.

Not that the practice is universally admired. "I'm open to a lot of complementary therapies, but I'm not at all impressed with this one," says Benjamin Asher, chairman of the committee on alternative medicine for the American Academy of Otolaryngology--Head and Neck Surgery. Aside from an earful of candle wax, candling could lead to infection, burns to the ear canal or eardrum--or burning hair. The FDA considers ear candles hazardous to health.

Another problem: there's no proof candling works. A small study a few years ago in the journal Laryngoscope showed that a lighted candle could never create enough suction to draw out wax. The "ear debris" left in the candle's hollows, assumed by aficionados to be proof--however icky--that candling is doing its stuff, is nothing more than melted wax from the candle itself. As for those ear mites, "Dogs and cats have ear mites," says Asher. "I've never seen a human with one."

Turns out there's a reason our ear canals are so inaccessible: to protect the delicate eardrum. And ear wax is good. Ears, like some ovens, are self-cleaning. The wax traps dust and dirt and contains antimicrobial agents to protect against infection. People who really like the idea of using a candle to get clean should hop on to that other trend and light one while having a bath.