Ear candles are tapered cones of linen or cotton that are soaked in wax and hardened for placement in the ear. The process of ear candling is an ancient procedure that some people claim helps remove ear wax and other obstructions from the ear and sinus cavities. Most medical professionals do not recommend using ear candles, as there is little evidence to support their efficacy and the potential for harm or injury is high.
Ear candles are typically used by having a patient lay on his or her side and inserting the cone inside the ear canal. The wick end is lit and the heat from the flame is said to create a vacuum that sucks wax and impurities into the cone, from inside the ear. The procedure usually lasts about 15 minutes, at which point a stick is pushed through the cone to push the wax and ash out of the ear candle. The wax is darkened by smoke, but it is not actually ear wax.
Doctors note that because ear wax is thick and sticky, the amount of pressure needed to pull it out of the ear from an ear candle or similar device would have to be so high that it would rupture the patient’s eardrum. In the United States, ear candles are classified as medical devices by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This prevents companies from marketing them for medical purposes without FDA approval.
Many doctors and other medical professionals warn about the dangers of ear candling, including burns and injuries to the inner ear if the wax drips inside the ear canal. The most serious injuries resulting from using ear candles may require surgery or result in permanent hearing loss or inner ear damage. External burns are also a concern. Inserting any object too far inside the ear canal can bruise or puncture the eardrum, resulting in serious complications and possible deafness.
The potential for injury and complications from ear candling is rather common. A 1996 survey published in the medical journal Laryngoscope reported that 14 out of 144 surveyed ear, nose, and throat physicians had seen injuries from patients who used ear candles. Some problems may even go undetected for quite some time, such as small amounts of wax that drip inside the ear but do not cause problems until months or years later.
Ear wax has an important role in protecting the ear and creating a barrier against water, dust, dirt, and bacteria. While cleaning the ears is important, removing all traces of wax from inside the ear can leave it vulnerable to infection and injury. Many doctors advise simply cleaning the ears in the shower, with a washcloth, instead of using ear candles or other devices to try to remove excess wax.