What Is Candling?

The origins of candling are uncertain, but this ancient practice possibly originated in the Orient, Egypt, or the pre-Columbian Americas. Practitioners of candling (also called coning) use special ear candles made of linen or cotton soaked in wax or paraffin. The candles are hollow and about 10 inches long. Practitioners say that when a candle is placed in the ear and lit, a low-level vacuum is created, which sucks wax and other debris out of the ear canal.

What Are the Purported Benefits?

Many claims are made about the effects of candling. However, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims. In addition, there is not even plausible reasoning for how candling might work. For example, proponents say that candling can cure the following conditions:

But, each of these conditions occurs on the inner side of the eardrum—out of reach of candles. For other conditions closer to the site of candling— swimmer’s ear or temporomandibular disorder (TMD) —there is no evidence that it is helpful. Many other health benefits associated with candling are vague or scientifically meaningless. Some examples are "strengthen the brain," "purify the mind," "stabilize emotions," "clear the eyes," "purify the blood," and "release blocked energy."

Using candling to treat ear-wax build-up has also been criticized. According to one group of researchers, the negative pressure needed to pull sticky wax from the ear canal would have to be so powerful that it would rupture the eardrum during the process. After actually measuring the pressure during candling, the researchers found that, in fact, no negative pressure was created. In any case, there are much safer and easier ways to remove wax.

What Are the Safety Concerns?

Many doctors have concerns about the safety of ear candling. 21 out of 122 ear, nose, and throat specialists that took part in a survey had seen patients who were harmed by ear candling. Of these patients, 13 had external burns, seven had ear canal obstruction from candle wax, and one had a ruptured eardrum.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers the ear candle an unregulated medical device and has taken action to prevent the sale and distribution of ear candles in the United States. The FDA has also warned consumers about the risk of serious injury from candling. Despite these actions, ear candles are still widely available at health food stores and online.

How Should You Clean Your Ears?

According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, earwax is healthy in normal amounts and serves to coat the skin of the ear canal where it acts as a temporary water repellent. The absence of earwax may result in dry, itchy ears. They recommend the following tips for proper ear care:

  • Wash the external ear with a cloth over your finger, but do not insert anything into your ear canal.
  • In cases of earwax blockage, try home treatments to soften wax, such as:
    • A few drops of mineral oil, baby oil, or glycerin
    • Commercial drops
  • If home treatments do not work or earwax is compacted, see a doctor who uses instruments that are considered safe and effective.
  • If you have persistent pain or other problems with your ears, see your doctor.

When it comes to ear candling, many doctors agree with the old admonition, “Never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear.”