Ear Candles and Cotton Swabs to Manage Ear Wax: No, No, No!

As we all know, our ear canals produce wax.  For some people, ear wax builds up much faster than others.  If there is a large amount of wax build up, a temporary hearing loss can result.

What should you do? In the vast majority of cases, the ear canal does not need to be cleaned.  While washing your hair or taking a shower, a little bit of soap and water and a washcloth is all that is needed.  Usually enough water gets in your ear to loosen the wax and it falls out naturally.  A  Q-Tip (cotton swab) is usually not necessary. 

In fact, if you use a cotton swab improperly, you can damage your ears!  Dr. Rod Moser, PA, PhD, called cotton swabs a weapon of ear destruction. Many people use cotton swabs because their ears get itchy—but in doing so, make their ears more itchy, because a cotton swab will scrape off a protective, sealing layer of skin and wax.  The result?  Dry, itchy skin.  In some cases, vigorous use of a cotton swab can result in a ruptured ear drum—a very painful condition.

If you suspect that you have an overgrowth of wax that needs attention, contact a medical or hearing care professional to have the wax safely removed.

What about ear candling?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada are warning consumers not to use ear candles because they can cause serious injuries.

An ear candle is a narrow, hollow cone that has soaked in beeswax or paraffin and allowed to harden. During ear candling, you lie on your side while someone else inserts the point of the cone inside the ear.  The top of the cone is then set on fire and left to burn for a few minutes.   People who sell ear candles claim that the heat creates suction, and this draws the wax out of the ear canal. 

If suction was truly responsible for removing wax from the ear, then there would be a vacuum created by the ear candle (similar to the suction provided by a vacuum cleaner to remove dirt from your carpet).  By definition, a vacuum creates negative pressure.  A study in the medical journal The Laryngoscope demonstrated that no negative pressure was created.  In addition, the study showed that no wax was removed from the ear canal; candle wax was actually deposited in some ears.  The authors of the report, who were medical doctors, conducted a survey of 122 ear specialists, and found 21 cases of serious injury caused by ear candling. Injuries included burns, occlusion of the ear canal, and one person’s ear drum was perforated.  Six people had temporary hearing loss created by ear candling.

According to Health Canada, the sale of ear candles in Canada for therapeutic purposes is illegal.

For more information, see the CBC Marketplace story on ear candling.


Photo credit:  ©Nickrh