Ear candling

If you buy Q-tips in bulk to keep earwax at bay, you've probably considered submitting to this ancient practice. But is it a sham? And can it cause harm?

Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

Essentially a simple process, ear-candling involves placing a cone-shaped device in the ear canal and lighting the opposite end, which supposedly creates a low-level vacuum that draws earwax and other impurities into the hollow candle. “Ear candling can get rid of inches of impacted earwax,” claims Clara Raykin, owner of the Antoinette Boudoir Spa. “The candle has the power to improve hearing and physical balance, and cleanse toxins left by medications, eliminate ear pains and help with migraines and TMJ,” she adds. This is the consensus of most spas that offer the service.

However, doctors who have studied the treatment have a very different opinion. A study published in the journal Laryngoscope found no proof that ear candles produce a vacuum or result in the removal of earwax from the ear canal, says Cathy Wong, ND, CNS, a naturopathic doctor and nutritionist. “Most spas claim that the waxy debris that remains after the treatment is earwax, but it’s really just flaky candle remains,” she adds.

Michael Godin, an ear, nose and throat doctor at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, strongly agrees with Wong and adamantly opposes ear candling. “It’s a gimmick,” he says. “It’s a therapeutic procedure that is done with no scientific or clinical basis—there’s no basic way to check to see if the treatment even does what it claims.”

Dr. Godin believes undertaking this treatment is unwise, citing reports of burns to the ear, skin and hair, obstruction of the ear canal due to dripping wax and the possibility of perforated eardrums, to name three risks. “If you feel like your ears are clogged, then it’s a good time to have a doctor check them out,” he adds. “It could potentially be something more serious than earwax buildup—ear candling can only worsen the situation.”

Unless you’re part of the 5 percent of the population that suffers from cerumen (earwax) impaction—which happens when the ear’s self-cleaning system breaks down in those already prone to excessive wax buildup—you will never need a professional cleaning. “It primarily occurs with people living in nursing homes and in people with mental illness,” Wong says. In fact, we need our cerumen. “It plays a defensive role: Earwax cleans and lubricates the ear and can shield the ear canal from bacteria and fungus,” she explains.

So why is ear candling so popular? Not only are spas offering pricey treatments, but there are a plethora of at-home ear candling products. Scott Boyson, the marketing manager for White Egret, a wholesale manufacturer of professional and at-home ear candling products, is confident in his product, judging from the testimonials of thousands of customers who have shown positive results throughout the 30 years White Egret has been in business.

Boyson admits that the FDA does not approve ear candles, and he makes it clear that White Egret makes no medical claims to the validity of the treatment. He goes even further to admit that his ear candles do not remove earwax from the ear, despite what other companies claim. “There’s no vacuum that sucks the wax out. That’s not what our candles are designed to do,” Boyson adds. “The powder residue that you see after is burn-off from the candle, not residue from the ear.”

So what are they supposed to do? “Don’t base the effectiveness of candling on what is in the candle after the treatment, but rather on how you feel,” he says. Since clients claim to feel better and hear better posttreatment, that’s argument enough for Boyson. Just don’t light your head on fire.

In spa:

Since Chelsea’s Skintology is described as a medi-spa (they also offer Botox), I figured this might be my best bet for a legitimate treatment. After being led into what appeared to be a doctor’s examining room, Diana, my smiley technician from Kazakhstan, told me to lie down on the bed as she covered a side of my face with burn-free paper, just in case my ears gave way to a bonfire. She placed a 12-inch beeswax stick in my ear, which she then lit on fire. I could feel the sizzle and crackle from the burning candle as though I had an amplified sense of hearing. The subtle heat emanating from my ear proved to be rather relaxing, or maybe it was the gentle temple massage. Once I could actually see the blazing light in my peripheral vision, it was time to put out the fire and move to the other ear.

Regardless of whether ear candles “work,” I can understand why addicts of this ancient practice keep coming back for more. The earwax show-and-tell was awesome: Diana cut open the morsels of wax residue to reveal a powdery orange substance. And, after the 45-minute treatment, my head does feel lighter. Organic ear candling, $75, at Skintology, 181 Seventh Ave between 21st and 20th Sts (212-989-6333). —Shauna Miller

Brave enough to take the heat? We rounded up spas that offer ear candling.

Photograph: Roxana Marroquin

At home:

• Coning Company handmade rose-oil cones, $8 a pair, at coningcompany.com

• Wholistic Health Solutions beeswax earcones, $2 for a four-pack, at wholistichealthsolutions.com

• White Egret Ear Paraffin Candles, $10 for a four-pack, at vitaminshoppe.com

Ear candling spas in New York City:

Chill Spa

40A E 33rd St at Madison Ave
Subway: 6 to 33rd St.
Cost: $50

Elemur Day Spa 56

940 Third Ave at 56th St, 5th floor
Subway: N, R, W to Lexington Ave–59th St; 4, 5, 6 to 59th St.
Cost: $60

Natural Vitality Center

225 E 64th St between Second and Third Aves, Suite 202
Subway: 6 to 68th St-Hunter College; N, R, W to Lexington Ave-59th St.
Cost: $80

Advanced Skin Care Day Spa

10 W 55th St at Fifth Ave
Subway: N, R, W to Lexington Ave–59th St; 4, 5, 6 to 59th St; F to 57th St.
Cost: $75

Artisan Spa

143 Fourth Ave at 13th St
Subway: L, N, Q, R, W to 14th St–Union Sq.
Cost: $50

Fabylous Living

145 W 28th St between Sixth and Seventh Aves
Subway: 1 to 28th St.
Cost: $45

Karen Zuckerman

41 Union Sq W at 16th St
Subway: L, N, Q, R, W, 4, 5, 6 to 14th St–Union Sq.
Cost: $50

Serenity Spa

776 Sixth Ave at 26th St
Subway: C, E, F to 23rd St; R to 28th St.
Cost: $60

Azure Day Spa and Laser Center

26 W 20th St between Fifth and Sixth Aves
Subway: F, V, R, W to 23rd St.
Cost: $82

Art of Natural Beauty Center

239 Court St at Baltic St
Subway: F to Bergen St.
Cost: $40

Antoinette Boudoir Spa

11 W 46th St at Fifth Ave
Subway: B, D, F, V to Rockefeller Center.
Cost: $80

Twenty One

102 W 79th St at Columbus Ave
Subway: B, C to 81st St; 1 to 59th and Broadway.
Cost: $60

Le Salon Day Spa

145 E 72nd St at Lexington Ave
Subway: F to 63rd and Lexington St.
Cost: $75