There comes a time in everyone’s career when their boss asks them to stick candles in their ears and light them on fire. So when the Scene’s special projects editor approached me with a story assignment about ear candling, I met her with only a mildly horrified look.
“You want me to do what?” I asked.
“Ear candling,” she replied nonchalantly. “You know, where you use lit candles to suck out your earwax.”
And so it happened that ear candling entered my life. It was not by choice, and it was certainly not because of an innate need to remove my own earwax. I clean my ears every morning after I take a shower, and so far, I’ve been getting along fine with just a Q-Tip. Yes, I know you aren’t supposed to use Q-Tips. I understand that your hand could slip and you could accidentally shove that aseptic cotton swab into your brain and suddenly you’d need someone to cut your food for you for the rest of your life. I understand the danger. But if the alternate choice involves crusty yellow ears, it’s a chance I’m willing to take.
I talked to Dan Viner, a Nashville otolaryngologist, who told me that while he has “no official stance” on ear candling, it seems like an awful lot of effort for something that really isn’t that necessary. Some people have problems with earwax buildup, but candling is not going to remove enough wax really to make a difference. “I guess you could use it as a maintenance program, once a week, rather than when your ears feel plugged up,” he says, “but I’d never do it.”
The process works by creating a vacuum. Ear candles look just like regular candles, but they are hollow inside and the “wick” is actually a linen cloth wrapped around the inside of the beeswax. You light the cloth and then set the tapered part of the candle in your ear. As the candle burns, the heat creates a low-level vacuum that draws wax and other debris out of the ear canal.
What a delightfully safe and effective procedure, I thought, before immediately enlisting my friend Ryan to try the ear candles so I wouldn’t have to. Ryan always has harbored a secret desire to try candling and immediately drove over to my apartment for this rare opportunity. We followed the directions exactly, and this is what happened.
First, we covered two paper plates with aluminum foil, then cut holes in the middle through which we slid the candles. That way, if any hot wax dripped on Ryan, it would land on the plate and not his face. We covered his hair with a towel so it wouldn’t catch on fire, and we filled a cup with water to keep at arm’s length. Ryan lay down on his side so that one ear was facing up. I then lit the candle and placed it in Ryan’s ear about as far as regular earphones go, maybe a little less.
“How does it feel?” I asked.
“It sounds like it’s raining in my ear,” Ryan said, “or like someone squeezing Styrofoam.”
“Those don’t sound anything alike.”
”I know,” he said, offering no further explanation.
The directions told us to clip the wick with scissors after it had burned down an inch, then light it again and let the process repeat. Clip, burn, clip burn, until the candle had burned down to the designated red line that meant we should stop. This seemed like a plausible order of events, until we discovered that normal household scissors don’t so much “clip” the thick linen cloth as ineffectively shred it until you give up and dunk the thing in the water, filling the apartment with smoke. So instead of clip, burn, clip, we dunked, sawed, and then tried to relight a wet wick. In the end, it worked just as well, except for one thing: the candles barely collected any wax.
A powdery residue collected inside the candles, but we couldn’t tell if it even came from Ryan’s ear. Candling both ears required two people and the better part of 30 minutes, and the results were anticlimactic at best.
When it was all over, the directions told Ryan to coat the inside of his ear with olive oil, explaining that the wax he had just removed served as a protective layer for the ear, and now he had to replace that layer with something else until the layer could grow back.
“So if I have to replace what I just removed,” Ryan asked, “why did I need to remove it?”
“Good question,” I said, and we both decided that ear wax was best left in the ear. Not in a candle and not on a Q-Tip, unless, like me, you value cleanliness over motor skills.
Beauty, they say, is in the eye of the beholder, but Scene writers would argue it’s also in the colon and the ear. For that reason, the 2006 Health, Beauty and Fitness issue goes way beyond skin-deep, to say the least.