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The Straight Dope

Stick It In Your Ear

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Recently I heard about ear candling [March 10] from a friend and, ever on the prowl for novel ways to rid myself of earwax, decided to investigate. My friend's mother and sister had tried ear candling and were enthusiastic about its virtues. One ecstatic earwax remover reported that a "gumball-sized" glob of earwax was recovered after the procedure. That was incentive enough for me. Sure enough, inserting and burning an ear candle produced yellow, stinky wax in the stub of the candle tube. However, I was suspicious of the source of said wax and demanded that a "control candle" be burned in free air, with no ear attached. Ear-candling devotees worldwide cried out in sorrow when we cut the stub open to reveal...another glob of stinky yellow wax!

Cecil, it's all a sham, a ruse, a hoax. Would that it were otherwise. --Bill Gribble, Tina Gessler, Austin, Texas

This is what I get for cutting these new-age nostrums some slack. I decided to conduct my own experiments. Having rounded up a couple of MDs and a volunteer candlee, I went to my neighborhood new-age apothecary shop to buy ear candles. I discovered to my surprise that (1) they were 11 inches long--I'd had the idea they were the size of a birthday candle--and (2) they cost $3.50 each. This gets you a hollow cone made of wax-impregnated cloth with a raw-materials cost of maybe ten cents, a profit margin that has to make even ballpark hot dogs look economical.

Figuring that the MDs' medical education had probably been a little light in the ear-candling department, I also bought an ear-candling manual. In the "theory and research" section I read that "the low flame of the [ear candle] wick creates a slow vacuum which softens and pulls the old wax into the base of the candle." Slow vacuum? I read on. "Our theory is that [various benefits] are possible because all the passages in the head are interconnected, allowing the candles to drain the entire system osmotically through the membrane of the ear....All nerves have a thin coating of spinal fluid which can become polluted. The fluid in your body circulates 14 times a day in order to cleanse itself.... Our cranial bones become misaligned....[Candling] cleans the lymphs within this structure as well as the cochlear hairs themselves." Whew, too deep for me. But the manual did have pictures, so even dopes could do it right.

The medical team consisted of Keith Block, a family practitioner with an interest in alternative medicine, and Cecil's good friend Clark Federer. Clark was a surgeon rather than an ear-nose-throat guy, but I meant to be prepared for any eventuality. Our subject was Pat, a 30-year-old male who'd had earwax removed via conventional medical treatment some years earlier.

First we peered into Pat's ears with an otoscope, the familiar flashlight-type examining device. The poor guy had enough wax in there to make his own candles. We put him on the table, lit the candle, and stuck it in his ear in the prescribed manner. Then we watched, struggling to suppress the thought that we should also be chanting and maybe sacrificing small animals.

When the candle had burned down to two inches we snuffed it and examined the treated ear with the otoscope. No change, except that possibly the wax was dented where the candle had been stuck in. Upon slicing open the candle stub, however, we found a considerable quantity of brown wax and whitish powder. The manual had the audacity to intimate that the powder was candida yeast extracted from the ear, conceding that possibly "1% to 10%" was from the used candle. The disappointed MDs were more inclined to say it was 100 percent, but just to be sure we burned another candle in the open air. When we sliced it open we found wax and powder identical to that in the first. Conclusion: it's a hoax, although candling devotees will probably say we just didn't do it right. Maybe we should have sacrificed those small animals after all.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Slug Signorino.

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