The pseudoscience of ear wax removal
A fine example of pseudoscience is “ear candling,” a current practice popular with customers of organic grocery and health food stores where the candles are sold. Manufacturers of these products claim or strongly imply that ear candling will facilitate the removal of wax or cerumen from the ear.
For example, the “Wally’s Candles, A Home Remedy” brochure that accompanies a package of two ear candles (which costs approximately seven dollars) states that these candles, “have been reported to aid in cleansing the ear, improve hearing and bring soothing comfort to the user.” The brochure continues with a list of statements concerning how ear wax build-up can lead to “hearing loss, infections, ringing-of-the-ears, headaches, congestion and loss of balance.”
The candle, which is more accurately described as a cone or funnel since it is hollow, consists of beeswax and cotton cloth. The process of ear candling begins by placing the narrow end of the tapered candle just inside the ear as the person lies flat on one side of their body [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. The top of the candle is then ignited and once half the candle burns, it is removed and extinguished; an aluminum pie pan is usually used to collect any burning debris. The burning of the candle supposedly creates a negative pressure inside the ear, drawing ear wax up and out of the ear. When the candle is cut open (this is not part of the manufacturer’s instructions), a fairly large deposit of a dried yellow solid is found inside [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. This substance is easily mistaken as wax from the person’s ear, but in reality it is the beeswax from the candle itself. The beeswax is extracted into the inside space of the candle by a pressure differential. As the oxygen inside the candle is consumed during combustion, the atmospheric pressure inside the candle decreases. This allows some of the wax to travel from the candle itself into the empty space inside the candle. When the candle is cut open, the wax observed is in the form of a dried powder since moisture is evaporated during the burning process.
Two simple tests can be performed to show that no earwax is indeed removed by the candling procedure. First, acquire a small clean test tube (to simulate the narrow ear canal) and into it add a weighed piece of wax, preferably human earwax. Heat the test tube containing the wax to body temperature in a hot water bath. Next, fit the candle into the test tube and then ignite the top of the candle with a match. After about half the candle has burned, extinguish the flame. When one examines the test tube containing the human earwax during the burning process, it will be observed that the earwax does not change in any way; it neither travels up the test tube nor does it enter the candle. The mass of the human earwax before and after candling is the same. Furthermore, when one opens up the bottom tip of the partially burned candle, the dried solid is observed to be in a quantity greater than the earwax placed in the test tube. This simulation strongly suggests that none of the human earwax is being removed by the candling process, but instead, the extracted substance originates from the candle itself.
A second test supports these findings. When the above procedure is repeated but without any human earwax in the test tube, the same result occurs – a yellow dried solid is found inside the bottom tip of the candle.
The results of these tests are further supported by a recent medical study evaluating the efficacy and safety of ear candling (Seely et al. 1996). In a limited clinical trial (eight patients), it was found using tympanometric measurements that ear candles did not produce a negative pressure inside the ear nor did the candles remove cerumen from the ear as claimed. Furthermore, in a survey of 122 otolaryngologists, twenty-one ear injuries were identified resulting from using ear candles. In the definitive words of the authors, “Ear candles have no benefit in the management of cerumen and may result in serious injury.”
Seely, D.R., Quigley, S.M., Langman, A.W. (1996). “Ear candles – efficacy and safety,” Laryngoscope 106 (10): 1226-9.
Stephen DeMeo is in the Department of Chemistry, City University of New York at York College in Jamaica, NY 11451.
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