My thing for odd wellness regimens runs in the family. My grandmother became an acupuncture convert at the age of 70, and my mom has been plying us kids with rice milk, quinoa, and kale since far before it was trending. Now I drink charcoal lemonade and submerge myself in dry ice. Seems like I'm right on track.
It wasn't surprising when one Christmas Eve, after an extremely indulgent dinner, the conversation quickly deteriorated from the topic of my grandfather’s terrible hearing to the problem of ear wax build-up (a really excellent diet technique if you’re looking for a way to lose your appetite for dessert) and finally settling on ear candling.
Ear candling is a common practice in my house. Just mention the word “earache,” and out come the candle sticks. My uninitiated aunt and cousins were more-or-less shocked by this, so it took some explaining. Basically, ear candles are sheets of unbleached cotton or linen that are soaked in wax and rolled into the shape of a hollow candle. The idea is that you light a fire at the top of the “candle” while holding the other end in your ear, and the flame will create a vortex—essentially sucking the wax out of your ear. You can buy them at a lot of farmers markets and health food stores or online.
I’ve done it at least a dozen times and have always been a big fan of the treatment, but word to the wise: Do not do this alone. It’s probably best to have it done in a supervised environment like a spa or clinic. If you’re doing it at home, have a fire-responsible person help you out. You should use a paper or plastic plate, cut a hole in the middle, and slide the candle through before lighting it. The plate will protect anything from the lit side of the candle from falling onto your head and, you know, lighting your body on fire.
Once candle, plate, and trustworthy partner are secured, all you do is lay down on your side and gently put the candle into your ear. Your helper then lights the top and keeps an eye on you so that it isn’t tilting. Then, you sit and wait. The candle makes a sort of crackling-fireplace sound, and sometimes you can feel a slight tugging sensation from the vortex. Other than that, ear candling is painless and surprisingly relaxing, despite the fact that there is an open flame hovering really close to your hair.
When the candle has burned down about two-thirds of the way, you can have someone extinguish it in a glass of water—don’t blow it out. Then comes the fun part: When you cut the candle open, you’ll find a bunch of balled-up brown stuff that looks a lot like earwax. Opponents of ear candling will argue that this is just residue from the candle and not the actual contents of your ear. My mom and I have tried burning down candles several times outside the ear and they’ve been totally clean inside...you're free to draw your own conclusions. (I want to buy into the earwax cleaning theory, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m no scientist.)
Just to be sure I checked in with aesthetician Joanna Vargas, whose first job was at an organic day spa that did ear candling. “I think it’s legitimate,” she said. “I’ve performed it on many clients and had it performed on me, and I am in favor.” Of the dangers, she says that careful, proper use should prevent injuries. “ A Q-Tip can be harmful too, if you’re not using it right,” she said. “The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work.” Of course, doctors have also warned me about the dangers of dripping hot wax, puncturing the eardrum, or burning your face, so I am dead serious about doing this safely. Please do not set yourself on fire.
Those who argue that ear candling does not actually pull wax out of the ear say that its intended use is for stress relief and relaxation. A German study claims to have found conclusive evidence that it can help relieve insomnia, improve focus, and clear up headaches too. And while I still stand convinced that candling has seriously improved my hearing, I’m willing to admit it could be a placebo effect. If it turns out that I’m just giving myself a relaxing treatment that will help me sleep better and be less stressed, well, I can get on board with that.
Collage by Beth Zimmerman.