Test Drive: What happened when I tried ear candling

Scientists aren’t on board with this alternative medicine trend, but I still found it relaxing
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Ear candeling
An earcandle burns in the ear of a woman during BioFach 2011 in Nuremberg, Germany.

Photograph by Miguel Villagran/Getty Images

I’m not particularly weird, but I like to clean my ears. Not as much as Lena Dunham’s character, Hannah, on the HBO show, “Girls,” who jammed a Q-tip so far in there she had to go to the hospital. Nor am I among the ranks of ear-cleaners who dig dangerously deep into their canals and then post photos of the resulting, revolting spoils. My interest is not in what you find (dry heave) but in how it feels when you gently poke a cotton swab in there. I’ve had allergies for most of my life, and frequently feel an acute itch in my throat. A tried-and-true way to relieve it is to scratch inside the ear. “When the nerves in the ear are stimulated, it creates a reflex in the throat that can cause a muscle spasm,” according to Dr. Scott Schaffer, a specialist in New Jersey who was quoted in a 2015 Men’s Health article. “This spasm relieves the tickle.”

I’d first heard of the alternative medicine practice known as ear candling in 2009, when Jessica Simpson posted a video of herself doing it. Her friend, behind the camera, maniacally sings Christmas carols and laughs as Simpson, her head to the side, holds a lit candle in her own ear (her hair and face protected by a piece of a Papa John’s pizza box) and yells a lot. That didn’t sell me. But then the New York Times wrote about it last month, so I figured it was time to give this treatment a try at Warrior Body Spa in Tucker.

The small spa, which also has an infrared sauna and offers detoxifying foot baths, says ear candling ($50 for 30 minutes) gently dislodges foreign debris, softens old earwax, and helps evaporate excess moisture.

Here’s how it went for me: First there was a quick facial massage with sinus-clearing oil, to get things moving, and then I laid down on my side on comfy massage table. The therapist slid a hollow, tapered beeswax candle through a hole in what looked like a piece of cardboard wrapped in tinfoil (to protect my head and hair), lit the wick, and stuck the unlit end in my ear. I could hear a little bit of sizzling, then what sounded like low-volume white noise, before I suddenly had the sensation that something almost liquid was traveling out of my ear and into the candle. Nothing painful or even uncomfortable—it was the sort of relief you feel when you manage to shake water out of your ear at the pool. It was soothing, and I fell asleep.

Practitioners say the flame creates a vacuum that pulls out the gunk. Look, the therapist said, as she cut open the candle to reveal the ick that came out of my ear. I won’t go into gory detail, but it looked legit.

Scientists and researchers, however, say this is all myth, and that what you’re actually seeing inside the candle is debris from the candle itself. And they really, really want us to stop sticking things in our ears. (A doctor quoted in the Mayo Clinic’s “Expert Answers” says to “avoid” ear candling it because it can cause injury.) Me, though, I can’t resist scratching that itch. And though this is an expensive—and perhaps unscientific, and maybe sort of silly—way to do it, I’d ear candle again.

But I promise I won’t post a picture of what comes out.

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