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Shedding light on ear candling

Keith Gagnon of Duluth receives ear candling treatment at Full Circle Massage in Duluth from owner Lisa Richards. (Clint Austin / / 5
Supplies needed for ear candling at Full Circle Massage in Duluth. (Clint Austin / / 5
Keith Gagnon (Clint Austin / / 5
Residue that is generated by ear candling. The residue gathers in the bottom of the candle. (Clint Austin / / 5
Keith Gagnon of Duluth receives ear candling at Full Circle Massage in Duluth from owner Lisa Richards. (Clint Austin / / 5

Keith Gagnon lies on his left side, hands clasped, a towel covering his face.

A lit candle, about 10 inches long, sticks straight out of his right ear.

Massage therapist Lisa Richards stands calmly behind him, occasionally trimming the wick as it burns toward a foil-lined paper plate. As the candle reaches the plate, Richards snuffs it out and removes the towel.

Gagnon, 45, a big, soft-spoken man, quickly stands, smiling, but says he feels drowsy.

“You’re lying down for 10 minutes,” the Duluth barber explains.

The process is called “ear-candling,” and it is said to date back to at least the time of King Tut.

Proponents — including Gagnon and Richards — say it’s a noninvasive, comfortable alternative to going to a doctor to have ear wax removed.

Skeptics say it’s risky and has no scientifically established value.

“It can actually be quite dangerous, and the science behind it just doesn’t stand up in any way, shape or form,” said Jonathan Gervais, an audiologist at the Hearing Wellness Center in Duluth.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration agrees, citing risks of fire; burns to the face, ear canal, eardrum and middle ear; injury to the ear from dripping wax; plugging of the ears by candle wax; bleeding perforation of the eardrum; and delay in seeking needed medical care for an underlying condition.

The FDA warned consumers not to use ear candles in a position paper updated last year, saying that there is “no valid scientific evidence to support the safety or effectiveness of these devices.”

Richards, 29, proprietor of Full Circle Massage in Duluth’s Labor Temple, is unimpressed by the FDA’s warning.

“I don’t have a whole lot of faith in the FDA,” said Richards, who began offering ear candling about four years ago when some of her clients asked for it.

The FDA routinely approves pills that carry serious side effects, she said to explain her mistrust.

People who claim hot wax can get in the client’s ear don’t know what they’re talking about, Richards said. The candle, composed of muslin cloth lightly dipped in beeswax, is hollow in the middle. The idea is to create suction to draw wax and toxins out of the ear.

“There’s a filtered tip, so it keeps anything from going into the ear canal,” Richards said.

If a client is burned it’s because she didn’t do her job right, she said. “But I do everything necessary to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

She has never had an incident or complaint, she said.

Richards, who learned about ear candling while studying for her massage therapy accreditation at Duluth Business University, said she doesn’t object to people doing it on their own if they have a friend or family member who is comfortable with it.

Consumers can purchase two ear candles for $7 to $10 at Whole Foods Co-op, said Shannon Szymkowiak, the Duluth store’s promotions and education manager. Store personnel tell members and customers to use caution and follow the directions when using ear candles. They’ve never had a complaint about ear candles in the more than 10 years she has worked at the co-op, Szymkowiak said.

But Gervais, a co-op member, said he’s dismayed that the store sells ear candles.

“It’s really discouraging when we see it at the co-op,” he said. “It’s really bothered me that they sell something like this there.”

Szymkowiak was treated with ear candles herself once, she said, long before she worked at Whole Foods. She was curious, she said, and at the time she had hopes it would help with her sinus problems.

It didn’t, she said, but nor was it in any way harmful.

What she most noticed during that session, Szymkowiak said, was the noise.

“It was loud. It was very loud,” she said. “But of course fire makes noise.”

Gagnon described the sound as similar to crumpling up a plastic bag. But it doesn’t bother him, he said; nothing about ear candling does.

Gagnon owns Union Harbor Hair Shop in the suite next to Richards’ business. He wears a hearing aid and said he frequently experiences wax buildup in his ears. He has been treated by doctors, he said, but prefers to go to Richards.

“This to me … seems a lot less invasive and a lot less painful,” Gagnon said.   

But there’s debate over whether ear candles remove ear wax.

“When it’s been looked at by laboratories it basically shows that all that wax is wax that came from the candle,” Gervais said. “It’s not anything to do with ear wax at all.”

But when she finishes ear candling and cuts open what remains of the candle, “there’s no way that’s wax from the candle,” Richards said.

There will be residue from the candle, she said, but the difference between that and the wax from the ear is obvious.

When Richards finished with Gagnon, she cut open the candle used in his ear. She acknowledged that the material produced might all have come from the candle. In fairness, though, Gagnon had been treated recently and was only having one ear done on this particular day for demonstration purposes.

Gagnon didn’t need to see any wax. He has been treated by Richards several times, he said. At best, his hearing has improved, but he always experienced increased comfort in his ears.

Science says otherwise, Gervais said.

“The science behind it has been so disproven it’s almost ridiculous that people are still doing it,” he said.

If they are, he added, they either don’t know any better or are trying to make money off of people who don’t know any better.

Richards, who charges $30 for a session with both ears, said candling is only a sidelight in her business. She has had only about 10 clients who seek ear candling and performs the service only once or twice a month. Her passion and the core of her business is massage therapy.

The FDA paper said ear candling has been advertised to relieve headaches and sinus infections, offer “blood purification,” improve brain function and even cure cancer.

Richards makes no such claims.

“It’s not going to cure anything,” she said. “It’s just going to make your ear canal a little more comfortable.”