Doctors have warned people to avoid ear candling, touted as a safe and easy way to drain earwax, saying the benefits are unproven and the treatment is dangerous.
Beauty parlours claim it helps to relieve sinus congestion and draw out dirt from inside the nose, ear and throat. The devices are also supposed to help drain the lymphatic system, slimming the face. But doctors say patients are coming in with blocked ears, inflammation and minor burns after receiving the treatment.
Fung Kai-bun, president of the Hong Kong College of Otorhinolaryngologists (ear, nose and throat doctors), said he treated one or two patients every month with ear inflammation and burns as a result of candling.
'The most common problem is ashes and residue from the burning candles blocking the ears and causing inflammation,' said Dr Fung, who has a practice in Causeway Bay. 'We usually try to wash out the dirt with water or use tools to suck it out ... The worst case I have come across is a patient with minor burns to her ear.'
The people receiving candling are not only the ones at risk. A beautician burned her face yesterday while giving the treatment to a boy at a beauty parlour in Lee On Road in Sau Mau Ping. The 20-year-old was sent to United Christian Hospital and later discharged.
Regulators overseas are generally sceptical of candling. Canada's national health authority has banned the sale of the candles for therapeutic benefits, pointing to a 1996 report that found a survey of 122 ear specialists revealed 21 cases of serious injury caused by candling, including one case of a punctured ear drum.
The US Federal Drug Administration has determined it is illegal to market the candles for therapeutic use, although in Europe, manufacturers sell candles bearing the 'CE marking', which is given to products that conform to health and safety requirements set out by the European Union.
The chairman of the Federation of Beauty Industry in Hong Kong, Nelson Ip Sai-hung, insists candling is safe to both beauticians and clients. 'The pressure created by the heat in the procedures moves the dirt out of the ears instead of dropping it back to the eardrums. I have never heard of people suffering any injury to their ears from ear candling,' he said.
Dr Fung said that although the injuries appeared to be minor, they were completely avoidable.
'The beauticians who carry out this kind of so-called treatment should have some professional training and medical knowledge about the structure of ears and the potential health danger of carrying out candle waxing.'
He called for tighter government control over advertisements that carried health benefits from wax candling. 'All these claims are completely misleading. This kind of so-called treatment also poses potential health risks to consumers,' he said.
Michael Tong Chi-fai, chief of otorhinolaryngology at Chinese University, agreed the government should control beauty advertisements for wax candling before more people were injured.
He warned that patients with injuries in their ear drums would suffer from more severe inflammation and other infections if ashes fell into their ears.