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Don’t light candles in your ears: the life of an ear wax extraction doctor

Cotton buds, ear candles, microsuction – we’re all ears as Auris Ear Care founder Dr Misha Verkerk breaks down the art and misconceptions of ear wax extraction

From the individuals extracting earwax from your eardrum to the quiet crusaders shaving skin off your feet, in our regular series The Professionals we meet the people taking pride in the nitty-gritty side of beauty.

Who knew we were all so collectively fascinated by ear wax extraction? A YouTube video search of the phrase brings up millions of results with millions of views, ranging from standard ‘this is what happens’ videos, to LOL clips, ASMR, and some of the grossest moving images you’ll ever see online. 

Even though our ears are self-cleaning, chances are we’ll all end up at an ear specialist at some point during our lives. To improve our hearing as we reach retirement age, if not to remove any blockages or overcome infections before then. ENT Specialist Registrar and Partner at Auris Ear Care Dr Misha Verkerk believes that the increased popularity of ear wax extraction now is part of wider trend “towards taking ownership of one’s own health, and taking the initiative to keep your body healthy”. 

There’s also been a big shift away from do-it-yourself practises when it comes to removing excess ear wax. Digging around in your ear drums with soon-to-be banned cotton buds or lighting candles sticking out of your ear, although cheaper and more accessible, can cause irreversible damage. Akin to visiting the dentist and having your teeth cleaned professionally, this kind of professional ear care is a non-brainer if needed, even with the small cost attached. 

We’re all ears as Verkerk breaks down the art and misconceptions of ear wax extraction.

Why does the body create ear wax?

Dr Misha Verkerk: Ear wax is a natural substance made inside the ear canal. It can be soft, hard, sticky or dry and has cleansing, lubricating and antibacterial properties. A small amount of ear wax is healthy.

Can you tell us a bit about what ear wax extraction is? 

Dr Misha Verkerk: Ear wax extraction is removing all that gooey brown stuff from your ears. All ear wax is suitable for microsuction, but some very hard wax needs to be softened with eardrops before we remove it. 

Who is it for?

Dr Misha Verkerk: It’s suitable for anyone whose ears are blocked with wax – either because your ear produces lots of ear wax, or if your ear canals are narrow and get blocked more easily. 

What’s the process?

Dr Misha Verkerk: Ear wax can either be sucked out with microsuction, the most popular and most effective technique, where a microscope is used to look into your ear and then a gentle suction pen is used to carefully draw out the wax. Or it can be gently pulled out using fine instruments, or flushed out with water (syringing). Syringing can cause infections in some people so we don’t use it. Other methods such as cotton buds or ear candling can be dangerous and aren’t recommended. 

Why are ear candles so popular then? 

Dr Misha Verkerk: They are popular because they’re cheap and can be done at home. Ear candles are hollow cones soaked in wax or paraffin. The cone goes into your ear and the end is lit, and the heat is meant to soften the wax and draw it out. There is no scientific evidence that ear candles remove ear wax effectively and there is a risk of burning yourself.

“Humans have been picking wax out of their ears since the dawn of humanity. The first recorded use of an ear syringe is from Celsus in the first century AD” – Dr Misha Verkerk

When did people first start extracting ear wax historically?

Dr Misha Verkerk: I’m sure humans have been picking wax out of their ears since the dawn of humanity. The first recorded use of an ear syringe is from Celsus in the first century AD but medical suction was not invented until an ear, nose, and throat doctor called Yankauer created the first device at the turn of the 20th century.  

Why do you think it’s grown in popularity over the years? 

Dr Misha Verkerk: Nowadays, more and more people want to keep their body clean and healthy, which includes your ears. Technology such as very fine suction devices and high powered microscopes have made it safer and much easier for doctors and nurses to carry out these procedures, and health services have become more accessible. This can be done in the clinic, or in the comfort of your own home or office.  

What aftercare is needed for ear wax extraction?

Dr Misha Verkerk: It’s a painless and risk-free procedure usually, but a small number of people notice mild discomfort, ringing in the ears or temporary dizziness. Rarely, injury to the ear canal or eardrum can cause minor bleeding. There is no aftercare required, just stay away from those pesky cotton buds!

How did you get into ear wax extraction in the first place?

 Dr Misha Verkerk: I’m an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor so I deal with ear wax on a daily basis. I was inspired by some amazing ENT doctors who trained me. Plus, the ear is pretty cool! I love music, theatre, and chatting so having healthy ears is a must. Ear wax is a very common problem, and so many of my patients were struggling to get appointments in the NHS, so we decided to make it easier for people to get their ears cleaned.

What qualifications and personal qualities do you need to do this?

Dr Misha Verkerk: You need to have steady hands, a good bedside manner and excellent attention to detail. All our staff (we call them our clinicians) are qualified ENT doctors who are trained in microsuction, but some specialist nurses are also trained to perform this technique.

How do you know it’s time to get your ear wax extracted?

Dr Misha Verkerk: Everyone produces ear wax at a different rate and if your ears are feeling blocked, then it’s time. Other symptoms may include hearing loss and occasionally discomfort, ringing (tinnitus) or dizziness. You might want your ear wax to disappear forever but a little bit of ear wax is actually beneficial – it coats your ear canal and acts as a natural antibiotic. Some people who have had radiotherapy for cancer stop producing ear wax, which can result in infections. 

Most surprising things you’ve learnt from doing it?

Dr Misha Verkerk: There are some clients who have completely blocked ears on examination, but don’t complain of hearing problems.

What are the biggest misconceptions about ear wax extraction?

Dr Misha Verkerk: Firstly that ear wax is dirty and bad for you. Secondly, that ear wax removal hurts. Our client testimonials show that getting your ears cleaned can quick, gentle and safe. Lots of people are fascinated by their ears and find ear wax extraction cool and interesting – just look at how many views ear wax removal videos get on YouTube.

“You need to have steady hands, a good bedside manner and excellent attention to detail” – Dr Misha Verkerk

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

Dr Misha Verkerk: Definitely when a client tells me ‘Stop shouting – I can hear you now!’ It’s always a pleasant feeling when you’ve restored someone’s hearing.

Where do you see this trend for ear wax extraction going in the future?

Dr Misha Verkerk: People want high quality, safe healthcare at their fingertips. That’s where our mobile service comes in – a specialist doctor that can provide you with top-quality care in the comfort of your home or office – no more waiting rooms, no more long waiting lists. 

What technical innovations are you most excited about in your field?

Dr Misha Verkerk: As part of our treatment packages, we’re excited to offer live video ear examinations which allow you to see inside your ear in real-time on a screen. This really puts people in touch with their own bodies and helps them understand what’s going on and how we can help.