“Detox” is the hottest word in the woo-woo universe right now.
Fancy teas, juices, beauty products and treatments that claim to purify the body are everywhere — from Instagram to the beauty counter to health-food stores. According to Grand View Research, the global detox product market was valued at $50.92 billion in 2018 and growing.
Too bad it’s all bogus.
“Your liver and kidneys are the best detox systems known to humans,” says Ryan Marino, an emergency-room physician and medical toxicologist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center. Companies that hawk detox products “prey on fears” and “are trying to profit from people’s lack of truthful information” about what’s happening in their own bodies, Marino says.
Science backs up his stance: A 2015 review found that there was “no compelling research to support the use of ‘detox’ diets for weight management or eliminating toxins from the body.” In 2017, another published review found that juicing and “detox” diets may help you lose weight in the short term — makes sense, you’re not eating much — but that “they tend to lead to weight gain once a person resumes a normal diet.”
As the detox industry grows, the government is trying to put a stop to these bunk products, which span everything from toothpaste to “toxin”-sucking foot pads. The US Food and Drug Administration has made efforts to crack down on “detox” products for mislabeling, containing hidden ingredients and making dubious marketing claims; and New York City Councilman Mark Levine (D-Manhattan) has introduced legislation to ban the sale of detox and so-called “skinny” teas to minors. He anticipates a hearing on the issue in November.
“The industry is preying on young people, especially young women and girls,” Levine says. “It is feeding eating disorders, preying on body-image anxieties, and being pumped up by social media and influencers, most notoriously the Kardashians.”
So, is there any form of legitimate detox? Yes, Marino says, but only when someone is being medically treated for life-endangering drug intoxication or poisoning. With that sole exception — likely not the case for most of us slathering on activated charcoal face masks — it’s all baloney. “As long as you have working organs and keep yourself hydrated, your body is detoxing itself,” Marino says.
Here, the pros help walk us through popular detox products — what they claim to do, what they actually do and whether they hurt more than they help.
Numerous studies have found that sauna bathing — both traditional and infrared — has great benefits, including lowered blood pressure and a reduced risk of coronary diseases. But detoxing ain’t one of them.
“You’re not detoxing through sweat,” Marino says. “Sweating helps regulate body temperature. If you’re excessively sweating, you are losing fluids and electrolytes” — not toxins. (Side note: The wellness crowd won’t eat gluten, but happily hangs out in an instrument originally inspired by microwave technology?)
In a medical setting, activated charcoal is given to patients orally or via a stomach tube to treat massive drug overdoses and serious poisoning incidents. But the other stuff — the toothpastes, the face masks, the supplements, the Instagrammable black lemonades — are all pseudoscience, says Marino.
“Activated charcoal only works in the stomach, it doesn’t absorb metal, and it will only bind to what’s in the stomach at that time, including medications, making them less potent,” Marino says. Side effects of ingesting activated charcoal include dehydration, constipation and black stool.
The cold-pressed juice market is expected to reach $8.1 billion by 2024, according to Research and Markets. But fruity liquid regimens that promise weight loss and “flushing” can actually be pretty bad for you.
“Juice diets are basically starvation and dehydration diets,” says Marino, adding that he finds newer trends like celery and cilantro juices — touted in the anti-vaxxer communities as “natural” chelation (metal-removing) devices — especially troubling. Studies show these juices do little good, but they can enhance the body’s removal of beneficial minerals, such as magnesium and calcium, he says.
“We use chelation for severe mercury poisoning in the hospital as a last line of defense because it has dangerous side effects,” Marino says.
According to ResearchFox, the global “Slimming Tea Market” is projected to reach $11.8 billion by 2022. But the NIH warns that trendy detox teas — a k a “poopy teas,” for the above-average time drinkers can expect to spend on the toilet — may include herbal laxatives, which can cause diarrhea, dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. You’re much better off just having a regular cup of tea.
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