A reporter from US News and World Report called me for an interview about toxins and how or if skin-care products could purge them from skin. I appreciated how this reporter framed her question; she asked if it was possible. Many reporters have bought into myths just like anyone else and start asking a question assuming something is true when it isn’t, not even a little. I was more than happy to have another opportunity to set the record straight on this overused, bogus term.
Much like any myth, if you hear or read about it often enough it becomes fact in the mind of many consumers. Once that happens they are eager to seek out the benefits of what amounts to little more than snake oil. Purging toxins from the body and skin is equal to the perceived need to drink lots of water (and often too much water) to keep skin hydrated. Neither is based on fact. And this isn’t a conspiracy of the medical world. Just like the medical world discourages people from smoking and over-eating, or it encourages exercise and other beneficial behavior in the most direct campaigning possible (with solid research and studies of why you should follow their advice), so it’s no surprise the medical field hasn’t jumped with agreement on the “let’s purge toxins” bandwagon. If purging toxins from your body could help then physicians would be at the forefront of getting the information out to you (as soon as it was shown to be true). But truth doesn’t always sell products. Oftentimes you’ll get more people’s attention and dollars by promoting fiction-based fear instead.
When it comes to fiction, snake oil salespeople are supreme at quick fixes and euphoria. I love the drink more water example, because if your water intake is greater then what your body needs all you do is go to the bathroom more. Nothing in your body changes, it doesn’t change the status of “toxins” in your body or how dry your skin is. Kids who don’t drink enough water don’t have dry skin because of it. Dry skin for most adults is the result of sun damage, genetics, health issues, certain medications, and their environment, not water intake. Believe me, I wish alleviating dry skin was as easy as increasing water intake!
In terms of skin and the purging of toxins we move into the absurd. At least with routine (not excessive) water intake it helps to stay hydrated and not be thirsty. When it comes to purging toxins from the skin there isn’t a shred of evidence it is even possible, let alone helpful. Yet somehow sucking toxins out of your pores or between skin cells has become a basic part of many women’s attempt to achieve flawless skin. As a result of this flawed belief, detoxifying skin as sold by the cosmetics industry or earnest spa attendants and estheticians and the vitamin/herbal supplement world has become a sizable business.
And exactly what is a toxin? Consult the dictionary and toxin is defined as any poison. So what poison is lurking in your skin needing removal? Again, there is no answer from anyone in any corner of the alternative cosmetic or herbal world. What you may hear are more general, vague terms such as bacteria, airborne pollutant particulates from cars and city life, bad fats (this is a big lie in cellulite treatments), faulty lymph systems that build up who knows what, even fast food and secondhand smoke requires purging in this part of the cosmetic industry. Listening to all of this is enough to make some people want to live in a sterilized, airtight bubble for the sake of whole body purity, but there’s no need to take such a drastic step.
What isn’t ever explained is exactly what is being eliminated when so-called toxins are being purged? No one has measured how much of whatever stuff is supposedly being removed during the process of cleansing. The reason that no one is doing such testing is because consumers don’t need facts to make decisions about their skin, so we end up with a big myth that is good for business but not you.
Without ever doing even basic testing, the people selling these detoxifying skin-care products or treatments leave it up to their imagination and they are adept at creating imaginary, unspecified toxins that are causing wrinkles, open pores, oily skin—you name the skin care complaint—and purging the skin is supposed to help. That expensive spa treatment wrapping your body in herbs, salts, fragrant oils, clay, or minerals might feel good and for a short time make your skin feel smooth, but in reality no skin condition has changed: your wrinkles haven’t gone away, your cellulite is still there, your pores haven’t changed, yet your pocketbook is lighter (now that’s what I call purging).
Many of these products claiming to detox the system, at least as far as the cosmetics industry and spa world is concerned, are fairly benign and do little, if any, harm. Overheating the body with saunas, Jacuzzis, and facial steaming can cause more problems than they help by damaging the skin’s ability to hold moisture, causing capillaries to surface, and increasing oil production. Putting fragranced salts into your bath can irritate the vaginal skin lining. Not good news but not terrible. Mostly it is just a waste of money and following myths isn’t a recipe for good skin care.
What has me concerned is some research I saw on really dangerous snake oil treatments as reported on a blog/podcast site at http://skeptoid.com, which had several posts written by Brian Dunning, a computer scientist who debunks pseudoscience reports as a hobby (I confirmed that the content is accurate and all quoted material below is from the author’s blog)
Mucoid plaque is supposedly a toxin naturopaths and herbal charlatans say everyone has growing inside their bowels; in fact they are created by the pill sold to purge them. In other words, the supposed cure is causing the problem making people assume the malady is real.
What you get to cure mucoid plaque is “…a bowel cleansing pill, said to be herbal, which causes your intestines to produce long, rubbery, hideous looking snakes of bowel movements, which they call mucoid plaque. There are lots of pictures of these on the Internet, and sites that sell these pills are a great place to find them. Look at www.DrNatura.com, www.BlessedHerbs.com, and www.AriseAndShine.com, just for a start.”
“Imagine how terrifying it would be to actually see one of those come out of your body. If you did, it would sure seem to confirm everything these web sites have warned about toxins building up in your intestines. But there’s more to it. As it turns out, any professional con artist would be thoroughly impressed to learn the secrets of mucoid plaque (and, incidentally, the term mucoid plaque was invented by these sellers; there is no such actual medical condition). These pills consist mainly of bentonite, an absorbent, expanding clay similar to what composes many types of kitty litter. Combined with psyllium, used in the production of mucilage polymer, bentonite forms a rubbery cast of your intestines when taken internally, mixed of course with whatever else your body is excreting. Surprise, a giant rubbery snake of toxins in your toilet.”
“It’s important to note that the only recorded instances of these “mucoid plaque” snakes in all of medical history come from the toilets of the victims of these cleansing pills. No gastroenterologist has ever encountered one in tens of millions of endoscopies, and no pathologist has ever found one during an autopsy. They do not exist until you take such a pill to form them. The pill creates the very condition that it claims to cure. And the results are so graphic and impressive that no victim would ever think to argue with the claim.”
Another detoxing gimmick I came across is from the electrical foot bath products on the market. “The idea is that you stick your feet in the bath of salt water, usually with some herbal or homeopathic additive, plug it in and switch it on, and soak your feet. After a while the water turns a sickly brown, and this is claimed to be the toxins that have been drawn out of your body through your feet. One tester found that his water turned brown even when he did not put his feet in. The reason is that electrodes in the water corrode via electrolysis, putting enough oxidized iron into the water to turn it brown. When reporter Ben Goldacre published these results in the Guardian Unlimited online news, some of the marketers of these products actually changed their messaging to admit this was happening — but again, staying one step ahead — now claim that their product is not about detoxification, it’s about balancing the body’s energy fields: Another meaningless, untestable claim.”
“But detoxifying through the feet didn’t end there. A newcomer to the detoxification market is Kinoki foot pads, available at BuyKinoki.com and many drugstores. These are adhesive gauze patches that you stick to the sole of your foot at night, and they claim to ‘draw toxins’ from your body. They also claim that all Japanese people have perfect health, and the reason is that they use Kinoki foot pads to detoxify their bodies, a secret they’ve been jealously guarding from medical science for hundreds of years. A foolish claim like this is demonstrably false on every level, and should raise a huge red flag to any critical reader. Nowhere in any of their marketing materials do they say what these alleged toxins are, or what mechanism might cause them to move from your body into the adhesive pad.”
“Kinoki foot pads contain unpublished amounts of vinegar, tourmaline, chitin, and other unspecified ingredients. Tourmaline is a semi-precious gemstone that’s inert and not biologically reactive, so it has no plausible function. Chitin is a type of polymer used in gauze bandages and medical sutures, so naturally it’s part of any gauze product. They probably mention it because some alternative practitioners believe that chitin is a ‘fat attractor’, a pseudoscientific claim which has never been supported by any evidence or plausible hypothesis. I guess they hope that we will infer by extension that chitin also attracts ‘toxins’ out of the body. Basically the Kinoki foot pads are gauze bandages with vinegar. Vinegar has many folk-wisdom uses when applied topically, such as treating acne, sunburn, warts, dandruff, and as a folk antibiotic. But one should use caution: Vinegar can cause chemical burns on infants, and the American Dietetic Association has tracked cases of home vinegar applications to the foot causing deep skin ulcers after only two hours.”
“Since the Kinoki foot pads are self-adhesive, peeling them away removes the outermost layer of dead skin cells. And since they are moist, they loosen additional dead cells when left on for a while. So it’s a given that the pads will look brown when peeled from your foot, exactly like any adhesive tape would; though this effect is much less dramatic than depicted on the TV commercials, depending on how dirty your feet are. And, as they predict, this color will diminish over subsequent applications, as fewer and fewer of your dead, dirty skin cells remain. There is no magic detoxification needed to explain this effect.”
What remains indisputably true is that the country of Japan is not selling these toxin-purging foot pads like hotcakes, everyone is not using them, and the Japanese have health problems like any population.
I’ll end this article by coming full circle back to skin care. Trying to eliminate wrinkles and other skin woes with false hopes that involve throwing your money down the toilet on products that can’t help doesn’t really make sense. When there are brilliant things you can do your skin, wasting money isn’t the way to go. Purging yourself of the myths the industry loves instigating and perpetuating and learning what you really should do instead is the best way to take care of your skin.
Paula Begoun, aka the Cosmetics Cop is the author and publisher of seven best-selling books on the beauty industry, including Don’t Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me 7th Edition, Blue Eyeshadow Should Be Illegal, The Beauty Bible 2nd Edition, and Don’t Go Shopping for Hair-Care Products Without Me. She has sold more than 2.5 million copies of her books and is also a syndicated columnist, with her “Dear Paula” column appearing in papers throughout North America. Her work as a nationally-recognized consumer expert for the cosmetics industry has led to repeat appearances on CNN, as well as programs such as Oprah, The Today Show, 20/20, Dateline NBC, The View, and Primetime.
Well-known for her extensive knowledge of the cosmetics industry, she is a respected resource amongst professionals in a variety of fields impacting the world of skin care. Over the years Paula has been and remains a consultant for dermatologists, plastic surgeons, major cosmetics companies, and industry insiders.