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- Each year, a new spate of health trends take off or persist, claiming to improve people’s health when the opposite is true.
- Some of 2019’s trends, like vaginal steaming and charcoal detoxes, can causes serious illness or injuries. Others, like vaping, are downright fatal.
- These are the most dangerous health myths of 2019.
MYTH: Activated charcoal can detox your body.
Activated charcoal has been around for a years, but it had a real moment this year, showing up in everything from lattes to lemonade, and even touted by boutique wellness guru Gwenyth Paltrow as a detox essential.
True to some claims, activated charcoal has a long history of medicinal use. It’s used to treat poisoning cases, for one, since charcoal can actually bind to drugs and toxins so they aren’t absorbed by the stomach.
The problem is, charcoal’s effects also extend to substances you do want to absorb, including vitamins and medications.
The consequences of buying into the charcoal hype be mild, like wasting money on your $8 juice because the nutrients are absorbed by the charcoal, but not by your body. But they can also be concerning – ingesting a large amount of charcoal within two hours of a birth control pill or other medication can potentially reduce its effectiveness.
“I’d say if you’re eating, like, one ice cream with activated charcoal, you’re going to be fine,” gynecologist Dr. Alyssa Dweck previously told Insider. “But if you’re taking in a big [dose], you’re going to possibly have a bigger problem.”
MYTH: The carnivore diet can cure health woes like fatigue and obesity.
Popularized by pop psychologist Jordan Peterson, his daughter Mikhaila, and former orthopedic surgeon Shawn Baker, the “pure carnivore diet” consists of meat, water, and sometimes seasonings. A stricter offshoot of paleo and keto diet, it prohibits carbs, including fruits, vegetables, and grains.
Proponents claim it has a huge range of benefits from weight loss to preventing or even reversing diseases like diabetes or arthritis.
But there’s little evidence to substantiate these benefits other than online anecdotes from carnivor diet enthusiasts.
Plus, there’s plenty of evidence that a diet high in saturated fats, which are found in abundance in animal products like red meat, cheese, and butter, increase the risks of cancer as well as heart disease and other cardiovascular illnesses.
What’s more, a meat-only diet cuts out many sources of important vitamins and nutrients available from plant-based foods. This includes vitamin C, a lack of which can cause scurvy, which appears to be making a comeback.
Plus, while research has shown that meat can be part of a healthy diet in moderation, a growing body of evidence suggests what’s truly best for the diseases carnivores claim to be treating with meat is a plant-based eating pattern.
MYTH: Drinking bleach will cure ailments including cancer and autism.
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In August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued an advisory urging the public to stop drinking sodium chlorite solution, otherwise known as a form of industrial bleach.
Known in online communities as the “master/miracle mineral solution,” or MMS, proponents claim the substance only targets pathogens, leaving healthy tissue alone, and thereby curing everything from malaria to cancer to autism.
The founder of the MMS “cure” Jim Humble has also claimed to be a billion-year-old god from the Andromeda Galaxy, and founded a church to sell MMS as a religious sacrament to avoid legal scrutiny.
Not only is there zero scientific evidence to support the supposed benefits of MMS, but drinking the concoction, mixed with an “activator” such as lemon juice, can cause liver damage, severely low blood pressure, diarrhea, and vomiting, hence the FDA’s warning.
Proponents of MMS claim that these side effects are actually proof that the product is working, but studies that claim to prove its benefits have been extensively debunked as “absurd (and very irresponsible),” an expert previously told Insider. It’s also been linked to at least two deaths.
MYTH: Essential oils can cure or prevent disease.
Essential oils, distilled liquids made from botanical compounds like lavender, mint, lemon, and tea tree, are not a new phenomenon. But they continue to capture a large, and growing, part of the wellness market.
In the U.S. alone, the industry netted $4.7 billion in 2019 and is expected to continue growing. And about a third of U.S. consumers believe the oils have medicinal properties, according to an Insider survey.
The science on whether essential oils work is shaky at best, and there’s little evidence to show they can cure or prevent disease, although they may well boost your mood by smelling nice.
There is, however, plenty of proof that they can be actively harmful or poisonous if used incorrectly. Popular varieties like tea tree, peppermint, sage, and wintergreen can be toxic even in small amounts, potentially causing seizures, liver damage, or both.
Other oils, like cinnamon or clove, can cause a rash or allergic reaction if they come into contact with your skin.
MYTH: Vaginal steaming can ‘freshen’ and ‘rejuvenate’ your genitals.
Vagina steaming is the ancient practice of exactly what it sounds like – applying boiling-hot water vapor to your genitals in an attempt to freshen or rejuvenate them. The practice has recently gained popularity thanks to endorsements by Chrissy Teigen and again, Gwyneth Paltrow.
The steamy solution (sometimes with herbs added) is intended to tighten the vagina or cleanse the reproductive system. But it’s not effective for either of these, according to gynecologists.
A June 2019 case study presented a cautionary tale of a 62-year old woman who ended up with second-degree burns after attempting to steam-clean her vagina.
In her book “The Vagina Bible,” OB-GYN Dr. Jen Gunter said the idea that steam can cleanse your reproductive system is “physically impossible, as steam cannot make it through the cervix and into the uterus.” The steam could, however, provide a pathway for bacteria, increasing the risk of infection.
Vaginas are self-cleaning, said Gunter, and products that claim to cleanse, refresh, or otherwise boost your vaginal health can do more harm than good (including douches and other “feminine cleaning” soaps or sprays).
MYTH: Kids need to diet to curb the obesity epidemic.
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Although much has been said about the dangers of the obesity epidemic, especially for children, there’s solid evidence that dieting doesn’t work. In fact, it can actually increase the risk of obesity in children, and set them up for other potentially life-threatening health issues like eating disorders.
That’s why WW, formerly known as Weight Watchers, met some serious backlash in August when it released a new dieting and weight-loss app for kids as young as 8. Users are asked to track their food intake using a “traffic light” system.
The company said it’s intended to help children manage weight by helping them develop healthy habits with an easy-to-use tool. But nutritionists have spoken out against the app, and diets in general, for stigmatizing certain foods since research has shown doing so can lead to disordered eating.
“It operates on a high amount of shame,” Rebecca Scritchfield, a registered dietitian nutritionist, previously told Insider. “A traffic light system is going to teach you to associate negative emotions with certain foods, that bad foods equal a bad person.”
She added that parents can encourage healthy eating habits without strictly limiting what or how much their kids eat.
MYTH: “Chicken pox parties” are a safe alternative to vaccines.
Chicken pox parties, which started before there was a vaccine but have recently seen a resurgence, operate on the false premise that most people who contract chicken pox once never get it again. The theory is that by purposefully exposing kids to the highly-contagious virus, parents can make their kids immune.
Getting the chicken pox once can increase immunity, but doesn’t guarantee that a person will never get the infection again. It’s also impossible to predict how severe a case of the chicken pox will be, even in a healthy child.
The best way to protect your child and others is with vaccines, which contain dead or weakened disease germs and have been proven to boost immune systems safely. (Concerns that vaccines cause health problems or autism have been thoroughly debunked).
Vaccinations are also important for herd immunity, which is when as many people as possible get vaccinated to protect the people who can’t due to HIV, cancer, or another immune-suppressing condition.
MYTH: Black salve can cure cancer.
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Proponents claim black salve, sometimes known by the brand name Cansema, can cure cancer.
In reality, it’s a paste of zinc chloride, a chemical drying agent, combined with the herbs bloodroot and chaparral. The result is a corrosive compound known as an escharotic that eats away at living tissue, leaving sores or scarring.
“It’s a highly destructive chemical that creates large wounds and is a completely ineffective for treatment of suspected skin cancers,” dermatologist Dr. Laura Haywood previously told Insider.
The FDA has even banned black salve in the U.S. since 2004, and routinely warns consumers that it is a “fake cancer cure.”
But proponents who claim it can cure cancer continue to thrive online in forums and private Facebook groups, Buzzfeed News reported in October.
If you suspect you may have skin cancer, the proper course of action is to see a dermatologist as soon as possible.
MYTH: Vaping is a safe alternative to smoking.
This year we learned that vaping, once believed to be a safer alternative to smoking cigarettes or cannabis, is definitely not risk free.
At last count, there were at least 42 deaths and more than 2,000 cases of vaping-related lung illnesses. The cause is still not entirely clear, but it’s believed that vitamin E acetate, an ingredient found in canola, soy, and corn oil, plays a pivotal role.
The vast majority of patients with the illness, or 86%, said they’d used THC-containing products before they got sick. But some of the patient samples also tested positive for nicotine, according to official investigations, suggesting that the ingredient is found in both cannabis vapes and nicotine vapes.
While it’s unclear whether vaping might still have potential as a harm-reduction aid for people addicted to nicotine, there’s evidence that it’s helped hook people who would otherwise never have used tobacco products.
E-cigarettes have been tied to a large recent jump in tobacco use among middle-school and high-school students. From 2017 to 2018, the percentage of teens who said they’d used e-cigs jumped 78%, according to the CDC. Preliminary data for this year shows that e-cig use has continued to increase among teens.