In 2008, Wired magazine called “detox foot adhesives” “the most appalling medical scam since magnetic immortality devices.”
Now we have entered into the consumer reports area of skepticism. Unfortunately this is the area that preys upon the uninformed lay-person directly. I do not doubt that it is hard to turn down something that claims to remove harmful disease-causing toxins from your body. That sounds good right? Unfortunately, trust in these claims is unduly placed and never publicly verified.
What we will look at today are “detox foot pads” that claim to remove harmful “toxins” from your body. By the end of this post you will know that not only do these pads not work, but they are not based on any science, and doing your skeptical homework will always save you money and some intellectual integrity.
Creating the Problem
The best known culprit that we will consider here is the “Kinoki Detox Foot Pad”, which is claimed to remove toxins, restore “balance” within the body, and “boost energy”. Similarly, various other “detox” products are claimed to do everything from “strengthen the immune system, reduce stress, improve circulation, and improve sleep”, to “enhance mental focus, relieve headaches and arthritis pain”. The alleged explanation for their supposed removal of “toxins” include the tenets of “reflexology”, the “unblocking of lymphatic passages”, and “using negative ions that release ‘far infrared rays’ [made up science-sounding term]“. We will be looking at the pads themselves, but the proposed mechanisms of “reflexology” are regarded by the scientific community as nonsensical.
Basically, the claims of “reflexology” are that there are pressure points on the body connecting vital organs and body function that can be pressed upon (usually on the bottom of the feet) to alleviate aliments of those organs and systems. This is based upon the same reasoning that acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine are based on. Proponents hold that because these treatments were in use for thousands of years (without scientific verification I might add), they must work. Of course this is an argument from tradition fallacy: just because something has been around for a long time does not mean that it works. [see: acupuncture is bogus] Furthermore, “treatments” such as “reflexology” and acupuncture do not work beyond placebo, and only help mask non-specific symptoms such as headache or general cold that could be treated similarly with a sugar pill.
Users are instructed to apply the products to the soles of the feet and leave them on overnight. In the morning, proponents claim, the pads will absorb toxins and turn muddy brown or black.
“Detox” product marketers offer no studies that identify what they claim to remove, nor do they have studies which measure levels of the supposed “toxins” in the body (to see whether such substances accumulate in the pads and have their levels reduced in the body). It is unlikely they will ever try, because the basic idea that toxins are excreted through the skin clashes with what is known about human anatomy and physiology. Real detoxification of foreign substances takes place in the liver, which modifies harmful chemical structures so they can be excreted by the kidneys which filter them from the blood into the urine. Sweat glands in the feet can excrete water and some dissolved substances. However, its minor role in ridding the body of unwanted substances is not changed by applying foot pads.
As a kind of consumer report, a journalist for ABC News decided to test the pads, and this is what she found (you can even try this yourself):
- When used overnight, the pads darkened, but dropping distilled water on the pads produced the same dark color.
- Laboratory analysis of pads used by eight volunteer scientists showed no significant evidence of heavy metals or commonly used solvents.
- When asked for tests that would show that their products really work the companies offered no valid scientific studies.
A few months later, a radio reporter in California conducted a similar investigation. First she had her husband wear the pads overnight and then sent them to a laboratory for testing. The lab found that the heavy metal content of the used pads were the same as that of an unused pad, which meant that the pads did not remove any “toxins”.
But the most damning aspect of her test is this: She then held an unused pad over a pot of boiling water. The steam caused the pad to turn black, indicating that the dark color that results from wearing a Kinoki pad is caused by a chemical in the pad that reacts to moisture, not any harmful chemicals.
So what we have here is a rather pathetic attempt to take advantage of a lack of scientific knowledge. The makers of these pads, that are supposed to remove “toxins” (notice the health buzzword) from your body, are making claims entirely based upon the fact that they change color after you wear them. However, any moisture will turn them a different color, even a mild sweat or clamminess will do! But it is certainly not lead and mercury being excreted through your feet. That would contradict what we know about human anatomy and be worthy of a Nobel Prize, but the more likely answer (backed by science and evidence) is that these pads are nonsense.
The ease of which people are fooled by these pads is due to a few factors. First, these pads are offering a quick fix to many common medical problems. If you were not very scientifically literate, or did not have access to good health care or health information, it is understandable that someone would be enticed by a product that claims, for example, to alleviate your arthritis pain in 24 hours. Second, use of buzzwords like “toxins” appeal to people because it is a simplification of medical jargon that they do not understand. To some it may make sense that “toxins” cause all your problems, but this oversimplification blinds people from good science, and as the great Carl Sagan said,
If something sounds too good to be true, and you do not do your skeptical homework, you will end up being swindled by companies like Kinoki. But there is a happy ending to this story.
In a win for rationality, the FTC complained that because none of the supposed effects of the foot pads are based in scientific theory, many consumers were claiming fraud, and that the company had no supporting evidence, the pads should not be sold as a legitimate health product. And here is the best part:
In a settlement announced on the FTC web site, the peddlers of the Kinoki foot pads have agreed to pay $14.5 million, the total estimated revenues from the sale of the products. The judgment is stayed because of the defendants’ alleged inability to pay.
So these charlatans had to pay every cent that they made back to the public, and then they went broke! SCIENCE WINS!