Homeopathy is an Eighteenth Century medical idea that has been thoroughly debunked since it started. It survives today thanks only to wishful thinking, ignorance, marketing, and because it is too useless to be all that dangerous.1 Unless it’s being sold by corrupt profiteers with no regulation and product contamination is common, contributing substantially to a 50% rise in supplement-related calls to poison centers from 2005 to 2012.2 That would be dangerous.
It is the flagship in the alternative medicine fleet: the most profitable, absurd, and snakey of all the major snake oils. Selling homeopathic remedies is unethical, and buying it is foolish. It’s legitimacy is on par with faith healing and psychic surgery.
This is not a detailed and referenced review of homeopathy — there are plenty of other pages for that. This page exists to emphasize one key point, what I believe is the most important thing people need know …
“Homeopathy’s greatest superpower is that almost no one knows what it is.”
Melanie Trecek-King (@ThinkingPowers). Will You Still Use Homeopathy When You Learn What It Is?
Homeopathy is much more bizarre than most people realize
Most people have no idea just how strange homeopathy is. They give it a pass because they assume it’s some kind of herbal medicine. It’s not. It’s much, much stranger.
The deal-breaker for many consumers, if they know about it, is that homeopathy is not an “herbal” or “natural” remedy, but a “magical” one that “has the scientific plausibility of using Harry Potter’s wand to treat illness” (Caulfield). It’s based on a principle that reeks of flaky physics and old-timey snake oil flamboyance: the idea that a substance can convert water into a kind of medicine through a process of exotically extreme dilution. Most homeopathic remedies have literally no active ingredient, or in such low concentrations that you could drink a swimming pool of it and only get a few molecules.
And then there’s the ingredients they choose to dilute. Most are deliberately counter-intuitive: you use something that, in normal concentrations, would cause the symptoms you want to treat. Many examples don’t make any sense in those terms, and many more are completely fantastical: homeopathic volcano? Dinosaur? And bubonic plague, black hole, plutonium, and so on. I’m not joking. The things homeopaths have supposedly turned into medicines is truly stranger than fiction, and their explanations are as pseudoscientific as it gets.3
None of it works, of course,45 and the principles of homeopathy are completely at odds with centuries of chemistry and physics. Some people, of course, are quite happy with vague references to quantum physics to explain alternative medicine, but you really have to be a card-carrying new age sort to go there. For most people, that crosses a line — it’s just too far out in left field.
But they have to find out first! And many people never do.
Fortunately, doctors, scientists and skeptics are unanimously and harshly critical of homeopathy, and have published many good quality critical reviews. It’s extremely clear that homeopathy research done by homeopathy proponents is junk science.6 For instance, see my own article about homeopathic arnica — the most popular of all homeopathic products, intended to treat inflammatory pain.
Darryl Cunningham’s entertaining illustrated tour of homeopathy.
The FTC finally goes after homeopathy
In November 2016, the American Federal Trade Commission issued a statement promising to (finally) hold homeopathy products to the same efficacy and safety standards as other products.7 For historical and political reasons, the FTC has always failed to protect consumers in this way, and the policy change is welcome but long overdue.
“I love to see a regulatory agency actually do its job,” writes Dr. Steven Novella, a prominent critic of homeopathy. “In essence, the net effect of the labeling on the product cannot be misleading to the consumer. I think this is giving some wiggle room for homeopathic manufacturers to try their best to mislead their potential customers, but this is probably the best the FTC can do within its mandate. The new FTC policy only really works if the public has a basic level of scientific literacy. That is a much longer struggle.”
About Paul Ingraham
I am a science writer in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter., or subscribe:
- Dr. David Gorski: “No one will ever need to write about homeopathy again. Dr. Edzard Ernst has said it all in his new book Homeopathy: The Undiluted Facts.”
- Does Arnica Gel Work for Pain? — A detailed review of popular homeopathic (diluted) herbal creams and gels like Traumeel, used for muscle pain, joint pain, sports injuries, bruising, and post-surgical inflammation
- “NHMRC Statement: Statement on Homeopathy,” National Health and medical Research Council, Australian Government, NHMRC.gov.au, 2015. An exhaustive review of homeopathy was conducted by the Australian government in 2015, concluding that “there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.” Several related documents go into much greater detail, especially: NHMRC Information Paper: Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions (PDF, 392KB).
- Science-Based Medicine publishes a good collection of critical articles and resources about homeopathy. A great place to start is Dr. Steven Novella’s commentary on the FTC’s historic decision to finally crack down on homeopathy products.
- Homeowatch is entirely devoted to debunking homeopathy.
- Wikipedia has a thorough article about homeopathy. It’s not neutral — homeopaths probably dislike it. Still, it seems well-written and it’s heavily referenced, and you can’t beat that as a starting point. It provides a lot of well-sourced information.
- The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health is a curious case: an organization that has a mandate and huge budget to prove that homeopathy works, but hasn’t been able to do it. Their information page on homeopathy reads with a friendly-to-homeopathy tone, as though it’s a rather good idea … but openly acknowledges that there is still no evidence that it works (previously quoted), even after many years of well-funded attempts to prove it.
- The National Center For Homeopathy disagrees with NCCIH, and claims that “there are literally hundreds of high quality, published basic science, pre-clinical and clinical studies showing that homeopathy works.” They publish a bibliography and a few articles. There are numerous other homeopathy associations with similar websites.
- EBM-First.com has a good collection of skeptical reading recommendations about homeopathy.
- Homeopathy: Cure or Con? Part 1 on YouTube.com. See also: Original CBC show page. Superb investigative journalism from Canada’s CBC television, from a consumer advocacy point of view. A massive homeopathy overdose demonstration; a homeopath is recorded promising to cure stage 1 breast cancer (such a claim would be condemned by homeopathic professional associations); a chemistry lab proves that active ingredients cannot be identified in homeopathic preparations; and a mom who vaccinates her kids with homeopathy admits that she is a surprised by the lack of active ingredients.
- That Mitchell and Webb Look: Homeopathic A&E on YouTube.com. Totally hilarious.
- “Malaria advice ‘risks lives’: Some high street homeopaths claim they can prevent malaria, a Newsnight investigation has found,” Meirion Jones, News.BBC.co.uk. Secret filming revealed homeopaths were claiming their preparations could be used instead of anti-malarial drugs to protect travellers in high risk areas such as sub-saharan Africa.
- A 19-page comic strip about homeopathy.
- “Three men make a tiger: Why physics precludes homeopathy from having any real effect,” David Robert Grimes, 3menmakeatiger.blogspot.co.uk. One of the best one-stop-shop summaries I’ve found of why homeopathy’s central claims are scientifically untenable. (A shame about the eye-watering color scheme! But the writing is good.)
- Slipping through the Cracks: Health Canada, Traumeel, and Homeopathy, a more directly critical article by Canadian pharmacist Scott Gavura, and occupational therapist Kim Hébert.
- “Homeopaths on Homeopathy,” Martin Robbins, Guardian.co.uk. In this brilliant compilation, science writer Martin Robbins lets homeopaths hoist themselves on their own petards. It’s a hair-raising parade of bad thinking and warped medical ethics.
PainSci guides to some other kinds of pain medications:
- The Science of Pain-Killers — A user’s guide to over-the-counter analgesics like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, and more
- Voltaren Gel: Does It Work? — The science of the topical pain-killers, which can be effective without dosing your entire system
- Vitamins, Minerals & Supplements for Pain & Healing — Critical analysis of most popular “nutraceuticals” — food-like pseudo-medicines taken for medicinal purposes, especially glucosamine and creatine, mostly as they relate to pain, arthritis, and recovery from exercise and injury
- Does Epsom Salt Work? — The science and mythology of Epsom salt bathing for recovery from muscle pain, soreness, or injury
- Marijuana for Pain — The hype versus the science! What does the evidence actually show about cannabis and chronic pain?
- Vitamin D for Pain — Is it safe and reasonable for chronic pain patients to take higher doses of Vitamin D? And just how high is safe?
What’s new in this article?
2022 — Science update, cited Gartlehner.
2017 — Added reference about contamination of homeopathic products.
2016 — Additions: a very substantial related reading section, and a new section about the FTC’s new crackdown on homeopathy products.
2012 — Publication.
- Although useless medicine is never completely harmless, because it greatly increases the chance of delaying correct diagnosis and treatment. See Quackery Red Flags and Missing Serious Symptoms.
- Rao N, Spiller HA, Hodges NL, et al. An Increase in Dietary Supplement Exposures Reported to US Poison Control Centers. J Med Toxicol. 2017 Jul. PubMed 28741126 ❐
There’s a classic typical example: the Werner video, in which a daft homeopath earnestly makes a case for homeopathy on the basis of a string of appalling misunderstandings of physics. If you know nothing about physics, trust me … neither does she. Dr. Steven Novella writes:
Werner may be more clumsy and fumbling than more eloquent homeopathy proponents, but when you strip it down, magical vibrations is what you get. But Werner does a fabulous job of exposing the gaping holes is homeopathic nonsense.
- Not even according to the most alt-med friendly institution there has ever been:
Most analyses of the research on homeopathy have concluded that there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition.
Homeopathy: An Introduction, National Center for Complementary Medicine (NCCIH.nih.gov)
- Ernst E. A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 2002 Dec;54(6):577–82. PubMed 12492603 ❐ PainSci Bibliography 55777 ❐
This review attempted to look at the studies that are available about the efficacy of homeopathic remedies.
Seventeen articles were studied and assessed.
Looking at all of these articles, “there was no condition which responds convincingly better to homeopathic treatment than to placebo or other control interventions. Similarly, there was no homeopathic remedy that was demonstrated to yield clinical effects that are convincingly different from placebo.“
The author concluded: “The best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice.”
- Gartlehner G, Emprechtinger R, Hackl M, et al. Assessing the magnitude of reporting bias in trials of homeopathy: a cross-sectional study and meta-analysis. BMJ Evid Based Med. 2022 Mar. PubMed 35292534 ❐
This is some meta-science (science about science) confirming that homeopathy research kinda sucks. Researchers studying homeopathy don’t register their trials often enough, many registered trials are never published (probably because the results were negative), and even when they are registered and published they often change the primary outcomes (moving the goalposts to get a “score”). “This likely affects the validity of the body of evidence of homeopathic literature and may overestimate the true treatment effect of homeopathic remedies.”
- FTC.gov [Internet]. United States of America, Federal Trade Commission. Enforcement Policy Statement on Marketing Claims for OTC Homeopathic Drugs; 2015 Nov [cited 16 Nov 19]. PainSci Bibliography 53669 ❐