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Picture of a triangular yellow and black biohazard sign, representing the topic of toxins.

Toxins, Schmoxins!

The idea of “toxins” is used to scare people into buying snake oil

updated (first published 2012)
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about PainScience.com

The idea of “toxins” is usually used as a tactic to scare people into buying de-toxifying snake oil of one sort or another. It’s not that there’s no such thing as a poisonous substance — obviously there are dangerous substances in the environment and in biology. The problem is the kind of people who toss the idea around, the reasons they do it: fear! profit! ignorance! And the total lack of any specific claim or scientific knowledge or evidence to support it.

It is so vague that it’s literally meaningless, except as a marketing message.

But it’s very good at that! Indeed, “detoxification” may be the single most common marketing buzzword in alternative health care (“boosting” the immune system is a tough competitor).

But exactly which toxins we’re talking about, or exactly how they are disposed of, is never explained by anyone selling a product that supposedly detoxifies — because they just don’t know. Their ignorance of the actual biology of toxicity is profound, an epic fail.

Alt-med aficionados are almost intentionally vague when discussing toxins. To them, it seems, toxins are either all-purpose nasty substances without specific identities or substances whose toxicity appears not to depend upon dose. In the former case, toxins might as well be miasmas. If you’ll recall, the miasma theory of disease stated that infectious diseases were caused by a “miasma”; i.e., “bad air.” This was not an unreasonable concept before the germ theory of disease, because before germ theory the agents through which infectious disease was transmitted were unknown, but it’s not so reasonable now. Alternatively, “toxins” often seem to function like evil humors in the humoral theory of disease. Either way, alt-med toxins do not correspond to anything resembling toxins or toxicants in science.

Fashionably toxic, Gorski (ScienceBasedMedicine.org)

Photograph of a pretty young woman’s face beside the logo for “Botox Cosmetic,” which is an actual toxin.

While some people are busy trying to detoxify, others are using toxins in controlled doses to paralyze their facial muscles. Sometimes the same people try to do both!

Real detoxification is not up to you

The body defends itself from undesirable molecules in many ways. It eliminates some and recycles others; some are trapped in a safe place; and quite a few can’t be safely handled by the body at all (metals, for instance).

Most alleged “detox” treatments are focused on stimulating an actual excretion pathway, like sweating in a sauna. But it’s not like sweating is broken and the sauna is fixing it! If the body needs to dispose of something through sweat glands, it’s going to do it with or without the sauna.

The only truly “detoxifying” treatments help the body eliminate or disarm molecules the body cannot actually process on its own. For instance, a stomach pump for someone with alcohol poisoning is literally “detoxifying.” So are chelation for heavy metals, and antivenoms. The list of true detox treatments is short. They often involves poisoning emergencies, and they are idiosyncratic to the specific biology of the problem.

Related reading…and lots of it

This is just a little topic primer. Detoxification is only slightly relevant to pain and therapies for pain. For more detailed and referenced information about toxins and detoxification, I’ll refer you on. For instance, I’ve written lots about the relationship between massage and detoxification:

For more general consumer advocacy and education about toxins, see:


About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.