Detox Tea Is Bullshit

Well, let's start off the new year with a bang, shall we?

First, a quick disclaimer: I do not begrudge anyone a fair wage for their labor. To that end, while I don't care for product placement-style advertising, I understand that's the best and easiest way for most nail art Instagrammers to make a buck and I fully support nail artists earning money for their work.  Let me say preemptively that I generally agree that I can unfollow any accounts who post things I don't like, which is exactly what I do when someone posts an add for detox tea. I'm under no delusion that losing one follower out of hundreds of thousands has any impact on any nail artist's decision about what to post on their account, but at least that way I don't have to clutter up my Instagram feed with garbage. So this post is not so much directed to the big accounts, on whose radar I am not even a speck, but rather for those who follow those accounts and who might, after seeing someone whose work they respect posting an enthusiastic endorsement (and do not get me wrong - the nail artists who post about detox tea are explicitly saying that they approve of this product) of a product like detox tea time and time again, decide, "Hey, why not try it?"

I'll tell you why not - because detox tea is a scam. It doesn't "detoxify" anything, it doesn't help you lose weight, and it may be actively harmful to your health.

I'm not overlooking how detox tea is harmful to mental health, in the way endorsing a fad diet product inculcates an unrealistic body image in the young people who follow a particular account, not to mention explicitly encouraging fad diets and calorie restriction in someone who may not even be done growing yet. In the interest of keeping this post manageable, however, I'm limiting it to the three primary ways in which detox tea does not function as claimed. 

The first order of bullshit is that detox tea won't detox anything because there's no such thing as "detoxing," at least not from a tea (or a juice or a supplement or a cleanse for that matter). I'm not a scientist or a physician, so I'm going to let a real doctor do the talking here:

“Detox” is a legitimate medical term that has been co-opted to sell useless products and services. It is a fake treatment for a fake condition. Real detoxification isn’t ordered from a menu at a juice bar, or assembled from supplies in your pantry. Real detoxification is provided in hospitals under life-threatening circumstances — usually when there are dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol, or other poisons in the body. Drugs used for real detoxification are not ingredients in a smoothie. What’s being promoted today as “detox” is little different than eons-old religious rituals of cleansing and purification. Framing detoxification in religious terms won’t have the appeal in a world that values science. So use the word “toxin”, not sin, and call the ritual a “detox” – and suddenly you’ve given your treatment a veneer of what sounds scientific. Fake detox is marketed based on three easily-debunked ideas. Once you can spot the flaws, it’s easy to spot the spin and misinformation, and to make smarter, healthier decisions.

The one thing you need to know before you detox, posted by Scott Gavura on Science Based Medicine, 12/31/15

Okay, so did you get that? Someone may actually require medical detox, and a person who does is actively dying from whatever toxic substance has suffused their body. A person whose sole symptom is an insufficiently flat belly is not suffering from an surfeit of "toxins." They are suffering from genetics or gas or a large lunch. "Detoxing" does not exist as a commercially available endeavor because we as humans are not full of toxins that need to be removed (assuming, of course, you are not suffering from an acute case of lead poisoning right now). 

Put another way, you don't need to "detox" because:

Your body is already doing it for you. If we needed additional detoxing, we’d be given information from medical professionals rather than lifestyle gurus.
Healthy liver and kidneys detoxify the blood, removing any impurities and keeping the body clean. If everything is in working order, there should be no need to supplement this with faddy detox products.

5 myths about your New Year 'detox' - debunked by Molly Goodfellow on the Independent, 12/28/15

The premise of detox tea is flawed right out of the gate in that it's promising something it is impossible to deliver. Selling detox tea is like selling flying tea. People can fly given the right equipment, but a cup of tea a day for fourteen days isn't going to get you off the ground. 

Let's say you aren't interested in "detoxing" but just want to lose weight. Detox tea works for that, right? Well, no. Like most weight loss supplements, Fit Tea (the brand of detox tea often promoted by nail artists on Instagram) recommends that you "[s]tay hydrated with plenty of water," "[e]xerise regularly 3-5 times per week," and "[e]at healthy, balanced meals" for best results. Fit Tea also offers a PDF of 100 Weight Loss Tips to employ in addition to drinking their tea. 100! One hundred things in addition to drinking this tea that you must do for "best results." This includes such gems as "Go easy on the tea and coffee" (but... Fit Tea is... tea?) and, interestingly given that one of the advertising claims of Fit Tea is a flat stomach, the following pearl of wisdom:

Most people would like to target their stomachs and get rid of that area all together. Unfortunately, we can't spot reduce. But, one thing you can do is a breathing exercise to help tighten those stomach muscles.

100 Weight Loss Tips, Fit Tea

WEIRD. It's almost as if Fit Tea knows its claims are bullshit. 

Don't take my word for it though. Again, smarter people than I have tackled this very issue.

One detox tea brand, recently Instagrammed by Amber Rose, advises per their website that for “best results,” the tea should be consumed along with plenty of water, healthy, balanced meals, and three to five workouts a week. Another, which has been Instagrammed by several celebs, including Kourtney KardashianChristina Milian, and Hilary Duffstates online that the tea “…is recommended to be taken in conjunction with a healthy energy-controlled diet and regular exercise” and the website offers an accompanying meal plan for sale. Personally, I’d love to see a study comparing outcomes generated by a detox tea compared to a placebo, with both groups following the exact same eating plan, but I haven’t found any. That makes it difficult to know whether the weight-loss results people are getting from these teas are actually due to drinking them, or simply the result of a cleaned-up diet and consistent workout routine, which we already know can lead to weight loss. In any case, simply sipping detox tea while continuing to skip the gym and order takeout is unlikely to help you shrink your shape.

5 Things You Should Know About Detox Teas, posted by Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD on Health, 6/15/15

Not only are the claims specious, but if you do see a lower number on the scale, it's not likely to be for the reasons you hope. 

Detox teas that combine caffeine with diuretics can trigger the loss of water weight. Just two cups of water weighs one pound on a scale, so shedding fluid can make you look and feel lighter—even if you haven’t lost an ounce of body fat. Detox teas can also trigger a laxative effect, which causes your body to eliminate waste from your GI tract, another result that can make your stomach flatter, and allow you to feel lighter, even if your lean-to-fat ratio remains exactly the same. If this quick-fix effect gives you the confidence boost and motivation you need to start eating healthier and working out—the real keys to getting healthy and lean—terrific (assuming the teas are even safe to drink—see below). Just remember: If you go back to your former less-than-stellar eating or exercise habits, or stop drinking the tea, you can gain the weight right back just as quick as you dropped it.


So in other words, at best, detox tea will make you lighter because you'll have less water and less, well, poop in your body, not because your fat cells have shrunk. As soon as you replace the lost fluid or fecal matter by drinking more water or eating anything, whatever weight you've lost comes back, too. And that's at best. If your particular detox tea doesn't have diuretic or laxative ingredients it's not going to do any more than a much cheaper cup of black or green tea would. And not for nothing, but unnecessary use of laxatives is a common tactic for people with eating disorders and can cause serious health issues. Endorsing a laxative product as a weight loss aid could have direct harmful consequences for someone scrolling through an Instagram feed. 

(You may be thinking that not everybody has an eating disorder, and you can't make everything safe for everybody. I would argue that as non-sociopaths, we do have a duty not to knowingly engage in behavior that causes harm to other people (especially for our own pecuniary gain), but this post is about facts, not about my bleeding heart view of humanity, so I'll leave it at that.)

Even if detox tea doesn't detox anything, or help anybody lose weight, it's still just herbal tea, right? So what's the harm, really? Aside from the harm to the overlapping Venn diagram of a particular nail artist's Instagram followers and people with eating disorders, detox tea has the potential to be harmful to anyone who drinks it. 

The herbal supplement field is an unregulated Wild West in the US thanks to the direct lobbying efforts of the vitamin and supplement industry to remove vitamins and supplements from the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, the government agency charged with regulating food, drugs, and medical devices. The result?

This lack of safeguards creates a situation in which unwitting consumers are exposed to herbal products that in most cases have no proven effectiveness but often have serious toxicities. Though we tend to equate natural with healthy, plants have developed toxins to protect themselves against predators. The perception that herbal supplements and botanicals are inherently safe is belied by extensive evidence of the danger posed by such products, including kava, ephedra, comfrey, and aristolochic acid. However, intensive advertising by the dietary supplements industry exploits and reinforces the illusion that plant products are inherently beneficial and harmless.

Natural Does Not Mean Safe: Herbal supplements are unregulated, overhyped, and potentially deadly by Geoffrey Kabat on Slate, 11/26/12

While the majority of Fit Tea's ingredients appear benign, garcinia cambogia extract has not only been shown to cause testicular atrophy and toxicity in mice, but it is also possibly ineffective for weight loss, the putative purpose of the ingredient's inclusion in the tea. One laboratory study isn't enough to damn a particular ingredient, but due to a lack of regulation and oversight, there are no other studies on the safety of this ingredient out there to counter the atrophied mouse testicles study. So buyer (and their testicles) beware. 

Evaluating the ingredients listed on its website gives Fit Tea an unearned benefit of the doubt that what it lists as ingredients is what is actually contained therein. Thanks again to a lack of regulation and oversight, what actually goes into a supplement or herbal tea and what is listed on the ingredients list often vary wildly. A test conducted by the New York State attorney general's office early in 2015 revealed that supplements often don't contain any of the ingredients they claim to contain and sometimes contain totally random ingredients, like dried houseplants. Yes. I said houseplants. You have no reason to take any detox tea seller at its word, and every reason to distrust them. The entire premise of their product is a scam so why would they be honest about what ingredients you're drinking when they could stuff their tea with something cheaper? 

The holidays are over and maybe you're still feeling a little hungover. Maybe you feel bloated or ill-nourished from holiday eating or you have the post-holiday letdown blues. When you're scrolling through your Instagram feed, cheering yourself up with all the pretty nails you may get seduced by the photos of cut abs and accompanying enthusiastic endorsement for detox tea, but remember the bottom line: it doesn't work. Besides, you and your stomach are just fine the way you are. And you can always check out that PDF of 100 weight loss tips for free, which standing alone is equally as likely to lead to weight loss as that PDF and 14 days worth of Fit Tea (and much less likely to require you to drink tea made from dried houseplants).