The Detoxification Fallacy

The Detoxification Fallacy

Are you overburdened by toxins? Can detox therapies get rid of acne? Today I want to take a moment to answer a reader email dealing with these questions.

After spending nearly a year (10 months to be exact) going around the alt-med part and being mind-fucked… I think most people have read that ”toxins” causes acne.. Is there some truth to it at all or what?

I like that you used the word mind-fucked. I think it appropriately describes what the alt-med industry does for you.

So let’s dive in. Let’s see just how far from science and rationality the alt-med industry can stray.

What is detoxification

Detoxification refers to the process of removing toxic substances from living organisms. You probably already have intimate familiarity with the process; hangover is partly a symptom of dehydration and partly because your body neutralizes and eliminates alcohol and other toxic substances you ingested the previous evening.

There’s a legitimate medical use for the term detoxification, but in this post I’ll focus on the alternative and natural health use of the term.

The alternative health view of detox

Within the reality distortion field of alternative medicine, detox refers to various therapies for eliminating undefined toxins. The claim is that modern life exposes us to ‘toxic burden’ so large our bodies struggle to cope with it. The elimination organs, usually referring to the colon, liver and kidneys, become overburdened and clogged with toxins.

After failure of the primary elimination organs, the body has to resort to secondary means of elimination, usually the skin and lungs. As toxins are eliminated through the skin, they can acne and other skin problems, whereas elimination via the lungs can cause asthma.

I have a question…

There’s a little problem with this, the premise and every link within the chain are wrong. I think we can agree that in order for the claim toxins cause acne to be true, you would need to demonstrate the following:

  • These toxins should be detected in the bloodstream and tissues, yet no such studies exist.
  • These toxins should be detectable in the skin, assuming the theory that toxins passing through the skin cause acne. Despite numerous studies looking at skin scrapings from all stages of a pimple, no paper has ever noted the presences of toxins.
  • There should be a marked deterioration in liver function and liver detox capabilities. Yet, despite liver function of tens of thousands of people taking Accutane being monitored, no paper has ever shown abnormalities in liver function.

This concept would be very simple to prove experimentally: define a toxin and measure its levels before and after treatment.

Detox and excessive toxic burden are central concepts of many alternative health modalities, yet nobody has ever bothered to do this very simple experiment. And it’s not because of money, because the US government spends over $400 million every year to fund research on alternative medicine. Close to half a billion dollars (every year) and nobody has bothered to test this thesis so central to alternative medicine.

Perhaps because:

  • Real medical science has shown humans have a very effective mechanisms for removing toxins
  • There’s no evidence that, in absence of serious disease, the detox mechanisms could not cope with the toxic load
  • There’s no known way to speed up the elimination of toxins

For hundreds of years, the assumption was that our body produces waste products, many if not most of which, in turn, cause illness. Today we know that this is not normally the case; humans have highly effective mechanisms to eliminate toxins. In the absence of serious disease, we do not require outside help for this function, nor can normal elimination processes be meaningfully enhanced through therapeutic interventions. The very basis of ‘detox’ has thus ‘long been consigned to the dustbin of medical history.

Edzard Ernst MD. ‘Detox’. Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies. Volume 14, Issue 3, pages 163–164, August 2009.

Nobody denies the fact that we are exposed to countless toxic substances on a daily basis, anything from air pollution to pesticides to industrial emissions. Some of these substances can cause harm, for example pesticides can disrupt the endocrine system, and not too long ago a Chinese study correlated exposure to traffic air pollution with higher risk of skin problems.

The point is that your body is very effective at eliminating these substances. Neither is there any evidence that it needs help from you, nor that the detoxification therapies would amount to anything but waste of money.

The real solution is to minimize exposure and allow the body’s detox mechanisms to work. There’s no need for additional detoxification.

Even alternative medicine sources agree detox is bunk

Even experts the most sympathetic to complementary and alternative medicine admit detox is more of a sales pitch than science. This quote is by Prof. Marc Cohen, Professor of Complementary and Alternative Medicine and President of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association (a group that think it’s a good idea to integrate magical thinking with medicine).

While a modern science of ‘detoxicology’ seems to be emerging, evidence based detoxicology still seems quite far off, and at present ‘detox’ is certainly more of a sales pitch than a science.

Marc Cohen. Detox: science or sales pitch. Australian Family Physician Vol. 36, No. 12, December 2007.

With detoxicology he refers to measuring the toxic load in the body and assessing whether exposure to small doses of different toxins cause cumulative harm. Nothing in the article in anyway supports the validity of detox therapies (feel free to check the article yourself).

Naturopaths still happy to keep prescribing detox therapies

If there’s anything to admire in natural health practitioners, it’s their rugged determination to ignore scientific evidence and maintain ‘faith’.

A recent survey published in an alternative medicine journal shows over 75% of naturopathic ‘physicians’ (ND) use ‘clinical’ detoxification therapies to treat patients. Yet, even their own literature admits NDs have no way to establish the effectiveness of these ‘therapies’ (emphasis mine).

The majority of NDs responding to this survey reported routine use of clinical detoxification therapies to treat a range of medical conditions utilizing multiple therapeutic approaches. Although the majority of NDs reported using some follow-up measurements after detoxification therapy, few of these are an objective means to determine treatment efficacy. Further research is needed in the field of complementary and alternative medicine clinical detoxification to determine the safety and efficacy of these approaches.

Jason Allen, et al. Detoxification In Naturopathic Medicine: A Survey. J Altern Complement Med. 2011 December; 17(12): 1175–1180.

This is why I’m against alternative-medicine and visiting these alternative practitioners. Their own literature admits they have no idea of whether these therapies even work, yet the vast majority use them routinely. You decide what to make of that.

Imagine if a real doctor was to tell you to take this drug and that drug and we’ll just see what happens.

Why some people claim detox cured their acne?

If detoxification is certified nonsense (it is), then why so many people claim detoxification helped their skin? The answer is simple: people confuse correlation with causation.

Detox therapies almost always involve severely restricted diet and caloric restriction. Caloric restriction reduces both insulin and inflammation, both of which are linked to acne. Detox diets also restrict dairy products, sugar and refined carbohydrates, all of which can be bad for the skin.

As you can see, there are perfectly good, science-based explanations for why detox diets could be good for acne, and there’s no need to involve imaginary concepts.

The problem with using ‘detox diets’ is that such diets amount to nothing more than a flash in the pan. Whatever benefits you may get will be short-lived. Very few people can stick to such extremely restrictive diets, and acne will come back within a few weeks of resuming normal diet.


Detoxification is one of the central tenets of alternative and natural medicine. Despite enormous popularity, the concept is utter nonsense and has been ditched to the ‘dustbin of medical history’. Not only is there absolutely no evidence to support it, it also goes against what medical science has learned of the human body.

Even journals and experts dedicated to alternative medicine admit the efficacy of detox therapies is unknown, and that detox is more a sales pitch than science. Yet, over 75% of naturopathic doctors routinely prescribe detoxification therapies.

Whatever benefits detoxification brings will be short-lived and are better achieved by making less drastic but sustainable dietary improvements.

About Me

Hi, I am Acne Einstein(a.k.a. Seppo Puusa). I'm a bit of a science nerd who is also passionate about health. I enjoy digging through medical journals for acne treatment gems I can share here. You can read more about my journey through acne and how I eventually ended up creating this.

8 thoughts on “The Detoxification Fallacy”

  1. Whenever you mention acne in the alternative health circles, people always are quick to mention “toxins.” An abundance of toxins, etc, etc, etc…

    You can take one person who eats oragnic raw foods, regularly cleanses, etc with horrible skin and compare it to a person who is an alcoholic, macdonald’s eating person who works as a pesticide sprayer with perfect skin.

    You can take a healthy young child at 13 with a face full of acne (because of “toxins” and their body’s so-called “inability to remove them”) and compare it with a 80 year old person with a lifetime of wear on the liver, intestines, etc. and they don’t have a pimple on their face.

    The “toxins” theory doesn’t hold any water.

    • Glad to hear we agree Steven. The toxin and need for detox is an easy sell in the modern world. I bet just about everybody feels they could eat a bit better, and who could argue against our world being polluted. It’s not difficult to tap to those sentiments and convince people they need to detox. It also has nice and ritualistic ‘cleansing my sins’ feel to it.

  2. Just my two cents:

    1. Heavy metals are not eliminated easily by the human body, instead they will be stored in the CNS among oher places and cause havoc that is not yet all that well understood, because different people seem to tolerate different levels of heavy metals and show differing symptoms. As these toxins – heavy metals that is – are stored and accumulate in the body, they are not detectable in the blood stream. Actually there is no linear and definite way to test a person’s heavy metal burden exactly. They use chelation challenges and hair and stool analysis but the results are extremely unreliable, because the way your body detoxes HM after a chelating agent is given depends on so many factors.

    2. Sauna therapy: There are studies that show it can cure people, look into it! I would think it is related to toxins and speeding up the metabolism.

    • My $0.02 in reply.

      1. It’s possible that heavy metals and other toxins accumulate in the body and that cumulative exposure has adverse effects we don’t know yet. That’s something scientists are trying to understand. But that in itself doesn’t in anyway validate the various ‘detox therapies’. There’s no evidence that such therapies can remove heavy metals or toxins from the body, or be helpful in any other way.

      2. As a Finn, I’d be happy to see those studies. Yet, I must remain skeptical.

  3. Seppo, I was sceptical of detox for a long time and now you really confirm for me this whole load of bullshit. The chinese often say,”There is poison in your blood, you must clear them out” If I had poison in my blood I would be dead but yet I am alive and kicking.
    So Seppo you are the aborigine of Finland. I once saw on Youtube, a young man in Finland who spear a fish in the river and he ate the fish there and then. That was real fresh direct from the river.. That’s what I call “Healthy Living”
    I don’t think people in Finland have acne. Because they eat healthy foods and plenty of cold fresh air.

    • I’m from Finland, but I’m not an aboriginal. Also, most Finns don’t spearfish on the river and eat raw fish 🙂 We eat the same junk food people in other European countries do, and that’s why we have as much acne as people in other Western countries. Also, eating raw fish or meat sounds like a fantastic way to infect yourself with parasites and other nasty bugs.

  4. Finally! Someone SAID it! Acne is not caused by your liver, colon or kidneys being dirty and toxic!

    I have nothing against alternative medicines ( i actually work in a health food store) but naturopatic doctors have no clue when it comes to acne. I have had acne many times in my life, and every time i went to holisitic doctors, it’s always the same old story about toxins,liver, colon… They never helped and sometimes made it worse. ( like recommending vegetarian diets full of cheese!) Artichoke and black radish supplements were ALWAYS prescribed and never helped.

    The last naturopatic doctor was different, and we did an experiment. He was a specialist in colonic irrigation . I tried a 6 week treatment ( about 8 colonics) , which obviously cleanses the colon, but according to him also have a positive effect on liver and kidneys. You cant get cleaner than that.

    I thought, if acne is caused by my DIRTY organs, i’ll literally WASH them. After 8 colonics, acne was still there. Skin was glowing and pink, but there was zero improvement on the pimples .
    He admited if i still had acne after THAT, my organs were fine and it was probably caused by my anxiety more than my organs or toxins . I was hesitant to take accutane, but he suggested i take it. He actually said it would cause less damage to my body than the daily ANXIETY i was experiencing because of acne, and being only a 4 month treatment, the liver would bounce right back after the treatment.
    That was a real eye opener. Never again will i believe them when they say i have acne because my organs are dirty, toxic or lazy! I am not saying accutane is the answer, but detoxing is a waste of time and money that could be spent on trying better solutions.

    Thanks for all your articles, they make so much sense!

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