Insta influencers peddling modern-day snake oil

Category:  Opinions
Wednesday, February 5th, 2020 at 7:30 PM

Before the establishment of regulations for food, drugs and medicine in the early 1900s, anyone could essentially sell anything and tell tall tales about their products. A common example is the caricature of an elaborately dressed salesman in an otherwise dingy street, loudly peddling “Snake Oil” from his cart, a miracle drug that will cure any ailment. Without having to prove the snake oil works, the salesman is essentially selling olive oil in a fancy bottle and making an absolute killing doing so, despite the fact that the only thing it might cure is dry skin. Post-regulation, most products sold to the public for consumption must be approved for safety and effectiveness by agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

Unfortunately, these regulations often do not cover consumables like vitamins and supplements. This is due to legislation passed in 1994 called the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which defined “dietary supplements” as a separate category from vitamins and other supplements. Essentially a compromise between heavily regulating vitamins and supplements, and leaving them wholly unregulated, the DSHEA requires that any vitamins or (dietary) supplements that claim to have health effects must be approved. Meanwhile, producers that cannot prove their health claims cannot put those benefits on the labels of their products. 

However, companies can still claim that their vitamins or supplements change the “structure and function” of the body. The vagueness of what it means to “change the structure and function of the body” negates the requirement for FDA approval regarding most health claims. Further, many dietary supplements rely on marketing, instead of labeling, to promote their unsubstantiated health claims. 

The lack of regulation on dietary supplements has created an industry based on falsehood, an industry that has now found the perfect breeding ground for misinformation and false hope: Instagram. Most people with an Instagram account know what an “influencer” is. Usually a beautiful young woman with an impossible waist-to-booty ratio and insane bone structure, many influencers start on Instagram and then become models and reality-TV stars, or vice versa. They have thousands of followers and are aptly named; social media personalities are the latest form of celebrity, setting trends for today’s youth and often using their platforms to advertise for their sponsors. 

Many influencers focus on fashion, health and “wellness,” which is generally a thinly veiled euphemism for “being skinny.” Any Instagram model with more than 20,000 followers has their own athletic wear line, diet plans, and/or is peddling diet pills, teas and drinks to her disciples. Usually accompanied by a discount code that will take a small percentage off the inflated price of whatever product is being marketed, these posts often feature the trim, “photoshopped” model in some spotless living space, languidly posing with the product like it’s the latest and greatest accessory in their arsenal of mystifying, beautifying products.

On the surface, there’s not much to complain about regarding these practices. It seems to be a typical case of capitalism and celebrity worship working in tandem. 

Unfortunately, many products peddled by influencers are unregulated, and some influencers don’t care to vet the products they are promoting; in fact, it’s likely they do not even use them. A BBC Investigation in December of 2019 revealed that three influencers were willing to promote a diet drink containing hydrogen cyanide — a deadly poison — to their collective 1.3 million followers. Of the three stars, one declined to comment and the other two issued statements claiming to never promote products they have not tried. Catching these three influencers in their lies is a mere drop in the bucket, considering there are hundreds of social media personalities selling what essentially amounts to modern day snake oil. But frankly, it’s worse than that. Influencers promoting and selling detox teas and shakes marketed as dietary aids are really peddling laxatives in fancy packaging. 

For example, Senna, a natural laxative, is the main ingredient in many detox teas, and its side effects for consumers with healthy colons can be mild to severe. Charlotte Kinder, a British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT)certified nutritional therapist, told The Independent: “When taken in excess or chronically, laxatives can damage the gut lining along with causing nutrient depletion, dehydration and malabsorption...In some cases, anal blisters along with anaemia or other nutrient-deficient disorders can also occur.’” 

Teas, shakes and supplements that do not have Senna likely contain other natural diuretics. Martha Alexander, who wrote that article in The Independent, gives the common example of the notoriously dehydrating dandelion root. 

Companies selling these “health and wellness” drinks and supplements usually brush negative side effects off as signs that the detox is working, not signs that consumers are mildly poisoning themselves to (hopefully) look like “Facetuned” influencers. The lack of understanding about these products and their ingredients is troubling at best; at worst, it is life-altering. 

A Huffington Post UK article written by Natasha Hill in 2015, exposed how consumers of detox drinks produced by a company called Bootea accidentally became mothers. The detox drink contains high enough levels of laxatives to entirely negate a contraceptive pill, a fact that was not mentioned on the packaging or by the celebrities and influencers promoting it. 

Further expanding on this idea, an interview conducted by Alexander illuminates that these teas can not only be life-altering, but in some cases can be life threatening. She spoke with Dr. Toni Hazell of the Royal College of General Practitioners. 

“‘Overuse of diuretics and Senna can upset the balance of sodium and potassium in the body — in extreme cases this can be fatal, as high or low potassium can upset the electrical activity of the heart,” Hazell explains. ‘There is no evidence that any of these slimming products work.’” And there doesn’t have to be any evidence, even in the U.S., due to lack of regulation.

Detoxing has become a $1 billion industry, and the success of companies like Skinny Tea and Bootea have prompted more of them to crop up. Health and wellness has become a culture in and of itself, one filled with empowerment and optimism. Still, aspects of the culture promote insecurity, and many of the products and people propping the culture up are peddling glorified constipation medication and normally affordable remedies at an inflated price. 

Internationally renowned actress Gwyneth Paltrow has added her own lifestyle brand to the movement: Goop. Aimed at young and middle-age women, Goop sells holistic medicine and sponsors unconventional approaches to wellness, all under the guise of spirituality and interconnectedness. According to the Associated Press, the head of Britain’s National Health Service, Simon Stevens, stated, “Gwyneth Paltrow’s brand peddles ‘psychic vampire repellent,’ says ‘chemical sunscreen is a bad idea,’ and promotes colonic irrigation and DIY coffee enema machines.” Stevens said the ideas sponsored by the brand promote “considerable risks to health” and gives credence to “quacks, charlatans and cranks.” Stevens’ criticisms are a reaction to the newly released Netflix series about Goop. 

Goop’s website is a perfect representation of how insidious celebrity wellness culture has become. It boasts a variety of skincare remedies, and I picked one at random, a hyaluronic overnight serum that supposedly evens out skin tone and fights aging. Upon looking through the ingredients, I realized I bought the exact same serum on Amazon for $12. Paltrow is selling it for over $40. In short, the products that do contain safe ingredients and may actually work are being sold at exorbitant prices.

Next time you see an influencer selling detox tea, or you watch Gwyneth Paltrow get a vampire facial, please remember the snake oil salesman. He might not have an insanely small waist, flawless skin or a vacation house in Majorca, but he and those beautiful celebrities are selling the exact same thing. Before buying any such product, do your due diligence and research its properties, effectiveness and the more affordable alternatives. 

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