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What Does "Detoxing" Actually Mean?

As a Western-trained physician who has landed in the world of wellness, I fall somewhere along the middle section of the Purely-Science-to-Purely-WooWoo Spectrum. It makes me sad that mainstream medicine labels things like acupuncture, meditation, whole food diets, and yoga with the word alternative when they should be labeled fundamental. But I also believe that the non-medical wellness industry is prone to a lot of misinformation and fear-based language, which is creating a health-anxiety epidemic.

Specifically, the word “detox” is starting to concern me. Those of us trying to live a healthy life walk around with a pulsing, ever-present fear of “toxins”, and are constantly telling ourselves we need to “detox”, but we don’t exactly know what we’re trying to avoid or achieve. This can create some truly toxic anxiety, so let’s clarify the basic facts.

What is a toxin? 

A toxin is defined by Mirriam-Webster online as “a poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism and is usually very unstable, notably toxic when introduced into the tissues, and typically capable of inducing antibody formation.” In other words, a true toxin is produced by organisms as a form of defense—a scorpion’s venom, botulinum toxin in a spoiled can of beans, or ricin, a lethal toxin produced by the castor oil plant. 

A toxicant, on the other hand, is defined as “a toxic agent,” such as a pesticide, mercury, or lead, that can lead to toxic effects in the body. We get exposed to these through food, our environment, and, unfortunately, some cosmetics. 

How do toxins affect our health?

Exposure to true toxins, like botulinum toxin and ricin, requires immediate medical attention. Luckily, you’re unlikely to encounter true toxins unless you poke a scorpion, eat contaminated canned food, or munch on castor beans. (So please don’t.)

More common substances that cause toxicity or disease in the body are a different story. They have to get processed and/or eliminated. Luckily, the human body is brilliantly equipped to manage both its own cellular waste (things like uric acid and carbon dioxide) and exposure to external toxicants. Our lungs, kidneys, liver, and colon work as the ultimate waste management team: they reduce, reuse, and recycle whatever they can, and excrete the rest. Only if those organs are not working properly, or if there’s a high-dose exposure to a toxic substance, do we need to worry about being unable to detoxify ourselves.

There are plenty of things that can negatively affect our health over time, such as BPA, 1,4-dioxane, tobacco smoke, synthetic fragrance, and trans-fats. We should educate ourselves and take appropriate steps to avoid unnecessary dangers, but we don’t need to live in a state of permanent fear.

Do cleanses work to detox the body?

There is no science to support fasting or cleansing as a form of active, measurable detoxification. Your body is getting rid of most toxic substances and metabolites on its own, and a cleanse probably won’t affect that. The most likely (but unproven) exception could be a serious ayurvedic cleanse focused on mobilizing unwanted fat-soluble substances for excretion. Conversely, things like juice fasts or severe calorie restriction can leave you feeling more depleted than detoxed.

Even if there’s no medical literature to prove actual detoxification, won’t you feel better after a well-designed cleanse? Almost certainly, which is why there’s a perception that you must be getting rid of toxins! The more scientific explanation is that you’ve brought awareness and attention to your diet, often removing foods that can create swings in blood sugar, induce headaches, and affect your mood and energy level.

Can you really detox your skin? 

Skin is our first line of defense when it comes to environmental exposure to chemicals. Some substances get trapped in the skin because they are too large to be absorbed, and many of those can be removed by deeply cleansing the skin. Oil cleansing is one way to do that, and using binding substances like clay and charcoal is another. A deep clean won’t fix your acne or dermatitis overnight, and many claims about “pulling toxins from the skin” are unsubstantiated.

Why use charcoal on your skin?

Activated charcoal is one of very few things that can actually bind toxic substances and remove them from your system, both internally and externally. We use it extensively in the emergency department to treat overdoses or accidental exposures. It has a massive surface area, and grabs on to almost anything it comes in contact with in the GI tract, preventing absorption into the bloodstream. 

The trouble with charcoal is that it doesn’t know what it’s grabbing. People often take charcoal supplements because they believe it contributes to daily detoxification, but it grabs nutrients and medications and other supplements in addition to toxic substances on its way through the gastrointestinal system. In short, it's a bit of a gamble.

On skin, it’s less potent, but can still bind indiscriminately, which is why we combine it with other, more nourishing ingredients like cacao and honey in our Detox Exfoliating Mask and shea butter and coconut milk in our Oh So Detox Body Soap. If used in an undiluted form, it would leave the skin feeling extremely dry and stripped.

So, does detoxing actually work?

Circling back to the dictionary, the Mirriam-Webster definition of toxicity is twofold: 1) “the quality, state, or relative degree of being poisonous,” or 2) “an extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful quality”. While we have to worry about both forms of toxicity in life, the second definition may be more prevalent than the first. Amidst climate change, angry neighbors, and turmoil of politics, your choice to care for yourself in any form—going for a walk, cooking a meal, painting on a face mask—is a way to limit your exposure to toxicity, even if it’s not removing measurable toxins. So eat beautiful, nourishing foods, clean up your home and your skincare the best you can, spend time with people who make you feel loved, and trust your organs to do the heavy lifting. 

With love and less toxin-anxiety from us to you,