When you are desperate to find that perfect gift, you become a vulnerable audience to the claims of advertising, and that is especially true with products that claim to have health benefits.
How do you tell the good from the bad products without an M.D.? First, realize that if it really was proven to work well by research studies, you probably would need a prescription to use it. Also, listen to how advertisers phrase their statements. For example, while a product might be advertised to reduce the amount of bacteria in your environment, it might not be proven to reduce the number of infections you get. So, in that example, the claim of reducing the amount of bacteria has no practical benefit.
To help you understand how to analyze health-benefit claims, here is a list of a few types of products that advertise health benefits and why you shouldn’t waste your money on most of them.
My latest pet peeve is the rash of ionizers being advertised these days. Patients often ask if this will help their allergies or asthma. The stores show you the dirty filters and say that studies prove that the filters successfully trap pollutants and indoor allergens. But whether this translates into better health is harder to prove. I have reviewed one area in particular — asthma — and found that there is no convincing evidence that ionizers reduce symptoms.
It is actually quite difficult to remove or filter out indoor allergens by vacuuming or using air filters alone because the allergens are so small. Although you do trap some, it is often not enough to alleviate symptoms or the need for treatment. The particles can hide deep in carpets and other fabrics. This is probably why studies have not shown dramatic success in reducing asthma symptoms by air filters or ionizers alone. The same goes for personal ionizers that you wear around your neck.
If you want to reduce the amount of allergens around the home, you are better off vacuuming more frequently with a HEPA filter and washing bed linens in warm or hot water once a week.
- Acne — Many products claim to reduce acne. But the only ones that actually work contain as their active ingredient salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide or triclosan. These ingredients help to lower bacteria counts or to exfoliate pores so they don’t get blocked. Many products with these ingredients can be found for a reasonable price at a grocery market or local pharmacy. If the product doesn’t contain one of these ingredients, be suspicious that you are paying more for nothing.
- Anti-wrinkle creams or lotions — Again, look at the active ingredients. Anything without acids or retinol is unlikely to visibly reduce wrinkles. Acids and retinol help to exfoliate outer layers of skin. In a way, it is like having a very mild form of a chemical peel.
- Oxygenating your skin — More than once people have tried to convince me of the benefit of oxygenating your skin with facials. But any product that claims it increases the oxygen to your skin should be viewed skeptically. Oxygen is all around us. Even if you could deliver more oxygen to the skin from the outside, it wouldn’t help you. The outer layer of your skin is dead; it can’t absorb the extra oxygen. Skin is designed to be your best barrier against the outside world, and that makes it difficult for it to absorb anything easily.
- Lotions full of vitamins — Just about the only active ingredient that can be absorbed through skin is a corticosteroid. You can put all the vitamins you want into a cream, but don’t expect them to get absorbed.
The best defense against aging and improving the appearance of your skin is to stay out of the sun, use an SPF-containing face makeup or lotion, get eight hours of sleep, drink plenty of water and eat lots of fruits and vegetables.
If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Although it’s tempting to think you can get a “six-pack” of abdominal muscles, or keep your facial muscles “toned” with these gadgets, no pain is no gain. The amount of tension on the muscle from these contractors is very little compared with using weights. It is the equivalent of isometric exercises (for example, pushing against a wall), not isotonic or muscle-mass building. Spend your money instead on a set of weights or a gym membership.
Heating or Cooling Devices
I have also seen various products designed to heat or cool your back, neck or knees. The ads tell you that heat or cold is preferred by this or that expert. In reality, both methods are endorsed by physicians depending on what your problem is and, often, what works best for you. While heating a muscle seems like it would help to work out tension better than applying cold, some people find cold packs more soothing. So use what is best for you. And, if you are thinking of giving a gift, you will want to know what works for the intended recipient.
Soaps, lotions, humidifiers and even mattresses now claim to have antibacterial properties.
Soaps and lotions can reduce bacterial counts on skin, but whether they reduce infections is usually not proven for the special brands you buy in stores. In reality, any effort to wash your hands lowers your risk of colds and upper-respiratory infections. So don’t spend extra money on fancier products claiming to do this better.
If you buy a humidifier, be careful of bacteria and mold growing in the chambers, especially if you have allergies to mold. Some models come with an ultraviolet light to combat mold and bacteria growth, but while the UV light might reduce the effort it takes to clean the device, it does not eliminate the need to clean it properly.
Also, when buying a humidifier, there is conflicting information out there about whether warm mist or cool mist is better. Some people feel they breathe better with warm mist, probably because they sit close to the warm air and use it like steam treatments to help open up blocked airways/sinuses. Other people find cool mist more soothing to their airways and throat. Warm mist can be a safety hazard if young children and pets can get too close to the air coming out. Therefore, many textbooks and patient-education materials specify cool mist humidifiers. But without study information doing a direct comparison, there is no definite health advantage of one type over another.
Whatever humidifier you decide to purchase, make sure it looks easy to clean. If it is cool mist, check to see if a mineral filter is used and how often you need to replace it (to avoid it becoming a breeding ground for bacteria and mold). Use a hygrometer as well (this can be bought separately or may be included with your device) to make sure you do not overhumidify the room. Too much moisture in the air provides a more favorable environment for mold growth throughout your home.
In general, your basic multivitamin with minerals is sufficient. Except when specified by your doctor, higher doses of vitamins are very unlikely to improve your health and extra supplements of certain micronutrients may actually be harmful.
The Bottom Line
The next time someone tries to sell you something based on its health claims, think twice. Certainly, don’t buy it as a gift for someone else until you have reviewed its supposed benefits with a health-care professional. You’ll most likely save money in the process.