Ionic Detox Foot Baths: Scam or Science?
This post is a reprint of one of our most heavily read and shared SpaCast blog posts, dated February 4, 2008. The issue of whether ionic detox foot baths (and now, detox foot patches) offer any real benefit was one of the most hotly debated subjects ever printed on our spa lifestyle network.
The comments “against” (it’s a scam) heavily outweighed the comments “for” (it’s real) (10 to 1) — but unfortunately, when we launched a new format for our spa directory and blog, we were unable to store and republish our readers’ original 200+ comments.
We vividly recall the most alarming comment in the “pro column” came from a women who claimed she was sold on the positive benefits when she could see live maggots wriggling in her foot bath, supposedly extracted from the pores of her feet. We replied to that reader recommending that anyone who believes she sees live maggots after a foot treatment needs to be in a hospital — not a day spa.
We continue to receive inquiries from those still looking for the original SpaCast Scam or Science blog post, and asking if our position has changed. It hasn’t.
Here is our original response to the question — are iconic foot baths scam or science?
A Reader asks us:
“Are those Detox Foot Baths really helpful? The spa I use is now pushing them at $45 for a 30 minute session and guarantees I’ll be amazed, but I’m really dubious.” Name, City Withheld — February 4, 2008
The benefits of an Ionic foot bath are hotly contested by many organizations within the scientific, medical, aesthetic and alternative health care communities. We’d be suspect of a spa or wellness facility “guaranteeing” results — it’s the offer of a guaranteed detox which troubles us.
Two different websites, which both tout Ionic Foot Bath claim, offer this fairly common description of the process:
Ion Footbath Detoxification:
This is the most relaxing way to get rid of the toxins present in the body. You just have to sit on the chair, with your feet dipped into the water container. A flow of warm water will flow under your feet and the positive and negative ions in the water will attach themselves to the toxins present in the body. Toxins that are insoluble will also dissolve in this water.
Ionic Body Cleanse:
A gentle and effective way to detoxify, cleanse and balance the body by drawing the impurities out of the body through the feet. As your feet soak in the ionic foot bath, your body will undergo an amazing cleanse of years’ worth of stored toxins.
The process is supposedly based on osmosis — an ionater in the water-filled footbath released ions into the water. The polarity is reversed periodically, creating positive and negative ions, which are then taken up into your body through your pores. Your cells are then supposed to be energized by the ions in the water, which encourages your cells to release oil, acid, fat, heavy metals, and other debris and waste which has accumulated in your cells and bloodstream over your entire lifetime. As your cells release the toxins, again through osmosis, the toxins are carried out of your feet and back into the water, turning it a bright rust color, or a murky brown, or some other dramatic shade that makes you say “Eww.“
When ionic / detoxing foot baths swept the market in the last few years, manufacturers even provided merchants with a color coded chart which was used to evaluate the murky color of the water after a foot bath session. Like comparing paint chips to a wall, one could supposedly match the color of the water to the correlating toxin on the chart to determine which toxins had been extracted.
There are a great many websites which claim this method of detox helps (or even outright cures) everything from parasites and worms to AIDS, Herpes, and Cancer. There is even a YouTube Video of the process.
Sound too good to be true? Too easy to be real? We think so.
We found a great many websites touting the amazing benefits of this treatment. Every one of them had a direct financial interest in the treatment — the dealers and treatment providers.
We also found a wealth of information claiming the Detox Foot Bath is a scam.
What we cannot find is a single informative article or treatise, no clinical tests or trials, from a reputable source or authority which demonstrates, proves, or even suggests a benefit from an Ion / Foot Detox Bath, other than the general feeling of well-being which comes from soaking the feet in hot water.
In a January 2008 article appearing in the Poughkeepsie Journal (archive link no longer available), we learned about Nina Venturella, CEO and Founder of Spa-Tacular Health in Palm Desert, California. According to the article, she has given hundreds of ionic foot baths since her facility opened in March 2006. The excerpts said:
“I can look into that water and make an accurate assessment of what’s happening and where you need help, whether it’s joint pain, asthma, fibromyalgia,” she said. “What you’re looking at in that water is you.”
Proponents claim the detox baths enhance the immune system, relieve pain and joint stiffness, regulate sleep, remove heavy metals, improve organ function and assist in recovery time from illness.
Hayley Riccio, 17, of Palm Springs has been on a regular program of foot baths for the past six weeks. Prior to visiting Spa-tacular Health, she was in poor health.
“I was bent over and crying, the pains in my stomach were so strong,” she said. “Sometimes I couldn’t sleep from all the pain.”
She visited a host of conventional doctors and was given a number of tests, though not one could find a problem. Venturella believed Riccio was suffering from candida, an infection said to cause severe immune system malfunction.
“After about a week, I saw a huge difference from before,” Riccio said. She also eliminated wheat, dairy and sugar from her diet. “I’ve been feeling great ever since.”
That excerpt actually stopped us mid-sentence and we burst out laughing. Isn’t it fairly safe to assume — and even probable — that the restored feeling of well-being Hayley felt was the result of eliminating wheat, dairy and sugar from her diet, and had less to do with foot baths?
It’s just like saying ‘Ever since I started using ACME toothpaste, my teeth feel SO much better. Oh, and I also stopped chewing rocks.’
The ionic foot bath has been criticized by some for being a hoax. However, Dr. Sairwaa Prevost — a board-certified internist who is on staff at Eisenhower Medical Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif., and has her own medical spa there as well – said the science behind the ionic foot baths makes sense.
“The science sounds reasonable to me,” Prevost said. “It’s taking advantage of the same principles of reflexology, that everything is connected through the feet.”
Well, yes, there is the principle that everything is connected through the feet, but we have yet to see reflexology routinely involved in an Ionic Foot Bath treatment. Reflexology is a therapeutic method of relieving pain by actually stimulating predefined pressure points on the feet and hands. Like Hayley, who felt better when eliminating wheat, dairy and sugar from her diet, we agree that most people would feel better from a session of reflexology. But what of the bath, itself? Dr. Prevost owns a medi-spa. Does she offer a Detox Foot Bath?
Prevost does not offer detox foot baths at her spa. She heard about the process from two patients – a man with AIDS and a woman with breast cancer. Both patients have been doing regular detox baths to complement traditional medicine.
If you just call this the “it can’t hurt theory”, just about any non-harmful and pleasant feeling treatment could be considered a compliment to traditional medicine, including a manicure with hand massage, neck rub from a spouse, aromatherapy, and a warm compress.
Here are some excerpts from a variety of websites and forums that have addressed the same skepticism.
I recently saw my wife and several friends get duped about supposed benefits of an Ionic Detoxification Unit. Don’t get suckered into buying or paying for a session in an ionic detoxification foot bath! Guess what, the water turns “toxic” colors whether your feet are in there or not, because it is just the corrosion of the electrodes that causes the water to change color. (1)
It is sensible and reasonable to seek ways to rid ourselves of this unhealthy burden. Yet it never ceases to amaze me what odd fads people will get excited about when it comes to alternative medicine. Intelligent, well educated people will suddenly suspend any glimmer of common sense to “believe” in some new treatment, especially if it claims to pull toxins from the body. One in particular that has surprised me with its staying power is the “detoxing foot bath.” Rather then disappearing after a short initial burst of interest, these foot soaks have caught on. Since I’m asked about them regularly, I am going to take a few moments to write down my thoughts. … Careful experimentation suggests that the color change occurs whether or not there are feet in the bath. The discoloration apparently comes from metal ions drawn into the water from the electrodes. One of the websites has a fast motion video of the water changing color. You can actually see the initial color coming off of the electrode in the corner of the bath and not the feet. (2)
My wife and I are seeing a chiropractor to correct some back and neck problems. Having never seen a chiropractor prior to this, I’m a bit skeptical of that science, but since my insurance pays for it, I thought I would try it. The chiropractic has helped me tremendously. My wife started after I started to see results. I only found out AFTER she had paid for 10 treatments at a cost of $385 that they had put her on a course of these “ionic foot baths”.
Needless to say, not only does the insurance not cover it, but for good reason. It should have been a clue. I was present one day when she finished her foot bath and she showed me the dirty water with little bits of black flakes and white flocculent material. I explained my theory that the water would have changed color most likely whether or not her feet were in the bath at the time. I told her I would show her, so today I did a little experiment:
As you can see in the picture in the upper left, I have a 12 volt battery charger, with two electrodes, one of copper, and the other of steel (a piece of copper pipe, and a nail). In the beaker is room-temperature filtered water with added sea salt (what most peddlers of these products recommend). After only a couple of minutes at most, the water in the beaker appeared as shown in the picture at the upper right: Yellow, with black flakes, and “floaties”.
All of this was conducted Without Feet in the water. (3)
We don’t doubt that many people who enjoy regular sessions of a Ionic Foot Bath feel better, but we don’t think the pleasant feeling has much to do with the “science” being claimed. The BBC’s Consumer Watchdog agreed, and set out to find out more about the Aqua Detox brand, specifically. Here’s that the BBC had to say:
Aqua Detox is a foot spa with a difference. A tiny electrical current and some salt are added to the water, and after 30 minutes, your body’s said to be cleansed. Each session can cost as much as £50, or you can buy your own foot spa for nearly £1,000.
Watchdog rang beauticians across the country to find out about the treatment. The same claims were made time and again, that the foot spa worked by drawing toxins out of the feet, turning the water brown.
But Watchdog took this idea to science expert Dr Ben Goldacre, who wasn’t impressed. He said: “It has nothing to do with toxins. It’s just basic chemistry – electrolysis. The water goes brown because metal electrodes are rusting in a salt water bath.” So even if you don’t put your feet in the water, it would still turn brown. Goldacre even demonstrated the process with some salt water, a car battery and a Barbie doll. Even Barbie turned the water brown. (4)
The manufacturer of the footbath claims a battery creates a negative charge in the water that helps to grab onto the toxins in a patient’s body and suck them out. Barron said the problem is not with the studies, but with the science. “There is no evidence that it would have any effect whatsoever, other than having a pleasant feeling,” he said. (5)
Stephen Lower is a retired faculty member of the Dept of Chemistry, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby / Vancouver, Canada. He sets out to debunk the bunk because “Chemistry is my favorite subject, and I hate to see it misused to rip people off.” He tells us the following:
To someone who knows no chemistry, it can be quite impressive to see all these evil substances color the water various shades of brown, green, and blue as the current works its magic… Well, this is an old parlor trick, a nice chemistry-classroom demonstration, and, of course, a highly profitable scam.
Of course, it always feels good to rest your tired feet in a container of warm water, and the slight tingling sensation caused by the low-voltage current might even be rather pleasant. But the stuff about drawing “toxins” out of your body is pure bunk. That’s the job of your kidneys, which are exquisitely suited to this task.
Some sites show pictures of what they purport to be blood cells before and after treatment, implying that the cells become less entangled or clumped together. Don’t be fooled by this nonsense, which is usually attributed to un-named “doctors” and has never been reported in the reputable scientific literature. (6)
A brand of Detox / Ion Foot Baths in the United states is ionSpa. In an article appearing in The Ledger in December 2007, ionSpa points out that its machine is registered with the Food and Drug Administration under a category for non-medical devices and they make no medical claims. They initially distributed those handy color coded charts with their foot baths, so that providers could identify the toxins being removed. They don’t do so anymore and now they just claim their foot bath unit has a “revitalizing effect.” (7)
That, we absolutely believe. Foot soaks make you feel better. A hot foot bath has long been a therapy given to patients and the infirm to ease tension and induce calm.
Our advice to our readers? Seek out your favorite day spa for a long and thorough pedicure in a revitalizing jetted pedicure throne, and have your feet groomed for an hour. We bet you’ll feel just as wonderful, at a lower price, and with some pretty toenails to admire.
Disagree? Want to comment? We welcome all comments, positive and negative, particularly those with sources for scientific and medical opinion.