When Home Remedies Don’t Work (And May Harm)

November 17, 2013
Don't Eat Ivy

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As anyone who reads this blog must know, I’m a big fan of home remedies and homemade housecleaning products made from readily available natural materials.

I enjoy researching the old ways of using what’s at hand for healing minor ills and meeting the needs of everyday life.

But I’m also a fan of science and hard evidence, and sometimes science reveals that a tried-and-true solution to a common problem is ineffective, or worse, harmful.

Take cosmetics, for example. In centuries past, women (and many men) used lead, mercury, or arsenic compounds to lighten skin and conceal skin flaws. They lightened their skin by eating chalk and iodine or using leeches to drain their blood. They used mixtures of arsenic and caustic lime to remove unwanted body hair, often removing or blistering their skin in the process. The tinctures of deadly nightshade women once used to dilate their pupils so their eyes looked bigger sometimes blinded their users.

People are still using many “natural” remedies that don’t work or could harm them. Here are just a few:

Buttering a burn Treating burns with butter (or egg white, oil, toothpaste, milk) may soothe the burn temporarily, but can also cause infection. Medical experts say for mild to moderate burns, if cold water is available, run it over the burned area for several minutes—but don’t use ice or ice water, which could damage the tissues. Unbroken burn blisters can heal without covering, but if the skin is broken apply a light sterile dressing after washing the area gently with soap and warm water. Deep burns or those that cover a large area of skin need medical attention. 

Treating warts with raw potato, etc. Almost every common ingredient has been used at one time or another to eliminate warts. Among the most popular: raw potato, banana peel, fresh pineapple, raw garlic, dandelion juice, ground flaxseeds, and duct tape. Duct tape was a leading contender until further research contradicted earlier findings. Warts (of which there are many kinds) are skin growths caused by viruses. I spent several years suffering from with a number of plantar warts that didn’t respond to either folk remedies or my doctor’s ministrations. I woke up one morning and they’d disappeared entirely. Hearing the news, my doctor chuckled. “Well that’s how most warts usually disappear. The patient’s immune system discovers them, and poof! They disappear.”

Whitening teeth with fruit, citrus juices, or vinegar Yes, the acids in fruit can have a temporary whitening effect on stained teeth. But citrus juice or rinds, strawberries, or cider vinegar will also remove the protective enamel. Dentists recommend brushing or rinsing your mouth after eating acid fruits or vinegar-y dressings to reduce the effects of acid erosion. If you must have whiter teeth, talk to your dentist or dental hygienist.

Eating raw eggs or using them as facial masks/hair conditioners Raw egg whites have a long history of use as skin-tightening masks, and whole, raw eggs as hair-conditioning treatments, not to mention being slurped by strength athletes and bodybuilders as optimum protein nutrition. You’ve no doubt seen news of periodic outbreaks of salmonella in eggs. Food safety experts have long recommended using only pasteurized eggs in recipes that call for raw eggs, and in cooked dishes, cooking them until both yolks and whites are firm. Though the risk of salmonella poisoning from raw eggs is very low, I’d suggest seeking other ways to tone your skin, condition your hair, and build your muscles.

Eating a little poison ivy every spring to acquire immunity from the rash Yikes! I hear this one at least once a year. Can it work? Who really knows? One thing this folk remedy can do (and has done) is put the consumer into the hospital with internal injuries. It’s even caused fatalities.  A side note: Some people say they have a natural immunity to urushiol, the oil in poison ivy that provokes the skin reactions. Allergy specialists say that many people with supposed immunity may become sensitive after repeated encounters with the toxic oil and others seem to develop immunity, but each encounter increases sensitivity to the potent oil and with enough encounters the immunity will disappear. 

Using ground spices as medicine or in facial scrubs Turmeric, cloves, allspice, black pepper, cinnamon and other spices have been used for centuries in medicinal compounds or as components of facial scrubs. A recent government analysis found 12 percent of imported spices contaminated with salmonella and other micro-organisms, along with insects, animal feces and other contaminants. If you want to use raw spice mixtures as facials or for sprinkling on food, I’d suggest toasting whole spices and grinding them yourself or limiting their use to well cooked dishes. 

Licking a wound to promote healing Not a good idea. Despite the presence of some antimicrobial compounds in human saliva, the mouth also harbors not-so-nice bacteria that could cause serious infection. Infection experts recommend washing a wound with soap and water, applying an antiseptic, and covering with a sterile dressing. Deep burns or burns that cover a large area of skin need medical attention.

The first and last word on home remedies: “Natural” is often safer, cheaper, and just as effective. But not always. Do your research.

Photo credit: Immune to ivy? by KAZ Vorpal Some rights reserved.

About This Blog

"Living Naturally" is all about living a naturally healthy lifestyle. Margaret Boyles covers health tips, ways to avoid illness, natural remedies, food that's good for body and soul, recipes for homemade beauty products, ideas to make your home a healthy and safe haven, and the latest news on health. Our goal is also to encourage self-sufficiency, whether it's relearning some age-old skills or getting informed on modern improvements that help us live better, healthier lives.

Reader Comments

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Poison Oak or Ivy Rash

One thing that I have found to give relief from the itch is an ice pack. I usually get a rash from the leaves each year. Finally, I decided that since an itch is like pain, why not try ice? The ice pack will give relieve when nothing else will and it will help for hours. I know. Good article.

actually, in an era when

actually, in an era when medicinal cures were still in theit infancy, blood-letting, using leeches or cupping, was a good thing, as it encouraged the body to produce more antibodies, to fight the disease... leeches are being used more and more, today, in an effort to encourage blood circulation after reattachment of amputated digits and limbs

"A recent government

"A recent government analysis"
The FDA is increasingly discouraging the consumption of whole natural foods and endorsing processed foods with GMO ingredients and cloned meats. they have recently told the diamond nut co. that their walnuts are considered to be classified as drugs because they advertised them as being health promoting. i would rather eat a natural rat turd than that GMO crap!

I eat a handful of walnuts

I eat a handful of walnuts almost daily, both for their health benefits and because they're delicious.

This blog isn't the place to launch a discussion into the FDA's 2010 warning letter to Diamond Food regarding the health claims the company made on its website and its label (not to mention the broader topic of health claims companies can make in advertising/promoting food items)

The letter itself is loaded with specific references to laws, regulations, and the definitions they include. However, I don't see anything in the letter that could be construed as discouraging walnut consumption or disparaging whole, natural foods. 

In fact, the widespread publicity about the research on walnuts and other tree fruits seems to be working to encourage folks to eat more nuts The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that tree nut consumption in the U.S. has risen from 1.7 pounds  to 3 pounds per capita since 1977.

http://U.S. per capita use of all tree nuts was over 3.0 pounds (shelled basis) in recent years, up from 1.7 pounds in 1977.

As I concluded my post: Do your research. Here's a start. Here's a place to begin scanning the published research on walnuts.

Lower mortality? Funny, I

Lower mortality? Funny, I always thought the mortality rate of humans was 100% - eventually. So - - do you really mean to say that if we eat nuts and figure out which ones and how many, there is a chance of getting off this rock alive? :-)

Hah! Good one, Jaime. I see

Hah! Good one, Jaime. I see this use of "lower mortality" all the time in research reports, especially medical research. 

It really means that during the study period, fewer subjects who consumed nuts died than those who didn't eat nuts.


During 3,038,853 person-years of follow-up,16,200 women and 11,229 men died.

Compared with participants who did not eat nuts at all, those who ate nuts less than once per week had a 7% decrease in mortality risk (pooled multivariate hazard ratio [HR], 0.93; 95% confidence interval [CI], 0.90 - 0.96), after adjustment for other known or suspected risk factors, including total sodium intake, adherence to a Mediterranean diet, and olive oil intake. Pooled multivariate HRs were 0.89 (95% CI, 0.86 - 0.93) for eating nuts once per week, 0.87 (95% CI, 0.83 - 0.90) for 2 to 4 times per week, 0.85 (95% CI, 0.79 - 0.91) for 5 to 6 times per week, and 0.80 (95% CI, 0.73 - 0.86) for 7 or more times per week (P < .001 for trend).

There were also significant inverse associations between nut consumption and deaths resulting from cancer, heart disease, and respiratory disease.


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