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THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC

You sweat, but toxins likely stay

Infrared saunas are a popular detox option. But experts say chemicals aren't washed out that way.

January 28, 2008|Chris Woolston | Special to The Times

The products: We all carry the residue of modern living deep within our bodies. We get mercury from fish, pesticides from apples and polyvinyl chlorides from that "new-car smell." A 2005 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study of more than 2,000 people across the country found traces of more than 60 toxic compounds, including such nasty stuff as dioxins and uranium, in the blood and urine of participants. As the CDC noted then, nobody really knows what -- if anything -- these substances are doing to our bodies. But plenty of people are eager to get rid of them.

Worries about toxins have spawned an industry of pills, tonics, diets -- and even absorbent foot pads -- that promise to flush away, suck out or otherwise banish the poisons in our lives.

If you're willing to spend several thousand dollars on your personal detox mission, Sunlight Saunas wants to make you sweat. A lot. Its home saunas bathe users in infrared heat that can reach 140 degrees, enough to open up anyone's pores.

Touted in books such as "Detoxify or Die" and offered at some health spas, infrared saunas have become an increasingly popular option for detoxification. Sold online, the sit-down Sunlight saunas cost up to $6,000, although you can get a budget, lie-down model for a little less than $2,000.

The claims: Sunlight Saunas claims many health benefits -- including weight loss and pain relief -- but most customers are simply hoping to sweat away toxins, says company spokesman Dalton Garrison. "People are looking for new ways to detox," he says. As the company's website explains, "sweat carries toxins out of the body and pushes [them] out of the pores." According to Garrison, heavy sweating washes away pesticides and industrial chemicals but is especially effective in removing heavy metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic.

The company doesn't claim that sweating away toxins will prevent any particular illness, but Garrison says he hasn't had a cold in years.

The bottom line: Sweat does contain trace amounts of toxins, says Dr. Dee Anna Glaser, a professor of dermatology at St. Louis University and founding member of the International Hyperhidrosis Society, a medical group dedicated to the study and treatment of heavy sweating.

But, Glaser, adds, in the big picture, sweat has only one function: Cooling you down when you overheat. "Sweating for the sake of sweating has no benefits," she says. "Sweating heavily is not going to release a lot of toxins."

In fact, Glaser says, heavy sweating can impair your body's natural detoxification system. As she explains, the liver and kidneys -- not the sweat glands -- are the organs we count on to filter toxins from our blood. If you don't drink enough water to compensate for a good sweat, dehydration could stress the kidneys and keep them from doing their job. "If you're not careful, heavy sweating can be a bad thing," she says.

Sweating definitely won't help clear the body of mercury or other metals, says Donald Smith, a professor of environmental toxicology at UC Santa Cruz, who studies treatments for metal poisoning. Almost all toxic metals in the body are excreted through urine or feces, he says. And less than 1% are lost through sweat. In other words, you'll do far more detoxifying in the bathroom than you ever could in a sauna.

Prescription-strength chelation drugs such as EDTA are the only products proven to remove significant amounts of metals from the body, Smith adds.

Although holistic practitioners often prescribe chelation for all sorts of illnesses, the drugs are only FDA-approved for cases of severe metal poisoning.

Smith sums up his thoughts on Sunlight Saunas' detoxification contentions in one word: "Baloney."

Garrison says he has heard such comments before.

"Traditionalists may think this is goofy," he says, "but we've sold thousands of these."

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Is there a consumer product you'd like the Healthy Skeptic to examine? E-mail the details to health@latimes.com.

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