Leslie H. of Phoenix recently wrote to us with the following question: "Do ionic foot baths really remove toxins through the feet? I'm skeptical."
Skeptical? You've come to the right place.
Ionic foot baths are a "detoxifying" treatment that have become popular at health fairs, alternative health clinics and spas. Many companies also sell ionic foot baths online for home use. Wherever they show up, ionic foot baths follow the same basic approach to detoxification. Users stick their feet in a basin of salt water that's buzzing with a small electric charge from two submerged electrodes. The water starts out clear, but after 30 minutes or so it tends to get brackish and foamy.
Users are often told that the color in the water comes from toxins that have been removed from the body. Many companies even provide a color-coded chart to explain the nastiness in the water: Black flecks are said to be heavy metals, brown is tobacco or cellular debris and orange is unspecified toxic matter from the joints.
A 30-minute foot bath at Le Petite Retreat day spa in L.A. costs $85. Lysa Kustek, the spa owner, says that about a dozen people get the treatment each day and that foot bath detoxes are popular for couples, although she warns them not to kiss during the procedure: "They could get a spark."
If you want to detox your feet in the comfort of your home, you can -- but it'll cost you. The website ionicfootbath.com, run by Meridian Lifeforce Inc., sells Aqua Health Ionizer kits of various kinds for $1,495 to $1,995. The ionSpa Professional Foot Bath Kit from Bella Spa Products sells online for $1,395. Shoppers can choose from two versions, one of which produces more color in the water. (The site recommends the colorful version for practitioners selling foot baths to clients.) A smaller ionSpa Personal Unit for home use sells for $795.
Different companies have different explanations for how ionic foot baths supposedly work. Ionicfootbath.com explains that the "negative ions produced by the ionic detox . . . create a gentle vibration that aids the release of unwanted toxin particles through the pores on the sole of the foot." The site says that the foot bath is especially helpful for removing heavy metals and "chemicals."
The ionSpa site says that an electric current in the water floods the body with "negative hydrogen ions" that neutralize free radicals. That may seem like on odd approach to detox, but the site goes on to say that "fundamentally, the toxins stored in your body are all free radicals." Contradicting other companies, the site also says that "toxins are not extracted through the bottom of your feet as claimed." The site concedes that ionic water will turn colors even with no feet present.
Whatever the supposed mechanism, foot bath detoxes are said to do wonderful things for your health. Ionicfootbath .com says that detoxification can "substantially reduce or even prevent" autoimmune diseases, allergies and "common infections." The ionSpa site says that "the purpose of ionSpa detox foot bath is to neutralize and eliminate any compound in the body that can be toxic." Users are said to enjoy weight loss, increased energy and reduced pain, among many other benefits. Kustek of Le Petite Retreat says that many customers report relief from fibromyalgia and insomnia.
Bella Spa Products did not respond to requests for comment. A woman who answered the phone number listed at ionicfootbath.com said, "I can't talk to you" and hung up.
The bottom line:
A foot bath may be relaxing, but claims of detoxification "make zero sense," says Steve Gilbert, an affiliate associate professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. Gilbert is managing editor of Toxipedia, an online toxicology database.
According to Gilbert, there's simply no way to draw large amounts of chemicals, toxic or otherwise, through skin. "The skin is a darn good barrier that's designed to keep things in the body. [Claiming to pull] stuff across that barrier is nutty."
The assertion that negative hydrogen ions -- hydrogen atoms with an extra electron -- can clean up free radicals in the body is equally unfounded, says Nuran Ercal, professor of chemistry at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla. "I've been studying free radicals for 25 years, and I've never heard of this. A lot of the things [these companies] are saying are very wrong. I'm stunned."
The voltages used in water baths are almost certainly too low to break apart water molecules, added Andrew Barron, chairman of chemistry and professor of materials science at Rice University in Houston. Even if they did, the resulting hydrogen ions would have a positive charge, not a negative charge as some companies claim. A good thing too, because negative hydrogen ions are so highly reactive that they would badly burn a person's feet, he says.
Barron recently tested the water from an ionic foot bath after a 30-minute session. The water was murky, but it didn't show any traces of heavy metals or industrial chemicals other than a few chunks of rust that may have flaked off the electrodes. "If there was a way to pull that through the skin, I'd be shocked," he says. "They're saying things that sound good, but they have absolutely no validity on this planet."
When evaluating any product, Barron says his first question is, "Have they abided by the laws of physics and chemistry?" By that standard, he says, ionic foot baths aren't worth a second look.
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