Common Myths About a Detox Diet, Explained

We grow up being told that anything “toxic” is bad for us and anything that “detoxes” is automatically beneficial. It’s good for us to learn this, so that we don’t ingest poisons that could seriously harm or even kill us. But understanding what it means to detox, and how a detox diet may affect you, are key to taking control of your health.

The terms “toxic,” “toxins” and “detox” are not always used accurately, especially when it comes to food and beauty products. Detoxifying diets, detox diets, cleanses, beauty detoxes — all these things sound healthy, because who wants to eat or absorb toxins, right? Detoxes, cleanses and detoxifying beauty or skincare products can be really popular because they sound like they’re doing something good. 

But not all of the marketing claims about detoxing are true. In fact, a lot of the hype results from a fundamental misunderstanding of how our bodies get rid of toxins. We’re here to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about toxins and detoxing, and definitively debunk all the myths surrounding a detox diet. 

First things first: What are “toxins”?

Toxins are substances that are hazardous when consumed, breathed in or absorbed through the skin. Harvard Medical School defines a toxin as “a poison, usually one produced by a living organism,” and defines toxic as “pertaining to something that is poisonous.” Toxins can be industrially produced (such as pollution or nail polish remover) or naturally occurring (like poisonous berries).  

However, it’s important to know that any substance can be toxic with a high enough dosage. According to research from the 2010 journal Toxins: “Historically, we have learned that everything is toxic; it is only the dose that separates the toxic from the non-toxic. Even water is toxic if a large amount (4–5 liters) is consumed in a relatively short time (2–3 hours).”

Often, marketing copy for detoxes and cleanses may use the words “toxin” and “toxic” to give you the impression that a substance is poisonous. In actuality, the substance may only be toxic — or dangerous — in larger doses.

For example, the debate over whether or not sugar is toxic continues to rage on. Is sugar actually toxic? The answer is complex (thus the continuing debate). Sugar is a carbohydrate that the body metabolizes to make energy. It’s naturally occurring in some form in almost all foods. It’s added sugar in processed foods that can lead to health risks. Too much sugar has been proven to lead to inflammation and contribute to serious health conditions such as obesity, Type-2 diabetes, dental decay, and even cancer. So it’s not that sugar itself is toxic, but how much and in what form the body ingests it.

To be best informed, it’s important to look closely at toxic or detox claims and make sure you get your information and advice from reputable health sources—including your doctor. 

Sugar naturally occurs in many foods, including fruits. | Karolina Grabowska / Pexels

What does detox mean?

Detox is short for detoxification, the process of removing toxins from the body. Your body removes many toxins on its own, thanks to superstar detoxifying organs the liver and kidneys, which work together to purify the blood. A medical detox — which may or may not include medication — is simply a treatment program to facilitate the removal of poisonous chemicals from the body. A detox diet works similarly. By abstaining from certain foods (sugars, saturated fats, etc.), the body has a chance to flush the system of potentially harmful substances.

Some toxins don’t flush out of your body easily. For example, persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are chemicals that are used for industrial purposes, pesticides and crops. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, POPs accumulate in the body fat of living organisms. The EPA says that humans mostly consume POPs through contaminated foods, like fish, shellfish, or hunted animals.

What is a detox diet?

Usually a detox diet refers to a period of fasting and then eating only raw fruit, raw vegetables, fruit juices, and water. Sometimes a detox diet is also called a “cleanse,” such as a juice cleanse.

Occasionally a detox refers to taking laxatives, herbs, or dietary supplements. So-called detox teas have also become popular in recent years. 

There have been few studies conducted around the consequences of detox diets. | iStock

Do detox diets work? 

It’s really important to check in with your healthcare provider if you’re considering a detox diet or cleanse. You should be aware of potential side effects, like dehydration, weakness or fainting.

Detox diets are considered to be fad diets, since there is no evidence that you will keep off any weight you may lose. 

There are a few studies about detoxification and the studies have not been of particularly high quality, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services at the National Institutes of Health. The studies had few participants or weren’t peer-reviewed. 

The studies about detoxification that do exist aren’t so promising. A 2015 review found that research doesn’t support the claim that detox diets eliminate toxins from the body. “There have been no studies on long-term effects of ‘detoxification’ programs,” says the NIH. And the Mayo Clinic notes: “[T]here’s little evidence that detox diets actually remove toxins from the body.” 

That said, some people do report feeling good after a detox diet or cleanse. The Mayo Clinic, for example, reports that some people feel more focused and have more energy. However, these people likely feel good because they haven’t consumed sugar, wheat, dairy, and fats (which all lead to inflammation) on the fast and diet. Most importantly, they may go back to feeling the way they felt before once they’re eating as they normally do. 

An elimination diet is different than a detox diet. It’s a way many nutritionists and allergists suggest determining food allergies. For example, if you cut out dairy for a month and feel remarkably more energetic, less bloated, and previously undiagnosed rashes or itchiness disappear, it’s possible you have a dairy allergy or lactose intolerance. Again, consulting your healthcare practitioner is critical in determining what’s optimal for your own health. 

OK, what about colonics? Do they detoxify your body? 

Your colon, or large intestine, moves waste products towards your rectum and anus when you have a bowel movement. Some people claim that colon cleansing, colonics, or colonic irrigation will flush toxins stored in the colon. The claim is that this can be done by drinking large amounts of water, herbs or coffee.

However, according to the Mayo Clinic, there is no evidence that colon cleansing actually releases toxins. Once again, your body already has waste removal covered, thanks to your digestive system. 

Some people refer to laying off skincare products as “beauty detoxing.” | Anastasiia Ostapovych / Unsplash

What is a “beauty detox”? 

“Beauty detox” isn’t a medical term. But still, the beauty, skincare, personal care, and wellness industries use it to refer to different things. 

“Detox beauty” or a “beauty detox” can refer to using beauty and skincare products that don’t contain certain harmful ingredients. (For example, sometimes I have an allergic reaction to purple dyes in eyeshadow or blush. Someone might call it a “detox” for me to discard those products.)

Other times a “beauty detox” refers to laying off skincare and beauty products entirely for a time. (Technically it would be a “beauty fast,” because you’re removing products temporarily and going back to them later.) People sometimes do a “beauty detox” like this if they feel that consistently using beauty, skincare or personal care products are making their skin itch or break out.

Does a “beauty detox” actually work?

Again, “beauty detox” is not a medical term, so no, doing a beauty detox won’t release toxins from your skin. But if beauty or skincare products are irritating your hair, skin or nails, simply stop using them and the irritation will stop.  

If someone goes on a “beauty detox” and forgoes makeup or skincare products for a while, their skin may temporarily look better because their pores are not as clogged with oil, dirt or makeup. It’s also possible that a “beauty detox,” combined with a change in diet (such as eating more berries), will give skin a brighter appearance.

When it comes to skincare, though, one size doesn’t fit all. Everyone’s skin is different, and everyone’s skin reacts differently to foods, beauty products, skincare products, pollutants and exercise. Lots of factors go into how our skin looks. The best way to figure out your ideal regimen is to consult a dermatologist. 

What are detoxifying beauty products?

When beauty products or skincare products say they are “detoxifying,” the marketing copy is trying to get you to think the product is good for you. After all, “detox” is good, right? 

However, often the word “detoxifying” is used as a fancy way of saying “cleansing.” Look closer at the claims of detoxifying beauty and skincare products, and you’ll see many of them are referring to dirt, oil, or dead skin as if they are toxins. Dirt, oil, or dead skin accumulate on our skin constantly and can clog pores and cause blemishes. But they are not toxic in this case. It’s yet another example of how important it is to read a product’s label — and keep an eye out for hyperbole meant to persuade you to add it to your cart.