Colloidal Silver Blues

Colloidal Silver Blues

Don’t be fooled, colloidal silver sprays and creams won’t benefit your health.

In the continuing trend of the New Zealand media advertising ineffective health products as though it’s news, stuff.co.nz has published an article pushing colloidal silver for treating infections and skin conditions.


EDIT 2016/06/16: Last night I emailed the editorial team at stuff.co.nz with my concerns about this article. This morning they have responded to my complaint by withdrawing the article and replacing it with a correction. I think this is a commendable response. Here is part of the message I received in response this morning:

Your concerns were justified. The article clearly fell a long way below our editorial standards. We have moved to retract the article and replace it with an apology. You can read that at this link.

Geoff Collett, National Life & Style editor


The article quotes a naturopath and sales representative from Skybright Natural Health, a company that sells colloidal silver products, saying that:

Ionic colloidal silver is anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral. It supports the immune system when the body is under attack and micro-organisms cannot build up resistance to it.

It’s also completely safe for every single person in the family to use, babies included.

Skybright1

What the article doesn’t tell you is that there’s no evidence colloidal silver can do any of that. And we’ve known this for quite some time. In 1999, the FDA issued a rule on colloidal silver stating that:

all over-the-counter (OTC) drug products containing colloidal silver ingredients or silver salts for internal or external use are not generally recognized as safe and effective and are misbranded.

Over-the-Counter Drug Products Containing Colloidal Silver Ingredients or Silver Salts | Final rule by the FDA

And despite that rule being 17 years old now, the state of the evidence remains unchanged. America’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCAM) has a rather succinct “bottom line” on colloidal silver products, last assessed as up to date in September 2014:

How much do we know about colloidal silver?

There are no high quality studies on the health effects of taking colloidal silver, but we do have good evidence of its dangers.

What do we know about the effectiveness of colloidal silver?

Claims made about the health benefits of taking colloidal silver aren’t backed up by studies.

What do we know about the safety of colloidal silver?

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has said that colloidal silver isn’t safe or effective for treating any disease or condition.

Colloidal Silver | NCCAM

Colloidal silver has been on my radar for quite some time now. Here in New Zealand, it’s been promoted for various conditions: predominantly infections and skin conditions, but also extending as far as cancer. The evidence for its efficacy is equally absent for all of these claims.

I’m aware of three New Zealand companies that have been challenged on their colloidal silver health claims via complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority: Colloidal Health Solutions, Salud New Zealand, and Liquid Pearl. None of these advertisers were able to provide evidence to support the health claims they were making. (For full disclosure, I gave advice to the complainants for two of those complaints.)

In 2013, I got in touch with another company promoting colloidal silver products in New Zealand, “Health House”. I wanted to know what evidence they had to back up the claims they were making. In particular, I wanted to know if they had any evidence that came from the product being tested in vivo, i.e. in a living organism.

Much of the evidence used to back up health claims about colloidal silver products comes from in vitro testing, as opposed to being tested in people or animals. This is dangerous; many many potential new drugs may appear effective in in vitro tests but then turn out to be ineffective or worse, unsafe, when tested in animals or people. So if we rely on this low quality evidence to make health decisions, we run the risk of using ineffective and/or harmful products.

Unsurprisingly, the response I received from Health House was that that they don’t have any credible evidence to back up their claims. As well as telling me this, they also decided to send me a list of (anonymised) customer testimonials.

In my opinion, this is a very deceitful tactic. Relying on incredibly low level evidence to back up health claims, and promoting them alongside testimonials which can be both misleading and very convincing, is not an ethical way to promote a healthcare product or empower patients to make informed decisions. That said, it is also a very common tactic among promoters of colloidal silver and other ineffective health products.

Using health testimonials in advertising is prohibited in the Medicines Act for this very reason, although that provision is hardly observed and barely enforced.


As well as saying colloidal silver can treat various conditions, promoters like Skybright also claim it is safe. In the quote for the stuff.co.nz article, Skybright even said it was safe for use on babies. As far as I’m aware, that’s essentially true, but with one big caveat. The reason it’s true is that it’s only legal to sell colloidal silver in New Zealand if it’s at too low a concentration to have any effect.

In 2003, then Minster of Health Annette King answered a question about colloidal silver from Rodney Hide (quoted in part):

Rodney Hide: is Medsafe permitting colloidal silver manufacturers and promoters in New Zealand to distribute material containing therapeutic claims; if so, why; if not, what has it done to stop such distribution?

Annette King: No. Distributing material containing therapeutic claims for colloidal silver products would breach the Medicines Act 1981… Colloidal silver products containing less than 10 parts per million of silver do not need consent to distribute under the Medicines Act providing no therapeutic claims are made. Therefore, once references to therapeutic claims have been removed and as long as the product contains less than 10 ppm of silver, there is nothing to prevent these products being advertised again.

5463 (2003). Rodney Hide to the Minister of Health | New Zealand Parliament

Even if colloidal silver was able to treat infections, at a concentration as low as 10 ppm it would be surprising if it had any effect. Luckily, those effects you’ll be missing out on include your skin turning permanently blue.

I’m not joking. It’s called argyria. Your skin turns blue and stays that way, and it can be caused by taking too much colloidal silver. It looks like this:

Argyria | Paul Karason

That’s a photo of Paul Karason, probably the most famous sufferer of argyria caused by colloidal silver. More cases of harm caused by colloidal silver can be found documented on the website whatstheharm.net. One sufferer of argyria caused by colloidal silver, Rosemary Jacobs, has written about the dangers of colloidal silver and the ignorance of some naturopaths promoting it.

While legally sold colloidal silver products aren’t likely to be harmful, there is a real potential for harm if you’re going to make your own colloidal silver. DIY “make it yourself” colloidal silver kits aren’t hard to find for sale online, including on sites like Trade Me. I honestly do worry that someone is going to read that it’s safe for babies, and wind up using some colloidal silver someone made at home which is far more concentrated than 10 ppm.


On a lighter note, it just so happens that my favourite bit of New Zealand pseudoscience comes from an ad for Skybright’s colloidal silver cream, so of course I just have to share it here. When you see as much quackery as I do, it helps to be able to laugh at it on occasion.

In the listing for Skybright colloidal silver cream on the NetPharmacy website (it’s a real Auckland pharmacy, not just online), the promotional text explains:

when cells become infected with a bacteria they lose a positive electron and become negatively charged

Skybright Colloidal Silver Cream | NetPharmacy

1EDIT NOTE 2016/09/27: The naturopath who was cited in the Stuff article has contacted me to say that they had left Skybright before the Stuff article was published, and that the quote has been incorrectly attributed to them. As such, I have changed the attribution to Skybright.

ASA Complaints: Punga Tails, Magic Bracelets, and Bad Appeals

2 days ago, the Advertising Standards Authority published 4 more decisions regarding complaints I’d made. Each of these decisions was focused on a different type of product, but they were all therapeutic products. The decisions released were:

  • 13/177 Amber Teething Beads – Punga TailsSettled
  • 13/180 Energy Bracelet – 6ShooterSettled
  • 13/190 Mohdoh – Punga TailsSettled
  • 13/011 Infrared Sauna – Innate HealthAppeal dismissed; complaint upheld

13/177 Amber Teething Beads – Punga Tails

Punga Tails is a New Zealand business that, as far as I can tell, is owned and operated by naturopath Lydia Dorotich. It sells products for infants and has a focus on therapeutic products, including Baltic amber teething necklaces.

Mrs Dorotich has made various public statements claiming that Baltic amber can relieve teething, and that she personally recommends them. For example, from one of her listings on Trade Me:

As a qualified Naturopath and Medical herbalist (see my profile), I highly recommend the use of Baltic Amber for teething babies. Many parents have found that by wearing a Baltic Amber teething necklace the symptoms of teething have reduced.

On a Grabone deal some months ago, a customer stated that she was “a little unsure what these are for”. Given that Grabone generally tries very hard to avoid therapeutic claims and had not mentioned any in this deal (although the listing was for “Authentic Baltic Amber Teething Beads”), that confusion can be understood. In response, Lydia posted this:

Amber teething necklaces are to be worn against the skin. When amber is worn against the skin the benefits from the amber are absorbed into the skin and help to soothe the pain and inflammation caused by teething. They reduce drooling, red cheeks, nappy rash, swollen gums, low-grade fevers and sleeping problems associated with teething.

I have already thoroughly dealt with claims such as these in my previous post on amber teething necklaces. If you’re interested in why claims such as these are completely implausible, have a read of that post. Of course, even if these claims were plausible, it would still not be reasonable to believe them given that they are entirely unsupported by evidence.

Although both of these advertisements were in blatant violation of the Advertising Standards Authority’s Therapeutic Products Advertising Code, in that they made unsubstantiated therapeutic claims, they are not the advertisements I have complained about. Instead, I complained about the advertisements on the Punga Tails website itself.

There are various advertisements on the Punga Tails website, and they all link back to the Baltic amber FAQs page. It is on this page that most of the therapeutic claims were made. Here are some of the claims from that page that I highlighted in my complaint:

  • “The therapeutic effects of Baltic amber come from the succinic acid contained in it.”
  • “Baltic amber warms against the skin, releasing it’s therapeutic properties safely and naturally.”
  • “The therapeutic properties of Baltic amber include analgesic, calmative, anti-inflammatory, antispasmodic, expectorant, and febrifuge (reduces fever).”
  • “[Baltic amber teething necklaces] can boost the immune system and ease many ailments such as eczema, fatigue, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, migraines, psoriasis, menstrual cramping, pain, all types of arthritis, reduces stress, anxiety and depression.”
  • “Baltic amber is a natural analgesic so is ideal for pain relief with no side effects!”
  • “[Hazelwood] will help with the teething just as well.”

A couple of other pages on the site also made therapeutic claims regarding these products, such as:

Baltic amber is a natural way to reduce pain & inflammation WITH NO SIDE EFFECTS!

In response to my complaint, Punga Tails changed a lot of the content on their advertisements for Baltic amber teething necklaces. All of the claims that were not on the FAQs page seem to have been removed, and the FAQs page itself had quite a content overhaul. In light of this, the chairman of the ASA decided that the complaint should be considered settled.

When a complaint is settled that means the chairman has decided that as a result of the advertiser’s self-regulatory action “it would serve no further purpose to place the matter before the Complaints Board.”

Disappointingly, the FAQs page is still misleading on the subject of amber teething necklaces. The therapeutic claims it still contains are no longer as explicit, but they are still clearly there. They have generally been changed to claims about what is commonly believed, and references to its “effectiveness” remain. For example:

Succinic acid is the component of amber that is believed to contribute to the beneficial effects on teething.

This could explain why some amber teething necklaces are less effective.

Looking on the bright side for once, in the remnants of the FAQs page there is still one small part that I am mostly happy to see. One small piece of grudging honesty:

Because Baltic amber teething necklaces have not been scientifically proven we cannot make any claims as to their effectiveness.

I’ve uploaded my complaint and the details of the complaints board’s decision for you to read if you’re interested: 13/177 complaint and decision details


13/180 Energy Bracelet – 6Shooter

A friend on Facebook alerted me to this one. 6Shooter is a deals website, and they’d posted a deal for an “Health Nano Quantum Energy Bracelet/ Wristband”. Given the name of this product, you might not be surprised to hear that it can basically turn you into a superhero. Here are some of the unsubstantiated therapeutic claims I listed in my complaint:

  • “It will transmit nutrients and oxygen to cell and expel toxin in our body,people wont have feel cold with hand and feet any more”
  • “It will provide energy to blood corpuscle and lower viscosity,then reduce the chance to get cardiovascular disease,heart disease and wind-stroke”
  • “Strengthen human body BIO energy field to prevent harmful electromagnetic wave.”
  • “Protect us from electromagnetic waves from computer, mobile phone, electrical appliance, telecommunications and so on,recover our body with balance and coordination.”
  • “Stabilize oxygen supply in blood, activate blood corpuscle”
  • “Provide relief from allergies and respiratory related illnesses.”
  • “Normalize hormonal imbalances.”

I also brought up the fact that the advertisement misused a lot of scientific terms. This was relevant to my complaint as the Therapeutic Products Advertising Code requires that:

Scientific terminology must be appropriate, clearly communicated and able to be readily understood by the audience to whom it is directed.

I explained that the product name misused the terms “nano”, “quantum”, and “energy”. It seems quite clear that whoever is trying to sell these bracelets has simply put some sciencey-sounding words in the name to help convince their target audience: innocent people who simply don’t know any better.

The advertisement also refered to a “human body BIO energy field”, yet there is no such thing as far as we’ve ever been able to detect. Finally, I referred the following as “an example of gratuitous use of pseudoscience”:

Negative ion is the basic element to maintain good health.It can neutralize oxidized substance,such as cells.So the cells are revived and improved the immunity of human body.

I also mentioned that the claim that the product would offer protection from “electromagnetic waves from computer, mobile phone, electrical appliance, telecommunications and so on” constituted playing on consumers’ fair without justifiable reason, since there is no evidence to suggest that such electromagnetic radiation is harmful to humans.

This complaint was settled, after the advertiser responded by permanently removing the product from their stock. They also stated that they never intended to mislead consumers.

I think this case is a good example of why it is important to support science information and to point out pseudoscience for what it is. There are many products such as these which rely on people’s ignorance in order to convince them by sounding like science without having any of the actual substance. If more people can be educated in how to tell the difference between science and pseudoscience, scammers like the people who make and sell these bracelets will have less of a chance for success.

I’ve uploaded my complaint and the details of the complaints board’s decision for you to read if you’re interested: 13/180 complaint and decision details


13/190 Mohdoh – Punga Tails

After submitting my complaint about their amber teething necklaces, I found this product as well on the Punga Tails website. It’s basically smelly playdough, which is claimed to provide certain specific health benefits via aromatherapy and colour therapy. I submitted a complaint about this not so much because I was worried about health fraud, since this product appears to be harmless in that aspect, but because I also feel committed to fighting pseudoscience.

Similar to their amber teething necklaces advertisements, the majority of claims here were on an FAQs page. The misleading information here mostly related to aromatherapy and colour therapy, instead of being specific to the products being advertised, although there were a few specific claims as well. Here are a couple of the most egregious pseudoscience that were on that page:

  • “Colour therapy is a holistic and non-intrusive form of healing, which introduces the optimum balance of colour energies into the human organism in order to promote harmony between the body, mind and spirit.”
  • “If our energy centres (Chakras) become blocked or depleted, then our body cannot function properly and this, in turn, can lead to a variety of problems.”

The products also used to have specific indications. Bizarrely, even though they appeared to be marketed toward infants (including being in the “Babies Natural Care” section), one of the products was given the following indication:

Helps you quit smoking

This complaint was settled, after the advertiser removed most of the pseudoscience and therapeutic claims from the page. I was happy to see the introduction of the following disclaimers:

While Aromatherapy is not scientifically proven…

Colour therapy is not a scientifically proven therapy.

I’ve uploaded my complaint and the details of the complaints board’s decision for you to read if you’re interested: 13/190 complaint and decision details


13/011 Infrared Sauna – Innate Health

13/011 Innate Health Advertisement

Recently, I wrote about 3 complaints against Innate Health. One of these complaints, number 13/011, was about an advertisement in Coffee News for an infrared sauna that made various unsubstantiated therapeutic claims, and bizarrely stated that the product could:

Activate every cell in your body to increase your sense of well-being

The complaint was originally upheld on the 18th of March. On the 9th of May, I received a notice from the ASA saying that an appeal that had been submitted on this complaint had been accepted. This doesn’t mean the complaint had been successfully upheld, it just means that the appeal will be heard by the complaints board and they would then decide whether or not their decision should be changed. I was contacted because, as the complainant, I was to be given an opportunity to respond to this appeal.

The appeal claimed to present new evidence, and was basically just one really long citation of a bad review. I got the impression that Barbara Good Hammond, owner of Innate Health, came across this article some time after the complaint was upheld and thought she saw an opportunity to have the decision changed.

The article in question is a review published in Alternative Medicine Review in 2011, entitled Sauna as a Valuable Clinical Tool for Cardiovascular, Autoimmune, Toxicant-induced and other Chronic Health Problems. It was written by a naturopath called Walter Crinnion.

The article was a (non-systematic) review of the evidence regarding saunas as a therapeutic intervention. It seemed to rely very heavily on pilot studies and unpublished research, and seemed to be a rather unreliable source.

In the original complaint, the complaints board decided that “Activate every cell in your body” could be considered puffery. This means that it is obviously meant to be a ridiculous exaggeration and would not be taken seriously by anyone, so does not require substantiation. As part of the appeal, the advertiser disagreed with this analysis, claiming that the statement is not puffery and could be substantiated. They then proceeded to attempt to substantiate the claim:

With the whole body being effected [sic] during therapy, circulation is enhanced to every cell. The modality of Far Infrared sauna therapy has been substantiated world wide [sic] for improving cardia-vascular [sic] function, and with the heart being directly responsible for pumping and circulating blood to every cell in the body (as reported in Anatomy & Physiology books and being general knowledge) this would have a direct impact to increase the bodies [sic] sense of well-being, as proven and shown in published clinical studies worldwide.

She then went on to quote a paragraph from Crinnion’s review that seemed to be pretty much irrelevant to the claim, then declared that the statement “is legitimate and should not be considered puffery”.

This appears to be the one thing on which both Ms Hammond and I can agree: that statement should not be considered puffery. Bizarrely, even though the advertiser specifically said the statement is not puffery the complaints board reiterated their previous decision on this statement, saying that it should be considered puffery and therefore doesn’t need to be substantiated.

The rest of the text of the appeal is fairly benign and unconvincing, but there are 38 references listed at the end of it. At first, I thought that seemed pretty intimidating. However, after a minute or so I noticed that they were copied and pasted directly from the review, including spelling mistakes and formatting errors. Worse than that, many of them were duplicates, and there were actually only 25 unique references.

I got the distinct impression that Barbara Good Hammond didn’t even attempt to find these references to look at them herself. I’m not sure how else I can explain the fact that she cited the same piece of unpublished research 3 separate times. Nonetheless, with the help of a contact at the University of Auckland, I was able to get my hands on the full text of 12 of the references, and the abstracts of a further 6 references.

I went through each reference one by one, and found them all to be either irrelevant or inadequate substantiation for the claims made in Innate Health’s advertisement. In their decision, the complaint board seemed to agree with me, stating that:

Turning to the Advertiser’s evidence, the Complaints Board considered the Advertiser had not adequately substantiated the claims. It noted that one research authority was a naturopath, not a doctor or scientist, and the saunas about which the research was done were not infra red saunas but Finnish saunas. While the Complaints Board noted the research said there may be some merit in using Finnish saunas, this did not reach the threshold to validate the very strong claims in the advertisement, particular [sic] as that research discussed a different type of sauna.

If you’re interested, you can read the entire appeal application and my response: Complaint 13/011: appeal 13/013, response to appeal, and decision details

Iridology and Credulity

The NZ Herald’s Life & Style section has (once again) affirmed their dedication to credulity, in an article by Donna McIntyre extolling the supposed virtues of iridology in what reads like an advertisement for a naturopath called Peter Riddering, ND (Not a Doctor) – Iridology: What the eyes reveal

EDIT: It seems the article has been moved into the NZ Herald’s Health & Wellbeing section (a subset of Life & Style): Iridology: What the eyes reveal

The article’s contents consist mostly of quoting Mr Riddering talking about how iridology supposedly works. No attempt is made, of course, to provide evidence supporting the claims he’s making. In fact, it seems the closest thing to supporting evidence that is offered is an argument from antiquity:

Modern iridology dates back to a Hungarian doctor Ignatz Peczely in the late 1800s but Peter says the Mayans, Egyptians, Chinese and Incas were also aware of iris markings and their link to health.

I’d like to flesh out the history of iridology a bit more than was done in the Herald article. The story goes that a young Ignatz Peczely observed a dark fleck in the iris of an owl with a broken leg (some reports claim that he broke its leg himself). After the owl had recovered, he noticed that the owl’s iris no longer contained the dark fleck, but instead contained a few white lines in about the same place.

When he had grown up, Peczely apparently became a homeopath (a sure sign of a quack if ever there was one). In his misguided attempts to treat people, he apparently noticed a similar fleck to the one he once observed in the owl in a man who, apparently, also had a fracture. After this, Peczely started to create a “map”, based on his observations, detailing how he thought the iris acted as a map of the entire body.

This “homunculus approach” to diagnosis, where one particular body part is believed to act as a map of the rest of the body, is relatively common in fake medicine. For example, tongue diagnosis is central to the practice of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Reflexology, which is essentially the idea that pretty much anything can be cured by a foot or hand massage, is another example.

Now let me just stop here. Nothing I have said so far really matters when it comes to whether or not iridology is a valid method of diagnosis. The things I have described are red flags, but they are far from conclusive. The real problem is what happened after Peczely’s original observations. Here’s what should have happened:

After making his initial observations, Peczely should have developed a hypothesis that internal medical problems can be diagnosed by examining the iris. In order to determine whether or not his hypothesis was true, he should have set up and carried out a set of rigorous tests that were capable of disproving his hypothesis.

That is not what happened.

As far as I can tell, iridology is based off “maps” that have been created not via rigorous testing of falsifiable hypotheses, but as a result of singular observations coupled with confirmation bias. Iridology is simply not supported by anatomy or physiology, and has never been shown to be an effective method of diagnosis or recognised as a legitimate diagnostic approach. Despite this, Peter Riddering charges people $65/hour for iridology sessions.

As he mentions in the Herald article (perhaps the only useful piece of information in there):

naturopaths are not allowed to make medical diagnoses. If [Mr Riddering] does come across anything, he suggests client go to their doctor

The way I see it, if you’re worried you might be ill here are 2 of your options:

  1. You see Peter Riddering, not a doctor, who uses a bogus method of diagnosis and, if he finds anything, tells you to see a real doctor.
  2. You see a real doctor.

I have to admit, I really don’t see the appeal in the first option. It seems the only differences are that the first option…

  • costs more
  • essentially funds fake medicine
  • carries a greater risk of misdiagnosis
  • takes more time

I’m not a medical doctor, so I’m going to give you the only health advice I’m qualified to give: ask a medical doctor

Here are some evaluations of iridology I found via a very quick search on Google Scholar, along with relevant excerpts from their abstracts:

  • An Evaluation of Iridology by Allie Simon; David M. Worthen, MD; Lt John A. Mitas, II, MC

    Iridology had no clinical or statistically significant ability to detect the presence of kidney disease. Iridology was neither selective nor specific, and the likelihood of correct detection was statistically no better than chance.

  • Iridology: Not Useful and Potentially Harmful by E. Ernst, MD, PhD, FRCP (Edin)

    In conclusion, few controlled studies with masked evaluation of diagnostic validity have been published. None have found any benefit from iridology. As iridology has the potential for causing personal and economic harm, patients and therapists should be discouraged from using it.

  • Iridology: A critical reveiw by Lennart Berggren

    [Controlled] clinical trials and experiments conclusively show that iridology has no ability to detect disorders in other parts of the body; there are sufficient proofs that iridology is purely conjectural. Iridology is of no medical value and might even be a potential danger to people seeking medical care. It should be exposed as a medical fraud.

  • Changing belief in iridology after an empirical study by P. Knipschild

    My paper on iridology presented evidence against its validity as a diagnostic aid.

    Note that this article itself did not assess the validity of iridology, but instead how doctors’ beliefs change when confronted with evidence against it.

  • Iridology: A Systematic Review by Ernst E

    Conclusion: The validity of iridology as a diagnostic tool is not supported by scientific evaluations. Patients and therapists should be discouraged from using this method.

  • An investigation of the relationship between anatomical features in the iris and systemic disease, with reference to iridology by PhD T.J. Buchanan, PhD C.J. Sutherland, PhD R.J. Strettle, PhD T.J. Terrell, MSc A. Pewsey

    The results demonstrate that the diagnosis of these diseases [ulcerative colitis, asthma, coronary heart disease or psoriasis] cannot be aided by an iridological style analysis.

  • Can Iridology Detect Susceptibility to Cancer? A Prospective Case-Controlled Study by Karsten Münstedt, Samer El-Safadi, Friedel Brück, Marek Zygmunt, Andreas Hackethal, and Hans-Rudolf Tinneberg

    Conclusion: Iridology was of no value in diagnosing the cancers investigated in this study.

If you’re at all worried that I’ve cherry picked the studies that support my conclusions, the quoted articles were simply all the links on the first page of results when searching for “iridology” on Google Scholar.

It seems iridology simply does not work. Anyone who says otherwise is either ignorant or dishonest.