“Ion foot baths” (also known as ionic foot baths, ionizing foot baths, or aqua detox) are showing up at countless naturopathic clinics, salons, and spas these days. You’ve probably heard at least one person you know raving about them, urging you to try one as soon as possible. They can supposedly draw toxins out of the body that can’t be expelled in any other way, using nothing more than ionized water. The idea is that the postive and negative ions in the water act like magnets on the large pores of the feet, extracting toxins (and/or heavy metals, excess fat, and pathogens) by osmosis. The way a friend described it to me (with a mixture of awe and disgust), you’ll know it’s working because the water becomes cloudy or mucky. According to her naturopath, the treatment leaches essential minerals out of your body, too, so you have to take supplements before and after your foot bath.
Some foot bath vendors claim their products can improve liver or kidney function and/or your overall health, “amplify your energy field”, relax you, and do all the cool stuff that other detox products (teas, diets, etc.) supposedly do. Online reviews hint at miraculous cures of everything from Chronic Fatique Syndrome to Lyme disease. A few people have suggested aqua detox could cure autism.
When you get one of these foot baths, you’ll be asked to place your feet in a small basin of electrolyzed water. Then your homeopath or spa attendant will sprinkle some sea salt into the water to increase its electrical conductivity (it’s actually essential). Within 30 minutes, the water will turn into a disgusting brown swamp of “toxins”, probably including clots of grayish stuff and nasty little chunks of… well, whatever. The point is that the bad stuff is gone and you can be healthier and happier (after you pay your $35-$75 bill). You can also purchase ion foot bath kits, or achieve similar results with foot pads like these. You simply apply it to your foot like a bandage, and voila! It’ll look like a dead hobo’s sock in no time at all.
You can see many astounding demonstrations of ion footbaths and foot pads at work on YouTube. They’re all pretty gross.
The most amazing thing you won’t hear about ion foot baths is that they work on just about anything! For instance, if you drop a Mel Gibson DVD into a pool of electrolyzed water with some table salt sprinkled in it, you’ll cleanse it of its sins! The water will turn just as murky and retch-inducing as it does when you put your feet in it. Awesome.
Actually, that’s not the most amazing thing about ion foot baths. The most amazing thing is that even if you don’t put anything at all in the basin, the water will still turn to crud! Wow! So this means one of three things:
1. The foot cleanser is detoxing itself.
2. A ghost is sticking his feet in it.
3. This whole ion foot-cleansing thing is a freaking scam or a mass delusion.
Here’s the deal: In order to electrolyze the water, the basin must contain metal elements that serve as electrodes (prongs, rods, whatever). When you electrolyze metal, it sheds minute flakes of iron oxide (rust) into the water, turning it a brownish colour. Guaranteed. In fact, one good way to polish your silver is to electrolyze it.
The truth is, the pores of your feet aren’t anything special. Sure, there are a lot of them, but the waste products that collect in the feet (mainly urea and creatinine) can’t pass through the skin with or without the help of ions; they are eventually absorbed into other tissues without causing any damage to the body. Not to mention most of the body’s waste is colourless, so you wouldn’t be able to see it even if it could be drawn out in the foot bath. What you’re seeing in the ion bathwater is essentially rust, and maybe some iron precipitate flotsam.
The detox foot pads are a different story. They contain dehydrated pyroligneous acid, commonly known as wood vinegar or bamboo vinegar, which turns brownish (and smelly) when exposed to moisture. Contrary to the ad claims made about its detoxifying and curative benefits, wood vinegar has no known health benefits at all.
Pittsburgh’s WTAE has tested the pads and found that they turn brown when exposed to any liquid. 20/20 tested two popular brands on a group of volunteers, eliciting a few good anecdotal reports of increased energy. But analysis of the pads by MNS Labs revealed that not one of them contained heavy metals, parasites, fats, or toxins.
In the world of ion foot detox, you’ll find scams-within-scams. The website for Dr. Mary Stagg’s product line declares that Stagg is the “ORIGINAL” developer of the ionic detox footbath, but on the very same website she explains that she only did “further development” on an ion foot spa process that doctors in Colorado and Florida were already using. And the naturopath who told my friend she would have to buy certain supplements from him to replace the minerals that were leached from her body by foot detox? Pure crap. You won’t lose any more minerals in an ion bath than you will in a nice bubblebath.
The ion footbath has been thoroughly discredited as a health aid by Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column, by chemists, by physicians, even by some manufacturers and vendors (who admit the water will turn yucky with or without your feet). It’s a glorified footsoak with a bit of prestidigitation thrown in.