Here’s How to Decide Whether That New Natural Health or Beauty Fad is Safe

acupuncture needle being place on skin
Many people use non-mainstream treatments such as acupuncture. Sharon Steinmann/The Penny Hoarder

An apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Or does it?

Every family has its share of home remedies to deal with minor illnesses or injuries. My grandmother always put butter on first-degree burns to stop the sting.

It turns out Grandma was wrong.

According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, applying greasy products to burns traps heat and slows its release from the skin.

Today, hundreds of over-the-counter products on the market promise to fix myriad cosmetic and health issues.

They’re advertised on social media and television, in magazines and even sold by home-based sales consultants.

But for every legitimate ointment, lotion or potion, there are dozens of health and wellness scams that promise results they can’t deliver.

So how do you know which products work and which ones are just hype — or worse, harmful?

Even Water Can Be Dangerous

It’s hard to deny the benefits of drinking water to stay hydrated and healthy.

Clean tap water works perfectly well, but if bottled or filtered water is more your jam, that’s fine, too.

Municipal tap water is heavily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and bottled water by the Food and Drug Administration, so what you drink comes down largely to a matter of choice.

However, companies like Live Water and Tourmaline Spring sell expensive, untreated water they claim promotes better health than ordinary water.

But Live Water has a disclaimer on its site that says its health claims haven’t been evaluated by the FDA, and it recommends that you “consult your health care provider before making a decision to switch your drinking water source.”  

Meanwhile, studies show untreated groundwater could be contaminated or exceed the maximum contaminant level allowed in drinking water by the FDA.

So, drinking untreated water isn’t just costly. It could end up making you sick.

Not all wellness products on the market could cause you harm. But when you’re talking about your health, the margin for error is pretty narrow.

Thinking Outside the Health and Wellness Treatment Box

Many people use non-mainstream medical products or treatments without, or in addition to, conventional medical intervention to prevent or alleviate health problems.s.

Non-mainstream options include homeopathy, aromatherapy, acupuncture and reflexology.

People also spend a lot of money on creams, teas, supplements and other products that promise to make them look younger, slim down or deal with other cosmetic or health concerns.

According to the Global Wellness Institute, the global wellness industry was a $3.72 trillion market in 2015, the latest year the institute studied.

People spent the most money — $999 billion — on beauty and anti-aging treatments, followed by healthy eating, nutrition and weight loss.

Consequently, these areas are particularly ripe for false claims. In fact, scams involving health, fitness and beauty are so prevalent that the Federal Trade Commission devotes an entire section of its website to protecting consumers.

“As much as we would all like magic bullets to cure or prevent disease, there are none,” Linda Ruescher, master trainer Self-Management Resource Center, said in an interview with The Penny Hoarder.   

“Late-night and weekend infomercials feed conspiracy theories that the medical establishment exists solely to make money, that they are invested in keeping people sick,” says Ruescher. “The newest diet book, supplement or health program is touted as a simple miracle cure that ‘they don’t want you to know about.’”  

Before you spend money on a new health or wellness product, Ruescher suggests you “put your emotions and conspiracy theories aside and bring your brain to the table.”

When deciding whether to invest in an alternative health or medical treatment, ask yourself these three questions first.

Note: This information is not intended as medical advice. Please consult a physician or other health-care provider to discuss any medical issue or condition you may have.

1. Should I Risk It?

If the product or treatment you’re considering could jeopardize your health or make a medical issue worse, the risk is never worth it.

On the other hand, if the impact will be minimal if the product fails to produce the results you’re looking for, it may be worth trying.

“Someone who’s suffering from chronic pain has a whole host of options available to them before they should do back surgery,” Charles Mendelson, a licensed acupuncturist at Seattle Holistic Beauty, told The Penny Hoarder. “Someone who is having a heart attack doesn’t.”

Mendelson says people should try the least invasive option first.  

Example: Diffusing essential oil to treat a minor headache before reaching for the aspirin.

2. Can I Afford It?

If you have room in your budget to try a low-risk alternative product or treatment, it might be worth a try.

“Someone who is comfortably well off can be far more experimental than someone who is financially squeezed,” says Mendelson.

But if the cost of the product you’re considering “means you have to forgo more conventional medical treatment, then you definitely shouldn’t do it,” he advises.

Example: Applying store-bought eye cream to your crow’s feet instead of an expensive prescription ointment.  

3. Can I Fact-Check Its Claims?

Mendelson says it’s important to evaluate the claims a company makes about its product to determine if they’re valid or potentially false.

Websites like the FTC, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are good resources to help you evaluate the validity of a claim.

“Generally speaking, the broader the claims, the less I trust them,” he says. “Specific claims are easier to evaluate.”

Example: Choosing a supplement that makes claims supported by the National Institutes of Health over one that makes nonspecific statements like “results guaranteed.”

When in Doubt, Talk to Your Doctor

In the end, your physician is the best person to offer advice on whether you should try a product or treatment.

“If you are afraid to talk to your doctor, that is a huge red flag,” says Ruescher.

That’s probably an indication you should skip the idea altogether because it could cause you harm, she says.

Lisa McGreevy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She loves telling readers about affordable ways to stay healthy, so look her up on Twitter (@lisah) if you’ve got a tip to share.