What's a Detox Supplement—and Does It Work?

They're on sale just about everywhere, but are these teas, pills, powders, and drops a fraud?

pills, plate, knife, fork, plaid red tablecloth

Updated on March 27, 2023.

Toxins. They’re said to exist everywhere and are often accused of making us sick, giving rise to a booming industry of detox supplements in the form of pills, powders, pads, and more. But what are toxins, exactly? And can a detox supplement really help our bodies get rid of them?

What are toxins?

When we talk about toxins, we’re referring to harmful chemicals produced inside and outside your body, explains Robin Foroutan, MS, RD, an integrative registered dietitian in New York and former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Toxins include:

  • Byproducts of normal metabolism and digestion, including ammonia, urea, and lactic acid
  • Chemicals present in our modern, external environment such as pesticides, fertilizers, mercury in fish, particulates in air pollution, and lead from water pipes

Sometimes, exposure to certain harmful chemicals can create inflammation, disrupt hormones and metabolism, and increase your risk of disease, says Foroutan.

The body has its own defensive, detoxifying system that includes breath exhalation, bowel movements, urination, sweating, and normal liver function. The liver, in particular, plays a large role in filtering out harmful substances. Once any substance is ingested—including nutrients, medications, or toxins—it makes its way to the liver, where it is processed or detoxified. Then, it's either transferred back into the bloodstream or passed to the bowel where it can be eliminated.

The downsides of detox supplements

Some naturopathic and integrative medicine practitioners believe that certain dietary supplements, in tandem with a healthy diet, can help the body’s natural detoxification processes. But many traditional healthcare providers and government health organizations, such as the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), disagree. According to the NCCIH, there isn’t convincing evidence that detox diets—including detox supplements—work. 

Take herbal detox teas, for instance. Many teas claim to eliminate toxin build-up, but this is unproven. What’s more, detox regimens using these teas may result in severe hypokalemia—low blood potassium—and severe hyponatremia, or low sodium in the blood. These life-threatening conditions can occur when someone who is fasting drinks these teas in large quantities over a number of days. 

Detox supplements that claim to prevent or treat COVID-19 are another good example. Since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warning letters to numerous companies for selling these products, as they’re not only ineffective, but could cause harm.

In fact, many detox supplements have the potential to cause harm, since they may contain dangerous ingredients. A 2017 report in Case Reports in Gastrointestinal Medicine, for instance, noted that a detox tea consumed by one patient who developed liver failure included 18 ingredients, six of which were tied to liver toxicity and may have contributed to her condition.

Potentially hazardous ingredients can be difficult to identify, however, since the FDA doesn’t review detox products for safety or effectiveness before they hit shelves. That said, the organization does flag marketed items found to be particularly unsafe. These can include addictive elements, ingredients that may cause cancer, and undeclared drugs that can cause harm or interact dangerously with other medications. 

Of course, not every detox supplement product will be useless or harmful. But as Foroutan explains, “Because the supplement industry is unregulated, it’s impossible to say, as a category, whether detox supplements are helpful, harmful or neutral.” This is why it’s best to avoid these supplements—you can’t be sure of what you’re ingesting, and whether it’s safe. 

Tips for a healthy immune system and digestive tract

Whether or not you worry about harmful toxins, adopting healthy habits can help keep your body functioning well. “Being aware of [toxins] can help you minimize your exposure and practice a lifestyle that optimizes your body’s own detoxification processes,” says Foroutan. She offers the following dietary tips to promote a healthy body every day:

  1. Drink adequate amounts of water to facilitate regular bowel movements.
  2. Eat fiber every day in the form of vegetables and whole grains, to help maintain regularity.
  3. Include plenty of antioxidant-rich foods such as berries, nuts, seeds, and vegetables like artichokes and kale to help eliminate cell-damaging free radicals from your body.
  4. Incorporate probiotic foods—meaning naturally fermented products like sauerkraut, Korean kimchi, pickles, and yogurt—into your diet. To promote a healthy population of gut-friendly bacteria, also include prebiotic foods, such as fruits, vegetables, onions, garlic, and grains like oats and barley.

Bottom line: If you’re looking to kick-start a healthy lifestyle, safe and effective strategies include eating a nutritious, well-rounded diet and limiting potential harm, which includes avoiding unproven, possibly unsafe detox supplements.

Article sources open article sources

Vikas Dudeja V, Ferrantella A, Fong Y. “The Liver.” Chapter 54;1425-1488 in Sabiston Textbook of Surgery. Elsevier 2022.   
Kesavarapu K, Kang M, et al. Yogi Detox Tea: A Potential Cause of Acute Liver Failure. Case Rep Gastrointest Med. 2017:3540756. 
Soliman M, Fuller W, Usmani N, et al. Acute Severe Hyponatremia as a Serious Health Implication of Herbal Detox Regimens. Cureus. 2018;10(12):e3697.
Gillett G, Shivakumar N, James A, et al. Acute Severe Hyponatremia Following Use of “Detox Tea”. Cureus. 2021;13(3):e14184. 
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. “Detoxes” and “Cleanses”: What You Need To Know. Page last updated September 2019.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Information for Consumers on Using Dietary Supplements. Page last updated October 21, 2022. 
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Public Notification: Detox Plus contains hidden drug ingredients. Page updated December 4, 2019. 
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Public Notification: GoLean Detox contains hidden drug ingredients. Page last updated January 30, 2019. 
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Warning Letter: SafaLab, Inc. Page last updated March 4, 2021.
U.S. Food & Drug Administration. FDA News Release: Coronavirus Update: FDA and FTC Warn Seven Companies Selling Fraudulent Products that Claim to Treat or Prevent COVID-19. Page last reviewed March 9, 2020. 
Cleveland Clinic. What Are Prebiotics and What Do They Do? March 14, 2022.

More On

Is it safe to take melatonin after drinking alcohol?

video

Is it safe to take melatonin after drinking alcohol?
Experts advise against taking melatonin and drinking alcohol. Melatonin also can negatively interact with medications. Watch this video to learn mor...
5 Smart Tips for Storing Vitamins

article

5 Smart Tips for Storing Vitamins
Learn the best places to safely stash vitamins and supplements—and recognize when it’s time to dispose of them.
Which Foods are Rich Sources of Copper?

video

Which Foods are Rich Sources of Copper?
Foods that are rich sources of copper include oysters, sesame seeds, dark chocolate, and cashew nuts. In this video, dermatologist Jeannette Graf, MD,...
What Health Benefits Could Probiotics Have?

video

What Health Benefits Could Probiotics Have?
Probiotics contain some of the same bacteria that live in our bodies. In this video, HealthMaker and researcher Josephine P. Briggs, MD, discusses how...
Which Herbal Remedies Are Helpful to Reduce Stress and Anxiety?

video

Which Herbal Remedies Are Helpful to Reduce Stress and Anxiety?
Naturopathic Doctor and Licensed Acupuncturist Dr. Peter Bongiorno explains which herbal remedies are helpful in reducing stress and anxiety. Watch Dr...