At least twice a month, Dr. Kelly Johnson-Arbor finds herself debunking a viral trend on social media that could endanger people’s health. This week is borax.
The powdery substance is found in laundry detergent and is sold on its own as a cleaning product. Boric acid, a different formulation of the same compound, boron, is also used to kill ants and roaches.
Borax has been banned from US food products, but some people on TikTok have falsely suggested that adding a pinch of it to water could reduce inflammation and help with joint pain, or that soaking in borax in the bathtub could «detox» the body. Several influencers with hundreds of thousands of TikTok followers recommended borax in videos that have since been removed.
Johnson-Arbor, a medical toxicologist and co-medical director of the National Poison Center in the Capital, regularly writes articles for the center’s website that correct the history of dangerous health fads.
Borax, he said, can cause stomach irritation and, if ingested, could cause blue-green vomit or diarrhea. Over time, it can cause anemia and seizures, she said, and soaking in borax could cause rashes that make skin look as pink as boiled lobster and begin to slough off.
«There’s really nothing to support the use of borax in humans for inflammation or oxidative stress reduction or anything like that,» Johnson-Arbor said.
As health misinformation on TikTok continues to proliferate, a growing group of medical professionals have felt compelled to alert people, on and off the platform, to the dangers of these so-called hacks and alternatives.
Last month, Johnson-Arbor said she wrote an article warning about berberine, a weight-loss dietary supplement that some on TikTok dubbed «Nature’s Ozempic» but is known to cause gastrointestinal problems.
Similarly, some social media hype about the weight-gain supplement apetamine has suggested that it can make people «thin-fat,» meaning it can give them a slim waist and big butt. But it does contain an antihistamine, and the Food and Drug Administration has warned that apetamine is imported illegally and can cause dizziness, drowsiness, irregular heartbeat, and liver damage.
Then there’s the trend of inhaling smelling salts, popularized on TikTok by a company called Nose Slap – which can be poisonous when made incorrectly or over long periods of time, and the PRIME energy drink whose caffeine content is equivalent to about six cans of Coca-Cola.
A TikTok spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday. The platform outlines a guide on combat misinformation in its community guidelines, which it says are applied using «a combination of technology and moderation equipment.»
“If fact checkers determine the content to be false and we believe it violates our policies, we may remove the video from our platform or make the video ineligible for recommendation in For You feeds,” TikTok says in its guidelines.
Wendy Stephan, an epidemiologist with the Florida Poison Information Center, said it makes sense that people would be drawn to these kinds of health fads. Prescription drugs can be expensive or in short supply, she said, and people can’t always get doctor’s appointments right away, so many look to quick and easy solutions.
On TikTok in particular, Stephan said, the creators’ advice sounds plausible and is presented with playful images.
“When you have someone who seems very nice and believable and tells you ‘this worked for me and it’s great,’ I can see how people find it attractive,” he said.
But he stressed that the creators behind the fake health videos «are also making money from these posts, they’re getting a lot of eyes.»
And misinformation about personal health can, of course, be dangerous, Stephan continued.
“We have seen deaths associated with borax. It’s very rare, but that’s a possibility. This is not a benign substance,” she said.
Johnson-Arbor said that some social media trends stem from a misinterpretation of scientific research. In the borax case, some TikTok creators cited a researcher’s statement that boron is «an essential nutrient for healthy bones and joints.»
Health misinformation on social media often focuses on the same topics, Johnson-Arbor said.
In addition to losing weight and improving their appearance, «everyone wants to sleep better,» he said. «Everyone wants to live longer. Everyone wants to have less inflammation.»
Stephan said poison centers often make their own social media posts to combat misinformation, but «we don’t have the traction that a lot of these influencers have.»
Neither do most doctors, who don’t have the time or resources to crusade dangerous viral trends.
However, some have taken it upon themselves to speak.
Dr. Meghan Martin, a pediatric emergency physician and health educator at TikTok, said that in her videos warning users against misinformed trends, she tries to use jargon-free and accessible language.
“I also think it’s important to try not to attack people. I really want to be level-headed, even-tempered, and approach things non-judgmentally and authentically,” she said.
Carlo Ledesma, a medical laboratory professional who occasionally shares his experience on TikTok, said he started watching videos about people drinking borax earlier this year.
«Just please don’t eat this!» caption a tik tok about it in April.
The warning about the potential consequences of borax was felt as a necessary public service, he said.
“There are children in this app. There are parents watching this who are not medical professionals,» Ledesma said, adding: «As a medical professional, we are sworn to protect the interests of the common good.»