“Himalayan” salt: an example of phoning in stupid shite and getting away with it

Introduction:

Carved salt lamps for sale in Pakistan
Figure 1: Carved salt lamps for sale in Pakistan. (Public domain.)

A lot of folks buy “Himalayan” salt for a lot of reasons.  And it’s easy to see why; judging by the claims of online retailers this stuff is just the best!  However, judging by the evidence (provided by people who aren’t trying to sell you stuff), it isn’t good for anything.  In fact, in some applications it might just be bad for you.  Here is some background on the stuff, followed by a discussion on why claims of its efficacy make little or no sense.

Backgraound:

What is this Himalayan salt?

“Himalayan salt” is Pakistani salt (Figure 1).  It shouldn’t make any difference where the salt comes from.  However, since it is heavily marketed as “Himalayan,” I’ll just put that myth to rest first.  This is halite (the mineral form of sodium chloride, aka NaCl, aka “salt”) mined from outside of the Himalayas.  It is most often taken from the Khewra Mine, Pakistan.

Pure halite is clear (Figure 2).  It gets its warm and friendly colors from impurities incorporated into the mineral.  For example, pink halite can be caused by the incorporation of bacteria or iron oxide.  In other words, that “Himalayan” salt is pink because of tiny rotten critters and/or rust.

Figure 2: Pure, cubic halite crystals.  Credit: Sailko.  License: CC 3.0.

Some of the claimed benefits of Himalayan salt:

Here’s a post that says “science proves” pink salt lamps are good because they:

  • “emit boundless amounts of negative ions”, which “make you healthier”
  • contain “up to 84 trace minerals that your body needs”
  • regulate “your body pH”
  • balance “the water content in your body”
  • “increase oxygen flow to the brain” which “gives you more energy”
  • “negate the radioactive waves emitted by our electrical devices”
  • protect “from airborne toxicities and any sort of bacterium that could be floating around us”
  • “neutralize” cancer
  • reduce “the chance of heart attacks and strokes”
  • “make you fall asleep easier” and make “your slumber less fitful”

Here are some claims from a post on the benefits of digesting concentrated solutions of pink salt:

  • “The ionic salt and trace minerals nourish each cell in your body.”
  • it “Detoxifies the body”
  • it “Improves hydration”
  • it “Improves mineral status”
  • it balances blood sugar
  • it “Supports hormone balance”
  • it “Helps balance blood pressure because it provides unrefined, mineral-rich salt in an ionic solution”
  • it “Acts as a powerful antihistamine”
  • it “Improves sleep”

So, if we just went around believing what the online salespeople said, we’d be in love with this rusty, pink salt.  It’s like an electrified chakra-surgeon that boosts your mood, health, sleeping habits, detoxifies you and much, much more.  It aligns stuff you never knew you had and filters sciencey-sounding things from the air—so it must be good!  It has it all: mystical stuff no one understands and sciencey stuff that everyone doesn’t understand!

All we’ve got to do is suspend all skepticism and take the claims of a bunch of salespeople at face value.  Here’s an idea: let’s not do that!

Discussion of “Himalayan” salt claims:

First things first: none of these claims have been subjected to rigorous, unbiased and controlled testing.  That’s because these claims aren’t even plausible enough to warrant the attention of real researchers.  They have better things to do.

These are just the claims of salespeople talking up their own products.  Thus, I won’t be bothering to address them all.

Instead, I’ll just focus on two of the major, recurring claims made by “Himalayan salt” proponents: (1) it emits negative ions, which are beneficial; and (2) it provides minerals, which are beneficial.

Negative ion claims:

Ionization happens when a molecule has a charge (i.e. when it has different amounts of protons and electrons).  Negative ions have more electrons than protons and they occur naturally all the time.  Salt lamp proponents would have us believe that warming a chunk of halite attracts water vapor and emits negative ions.

Furthermore, we’re told that a chunk of salt with a cheap (sometimes dangerously so) lightbulb shoved in it emits “boundless amounts of negative ions.”  Really?  Boundless amounts?  This is a quantity used by children’s cartoons or glitter salesmen.  This hyperbole is not appropriate for companies claiming to sell products that provide significant health benefits.  In fact, I’m left sitting here with boundless head scratches trying to figure out how they even measured this amount.  An infinity meter, maybe?  Perhaps the foreveratron 5000, or the endlessalator-X?  Those sound like they might produce factual claims of boundlessness.

Anyhow, salt lamp proponents usually claim that this negative ion production is the result of two things: (1) warmth produced by the internal lightbulb or candle, or (2) water attraction (e.g. this non-peer-reviewed paper).

This is stupid; here’s why.  If warming salt released negative ions it would do this through the separation of the sodium molecules from the chloride molecules.  Specifically, the chloride atoms would be left with a negative charge.  Sodium atoms are positively charged, which is why they bond so well with chloride.  If it was possible to separate the chloride and sodium from salt in a household setting, we would all be dead.  Sodium is a highly reactive and toxic metal and chloride is a poisonous gas.  Chemistry is fascinating because together those two deadly elements form a mineral that’s required for life.  Conversely, the pseudoscientific alternative health claims for the benefits of salt lamps are fascinating because they require people to disregard all critical thinking and still manage to be successful money makers.

Here’s another logical hurdle that this turd-sandwich of a claim can’t clear.  If we are flooding our houses with negative ions through the release of poisonous chloride, why wouldn’t the resultant block of sodium immediately (re)attract them all?  Instead of a lamp, we would have a ridiculous, maybe explosive exothermic reaction (here’s a video).  That inescapable attraction is why we have salt in the first place!

We do have sensors that directly measure negative ion concentrations.  So what happens when a laboratory measures what an actual “Himalayan” salt lamp emits?  They can barely detect anything.  Furthermore, they conclusively show that negative ion measurements near the salt lamp are lower than those from fresh outdoor air.  So that’s a big ol’ sad trombone.

Here’s another stupid aspect of this: a warm chunk of salt does not attract water.  Just think about it: does warming an object make it wetter or drier?  Why would a block of salt be any different?

Furthermore, you can directly observe that salt lamps don’t attract water.  Halite is a water-soluble precipitate mineral.  This means that if it gets wet, it will dissolve.  Salt lamps do not dissolve during normal use because they do not attract water.

Mineral claims:

No doubt about it: minerals are important.  That’s one reason why we should all eat a healthy, balanced diet.  However, if you do have access to a healthy diet, you have no need for expensive or ridiculous supplements.  That’s a great way to just piss your money away—literally.  But salespeople for “Himalayan” salt would have us believe that the trace minerals in pink halite can fix or improve pretty much everything.

Blindly believing them is not smart; here is why.  Some supplements are truly beneficial for individuals with specific needs.  However, dietary supplements are generally poorly regulated, frequently falsely labelled, often potentially hazardous, and typically unnecessary for good health.  (You should ask your doctor about any supplements you think you might need or want to start taking.  This website, like all others, is not an acceptable source of medical advice.)  And generally, when someone is selling you magical beans or a confusingly-explained panacea, your first reaction should be doubt.

Besides that bit of common sense, there is no reputable, unbiased, peer-reviewed examination of the actual content of “Himalayan” salt or any assessments of the claimed benefits of those substances.  Some websites do claim to provide spectral analysis results of this halite.  However, those same sites also sell the stuff and are largely unregulated by any overseeing agency.  Furthermore, the list of substances these sites provide include radioactive (radium, uranium, polonium) and toxic (thallium, Mercury) elements.  So the same “alternative-healthcare” types that would have you withhold life-saving vaccinations from your children because of debunked concerns over mercury content would also have you drink concentrated solutions of pink salt because it contains lots of stuff—including mercury.

Some “Himalayan” salt purveyors even jump onto the non-GMO bandwagon.  Of course it’s non-GMO!  It’s a mineral!  It has no genetics!  I mean, is there no limit?  My boot is non-GMO, too; can I interest you in a colon cleanse?

Conclusion:

AaaHHHhh!!!!  …  Salted ridiculousness is just as unbearable as plain ridiculousness!

Himalayan salt does not do the things that we are told it does.  And these purported effects are not even remotely plausible.  This even includes being Himalayan.

It’s nonsense.  Salty, salty nonsense.

Jared Peters

Jared Peters

Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.
Jared Peters
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Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.