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The big fat problem with skinny tea: Detox culture and the brands who sell it

Beauty Features: ‘Detox’, ‘skinny’ and ‘cleansing’ teas that promise weight loss are big business, but what cost are they having to our health? Martha Alexander investigates the dangers of swigging back senna

Friday 06 September 2019 17:10 BST
Some tea detox companies use senna, a natural laxative, which has caused waves on social media
Some tea detox companies use senna, a natural laxative, which has caused waves on social media

We’ve all seen them: trim, tanned, perfectly-manicured; posing in spotless marble-surfaced kitchens and caressing pastel-hued packets of detox tea like it’s the latest “must-have” fashion accessory. Influencers paid to sell the dream of bodily perfection to mere mortals on Instagram.

Sometimes, the mission of these detox tea brands is explicit – companies such as Flat Tummy Co, Skinny Mint and Slendertox make no bones about the endgame of drinking their concoctions. But for others, like Teami Blends or Bootea, the weight loss aspect of their wares is simply implied, hidden behind “wellness” terms that function under a thin veneer of euphemisms meaning “thin”.

Teas which are thought to have aesthetic benefits are nothing new. Throughout history, teas including green and oolong have been hailed as a cure for all sorts of ailments, including weight loss. But how they are marketed has changed considerably.

“Detox”, “skinny” and “cleansing” teas that promise weight loss are big business, endorsed by the likes of billionaire reality star Kylie Jenner and rapper Cardi B on social media, who boast 142 million and 48.4 million Instagram followers, respectively. Meanwhile, the hashtag #teatox garners over 870k posts on Instagram on side-by-side photos of drinkers’ detox “journeys”.The retail value of the health and wellness market in the UK is worth over €24m (£21.6m) and is likely to reach $15.5bn (£12.6bn) by 2024 in the US. And it’s no surprise, given that several detox tea brands are charging well over £10 for a packet. In many instances you can buy a long-lasting supply costing hundreds of pounds. But not everyone is keen to take a sip.

Dangers of laxative-inducing teas

As anyone who has struggled for several hours on the toilet with constipation will know, laxatives are a type of medicine that loosen stools and increase bowel movements. According to the NHS, there are four main types of laxatives, with one being stimulants that help the muscles that line the gut move stool along. Among the ingredients in such laxatives is senna, which is also know by its brand name: Senokot.

Many – but not all – detox teas include senna, which is a natural laxative made from the leaves and fruit of the senna plant. While those with constipation or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) might get relief from senna (it’s available on prescription and to buy from pharmacies and supermarkets), those with healthy bowels are warned not to take it without speaking to a doctor or pharmacist in the first instance as a result of its health-altering properties.

“When taken in excess or chronically, laxatives can damage the gut lining along with causing nutrient depletion, dehydration and malabsorption,” Charlotte Kinder, a British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT)-certified nutritional therapist, tells The Independent. “In some cases, anal blisters along with anaemia or other nutrient-deficient disorders can also occur.”

Common side effects of taking senna (which occur in more than one in 100 people, according to the NHS) include stomach cramps, diarrhoea, and discoloured urine. Rare but “serious” side effects of the laxative include severe raised, red, itchy skin. “In rare cases, it’s possible to have a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to senna,” states the organisation. Even detox teas that don’t use senna contain natural diuretics such as dandelion root, which can cause dehydration. A quick scroll through online reviews for weight loss teas and you’ll find several users complaining of common symptoms of both senna-based products and those containing natural diuretics. The side effects most frequently mentioned are stomach pains, gas and bloating, loose and foul-smelling stools, frequent urination and headaches.

The healthy colon is meant to contain a wide range of bacteria – and in this context ‘detox’ is a meaningless term

Dr Helen Fidler

“Online sellers state that these are harmless, temporary side effects, and are simply a result of the tea removing all harmful toxins from the body,” says Harriet Smith, a dietician registered with the British Dietetic Association (BDA). “They say that headaches are attributed to mild dehydration, and suggest that users drink plenty of water to overcome them. However, diuretic-induced urination combined with diarrhoea can quickly result in severe dehydration, which can be dangerous.”

In 2015, Bootea found itself under criticism after its “Teatox” teas were blamed for a string of accidental pregnancies (not-so-amusingly named as “Bootea babies”) as its “laxative effect” can stop the contraceptive pill from working.

The NHS states that if women have diarrhoea for more than 24 hours, they should count each day with sickness or diarrhoea as a day that they have missed the pill. “If you can, you should carry on taking your pills at the normal time, but you may need to use extra contraception, such as condoms,” it adds. In the FAQs section of the brand’s website, the company acknowledge these risks, explaining that the teas “may affect the accuracy of the pill” and warning consumers that they “can’t comment” on whether those conceiving, pregnant or breastfeeding should consume the tea. Your average PG Tips, this most certainly is not.

Dr Toni Hazell, a part-time GP and e-learning development fellow for the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP), has further concerns. Overuse of diuretics and senna can upset the balance of sodium and potassium in the body – in extreme cases this can be fatal, as high or low potassium can upset the electrical activity of the heart,” Dr Hazell explains. “There is no evidence that any of these slimming products work.”

Detox controversy

The word “detox” has been welcomed into society’s vernacular to describe everything and anything that’s seemingly “guilt-free”: time spent at a spa, not checking your phone, a day without make-up and washing your hair. While the word can be used for those needing rehabilitation following substance abuse (alcohol, drugs etc) it appears to be a dangerous buzzword when used in a weight loss context.

“Clearly, we all choose our drinks according to our personal tastes, but to market them as ‘detox’ when they frequently contain nothing more than cheap senna laxative is misleading,” says Dr Helen Fidler, consultant gastroenterologist and member of British Society of Gastroenterologists (BSG). “The healthy colon is meant to contain a wide range of bacteria – and in this context ‘detox’ is a meaningless term.”

The weight lost after drinking detox teas is water and faeces – not fat. “Detox, in a health context, is ridding the body of toxins through clearing and elimination. Weight loss is ridding the body of body fat,” explains Kinder. “Recent research has shown that despite the growing popularity of detoxification for weight loss, there are limited studies that actually show these particular regimens are beneficial for long-term weight loss. They mainly work in the short-term through their associated low caloric intake. In fact, in the long-term those having lost weight on calorie-restricted, detoxification protocols tend to experience weight gain once a normal diet is resumed.”

Spilling the tea

Putting the physical dangers or the semantics of “detox” aside, the mental toll detox brands can have on users is insidious and can corroborate an already pervasive message that thin is king.

Aimee Victoria Long, 26, once used detox teas regularly, with Bootea being her preferred brand. “I became obsessed,” she tells The Independent. “I was constantly nauseous and always on the toilet. I became addicted to that feeling. I went on to diet pills and other laxatives. Eventually I got admitted into a specialist eating disorders unit.”

Long is now a personal trainer with almost 70,000 followers on Instagram on which she shares images of healthy meals and videos of her workouts. Despite the healthy living ethos she promotes online, Long says she is inundated with offers from “teatox” companies asking her to promote their products for financial gain. “I don’t want to promote something that has a negative effect on other young women,” she admits.

Recent findings from The Mental Health Foundation reveal that one in eight adults has had suicidal thoughts because of the way they feel about their body. Molly Forbes, a body positivity campaigner and co-presenter on the Body Cons podcast, believes that a huge element of the problem is the diet culture we live in.

“It promotes unrealistic beauty ideals, a particular narrative that a healthy body only looks one way and presents diets, detox teas and ‘quick fix’ weight loss products as the answer,” Forbes says. “The evidence points to the fact weight is a really nuanced subject, and there are many different factors that affect a person’s weight – it’s not just a simple case of how much they eat or how much exercise they do. She continues, adding that detox teas ignore additional factors, creating a culture of blame and preying on peoples’ insecurities. “The mental health ramifications of this are huge, from disordered eating and full blown eating disorders to social anxiety, reduced quality of life and – as the Mental Health Foundation recently found out – even suicidal thoughts,” the campaigner adds.

In recent months, several people have called out “teatox” brands and social media influencers out for using harmful ingredients in their products and exploiting the insecurities of people they advertise to.

In June, model Amber Rose – who was pregnant with her second child at the time – faced criticism for promoting a detox tea for pregnant women from the Flat Tummy Co. According to Rose, the tea is meant to help mothers on those “bloated, nauseous, blah feeling days”. In response, actor and body neutrality campaigner Jameela Jamil questioned whether the tea had received approval from the US Food and Drug Administration, and has since labelled detox tea companies everything from “gross” to “evil”. “Don’t take diet advice from celebrities,” reads one of Jamil’s recent social media posts. “They don’t give a f**k about you or your kidneys or your liver or your mental health. Unfollow, delete, repeat.”

I think people would think twice if they were aware of the science – or lack of – behind these frilly pink-packaged products

Emma Whittaker

Campaigner Emma Whittaker recently started a petition to ban detox teas without a prescription after being a heavy user herself and developing bulimia and mental health issues as a result. “When I first started drinking the teas on the recommended dose my symptoms included severe stomach cramps, diarrhoea, constipation and extreme fatigue,” she recalls. “After over a month of drinking the teas, the original symptoms continued and I additionally began messing myself in public, experienced heart palpitations and ended up in A&E.”

To make matters worse, Whittaker had grown reliant on “detox” teas to go to the toilet. “I was prescribed a low dose of laxatives by the doctor to help wean my body off them and ease horrible constipation,” she explains.

Whittaker is emphatic that social media blurred the reality of what such teas actually were. “When celebrities and influencers endorse these medicinal products they never highlight the fact they can alter both your physical and mental health,” she says. “I think people would think twice if they were aware of the science – or lack of – behind these frilly pink-packaged products.”

In the description of her petition, which has over 2,100 signatures, Whittaker writes: “It’s our responsibility to look after our children, we shouldn’t be marketing laxatives to them in pretty pink packaging.” But it’s not surprising influencers want to cash in on the financial profitability of detox teas. Many brands offer a flat fee for a picture although other brands operate a commission-based payment system.

Katie Meehan, a beauty and lifestyle influencer and blogger who promotes equality and diversity to her 20,000 followers on Instagram, has been given plenty of opportunities to promote detox teas, but has turned them down. Meehan, who has spoken in Parliament on equality in education, says she has always been approached by email from one brand itself, which typically adopt a “hey babe” tone that she believes is unprofessional and patronising. The influencer explains that the offers to promote the teas tend to be commission based, with the company offering her 10 to 20 per cent of what she sells.

“Not all campaigns need to use influencers with millions of followers,” explains Thomas Walters, founder at Billion Dollar Boy (BDB), an influencer marketing agency which splits influencers into four categories: Celebrity (500k plus followers), Macros ( 100k plus), Mid (30k plus) and Micro (10k to 30k). These categories help to determine payment.

While BDB aren’t affiliated to a detox tea brand, their fees for talent per post for beauty products including Nars, Primark and Tangle Teeze typically range from £25 to £10,000. Meanwhile, reality star Kris Jenner once admitted her famous children can command a six-figure sum for one sponsored on social media. “Sometimes, if it’s Kim [Kardashian], or if it’s Kylie, it depends on what it really is,” Jenner told CBS Sunday Morning in April of the fees for her daughters’ posts. “[If it’s] a pharmaceutical product, if it’s something that you’re going to drink, or ingest, or put on your body, [the price goes up].”

But are there any regulations in place about how much an influencer must know about a product or how much they must have used it before they can promote?

Are detox teas ASA compliant?

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA)’s broadcast code prohibits the use of advertisements that “mislead consumers by omitting material information”.The ASA regularly enforces the removal of ads that make misleading or unsubstantiated claims about weight loss, so how is it that the promotion of detox teas haven’t been banned? “They must not mislead by hiding material information or presenting it in an unclear, unintelligible, ambiguous or untimely manner,” its code reads.

Forbes, who is also regularly approached by “teatox” companies including Teami Blends, with collaboration offers, believes this is because existing regulations are a grey area which detox tea companies exploit and shield under the term “body positivity”. “These companies are co-opting body positivity because they can see how popular it is as a movement, and twisting it for their own marketing purposes,” she says. “But their message isn’t to accept your body. Their message is ‘your body will only be acceptable if you use our products’.”

However, Adi Arezzini, CEO of Teami Blends which has been promoted by Kylie Jenner and which sells products containing senna, disagrees. “I do not believe in the type of marketing that makes a woman not feel amazing in her own skin,” she says. “Personally, I am not a stick skinny woman and I do not promote that in our marketing.” This is despite the fact that Teami Blends sells a ‘Skinny Tea’, and has before and after weight loss transformation pictures on its Instagram.

Nevertheless, Arezzini asserts that Teami isn’t intended for long-term use, adding: “The purpose of the detox is to do a gentle cleanse of the body, removing toxins and helping the customer feel better overall.” As for the brand’s use of senna, the entrepreneur says that the plant has been “used for centuries as a holistic solution to digestion”.

Natasha Grano, 29, a London-based influencer with over one million followers on Instagram has promoted Skinny Mint tea in the past, a decision she stands by. Grano says she was once sent two months-worth of the tea, which she drank, despite Skinny Mint not checking up with her to see if that was the case. “Once I had [the tea] they left it over to me,” says Grano, who was paid a four-figure sum in return for a picture and a video on social media. “People call it a boxed laxative but I don’t think so – if you use it properly it won’t harm you,” claims Grano. “I had no negative effects, but I did need the loo quite a lot more.”

The future of the promotion of detox teas and actually, the existence of detox teas in general is uncertain and shaky

Emma Glazier

Steven Curran, CEO of Bootea, adds that under EU law, all food put on sale must be safe and fit for human consumption. “Therefore, we ensure we provide all required warnings, guidance and due diligence demanded by relevant regulations and directives,” Curran adds.

But for Kinder, the message is simple: “There can never be a replacement for a balanced diet and lifestyle for weight loss nor for long-term weight maintenance.”

The future of detox teas

While Instagram feeds continue to be littered with images of influencers promoting detox teas, it would seem that the tide is slowly turning when it comes not only to their prominence but acceptance online.

Emma Glazier, global head of social media at creative agency Crowd, believes that this, in part, is because the ethics and transparency of brands are becoming increasingly important to consumers. “The future of the promotion of detox teas and actually, the existence of detox teas in general is uncertain and shaky,” she notes.

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According to Glazier, 30 per cent of business-to-business (B2B) buyers will disengage from a brand whose values don’t match their own and just as many consumers will stop shopping at retail companies whose ethics they don’t agree with. If a brand wants to stay relevant, truthful and be a success, they need to show their stance on people, ethics and the “big social issues” of the day, she adds. “In other words, brands should have an altruistic purpose and brand values. Those who don’t will lose sales. As a matter of fact, 48 per cent of marketers agree that they have lost sales in the last two years because they haven’t demonstrated a strong enough sense of brand purpose.”

Perhaps the only detox we all need is from who we follow on social media.

The Independent has contacted Skinny Mint, Slendertox and Flat Tummy Co for comment but have not received a response

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